Language of Power

By Anjum Altaf

I wrote an opinion (Knowledge and power, The News, October 16, 2020) questioning the choice of English as the language of instruction in schools. In support, I had quoted John Stuart Mill’s disagreement with Macaulay based on his view that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language.”

I am intrigued by the response to the opinion from readers in Pakistan and India that has centered, not on the logic of the argument, but on the language in which it has been expressed.

One reader considered it ironic that “what you are saying in your article is written in English, for an English language paper, to be read by English speaking Pakistanis, and you and I are conversing in English.”  Another wrote: “Essays that argue against English (as a medium of instruction) but written in English lose their force of argument.” He advised writing for the Urdu press where “rational and sane voices” were badly needed and where one would reach “a far wider audience.” From across the border, two readers wished the author “had written this piece in his mother tongue.”

The response to the Indian readers is simple: Had I written in my mother tongue (Hindko) they would not have been able to read what I had to say. End of matter. As a matter of fact, I would not have been able to write in it in the first place because although I can speak and understand it well, I was never taught how to write it. And even if I had, I doubt I would have been able to find an outlet for an article written in Hindko.

I have an amusing anecdote for the Indian readers to drive home this point if it really needs to be driven any further. I watched a NDTV programme titled The Big Fight Over Language in which people advocating different languages for the medium of instruction were on the panel. The programme, intended to be in English, got off to a heated start when the woman in favour of Hindi threatened to leave if she was not allowed to speak in that language. The advocate of Tamil objected that he did not understand Hindi and the host tried to manage the situation by offering to translate into English. The Tamil speaker then insisted on speaking in Tamil and asked the host to translate him as well to which the latter responded by saying he did not know Tamil. In the end, it was the tower of Babel with angry people talking past each other. 

The bottom line is that in a multilingual environment one needs a language to communicate and if that environment extends to India, the language has to be pretty much English. I have taught myself enough Hindi to write in it but that would be Greek to my primary audience in Pakistan.  

The situation is quite different in Pakistan where Urdu has acquired the status of a link language with most people being able to follow it even if they cannot read or write it. In any case, many more people can read it than can read English. So why don’t I write in Urdu as the readers from Pakistan have suggested?

The reasons for my choice are quite different in this case. First, while an article in English undoubtedly reaches fewer people, I am not convinced of the argument that an opinion against English loses force if it is written in English. Would it make sense to argue that John Stuart Mill should not have written his report (Recent Changes in Native Education) in English because he was opposing the use of English as the medium of instruction? Would he have reached his intended audience if he had made the effort to write his report in Hindustani instead?

The point is that every article has an intended audience. In Pakistan, decisions about the medium of instruction are made by people who read the English newspapers, if they read anything at all. And any argument on the subject needs to be pitched to this audience if its via the print media. (On a TV programme I would use Urdu instead.) The many more people who read newspapers in regional languages have no say in the matter whatsoever especially because no political party considers the language of instruction important enough to include in its manifesto.

I am not saying one should not write for those who read the regional press. One should, to draw them into the debate. All I am saying is that there is no logic to the argument that an article against English loses force if it is in English. There is no irony in opposing English in English. The choice is determined by the audience one wishes to reach. If decision-making power is in the hands of people who read English one is forced to use that language if one wishes to influence their views.

The real irony in this dilemma is that the views of those writing in the local languages are often much more sensible than of those writing in the language of power. History is proof of that. In British India, the views that dominated the discussions were those expressed in English because that was the language the British could read and understand. The views expressed in the local languages got lost although historians can vouch that they made a lot more sense on some very critical issues like, for example, the Two-Nation Theory.

If anything, we should devote more effort to translating from local languages into English than from English into the local languages. Our assessment of “sane and rational” voices might, ironically, be quite misplaced.

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on October 25, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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