Language/Meaning / 21.05.2019

By Anjum Altaf There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order. Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again -- almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu -- kaarner for corner and shaap for...

Language/Meaning / 11.07.2017

By Anjum Altaf The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning. The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity. So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full: There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one...

Language/Meaning / 14.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country. This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world. Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province...

Language/Meaning / 12.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points. Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart. Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be...

Language/Meaning / 05.12.2015

I deserve to be congratulated because I have now passed Farsi Level 1 (Beginner) and graduated to Level 2 (Intermediate). Although nowhere near the accomplishment of Jhumpa Lahiri whose next book will be coming out in Italian (see Teach Yourself Italian for an inspiring story), I am greatly encouraged by the progress I have made. Some readers might recall my struggles with Farsi narrated here some time back (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond). Very briefly, as an Urdu speaker, I had assumed I would pick up Farsi quickly given the common script and overlapping vocabulary. That did not turn out to be the case leaving me exceedingly frustrated after almost a year of struggle. I finally discovered the right mix of teaching methods and tools – interacting with an instructor in a small class and learning the grammar by reading and writing short texts. That,...

Language/Meaning / 24.10.2015

By Anjum Altaf Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country. That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support...

Reflections / 30.03.2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t. I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding? Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in...

Education / 18.12.2010

By Anjum Altaf   Some years back I had written an article the main message of which was the following: The market is indeed a wonderful mechanism but it exists to serve humanity and not to enslave it. I wish to resurrect some of the arguments in the context of the recent discussion on the appropriate medium of instruction for early education in South Asia (On Being Stupid in English). I found it ironical that a case was made for early education in English because in India untold millions are clamoring for English. In the post I had referred to an earlier article (Macaulay’s Stepchildren) to record that Lord Macaulay had used exactly the same argument in 1835 to support the use of English as the medium of instruction in India – in his view the superiority of English was evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population.
Education / 05.12.2010

By Anjum Altaf Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost. I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.” The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of a coherent policy...

Education / 14.06.2009

In the context of the Cairo speech, I had asked the question whether President Obama ‘got’ his audience right. The question was prompted by a conviction that speakers of different languages had subtle differences in how they saw and understood the world.

It is quite a coincidence that just a week later I found a fascinating study that has empirically tested this hypothesis.

Here are some (unconnected) excerpts from the article describing the study:

Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages?


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