Education / 09.02.2021

By Anjum Altaf I have to disagree with the opinion on language and the medium of instruction expressed by M. Zeb Khan (Talking Language, The News, January 28, 2020). The author has identified the key issue but then let his attention deviate dangerously from the main point. The author begins with the very important issue that needs attention and bears reiterating: “Like many other unresolved perennial issues in Pakistan, the question of which language to use as medium of instruction during the formative years of school-going kids remains unpacked and hence unaddressed.”  The author then unpacks the issue in a peculiar manner. Instead of remaining focused on the child and assessing the impact of the use of different languages as mediums of instruction on his or her learning, he ventures into the entirely unrelated adult domains of culture, politics, and political uses of language. The world of Pakistan is...

Education / 24.01.2021

By Anjum Altaf Does the left hand know what the right one is doing? I was forced to ask this question on being updated on recent measures to counter terrorism in the country (Countering extremism, Dawn, December 20, 2020).  I learnt that the government has set up a commission “for implementation of national narrative and development of structures against violent extremism and radicalisation” one of whose objectives is “establishing a centre of excellence to conduct degree and diploma courses in CVE [countering violent extremism] and CT [countering terrorism]. Another objective is “promoting awareness [of extremism and terrorism] through print and electronic media, publications, seminars, conferences, etc.” This reminded me of the bizarre state of modern medicine. If you go to a doctor with a general malaise he/she would, if you are lucky, have your blood pressure measured and, if it turns out high, would prescribe you a pill...

Language/Meaning / 12.01.2021

By Anjum Altaf I recently visited public high schools in two villages in Mandi Bahauddin district. I was impressed by the insights of their heads on the merits of various languages of instruction. They regretted not being consulted on the matter and I couldn’t agree more with them. I had one incongruous visual impression pertaining to the names of the schools that might seem peripheral to many. In villages with every student a native speaker of Punjabi and Urdu the medium of instruction, the names of schools, written in both Urdu and English, were comprised entirely of English words -- Government, Girls, High, and School.  I wonder if this strikes anyone as odd? It would be fine to refer to a school thus in a report written in English but shouldn’t it have an indigenous name as well? In India, one comes across ‘kendriya vidyalaya’ and in Iran...

Education / 23.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf The 2020 Global Teacher Prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation and UNESCO worth a million dollars has been awarded to Ranjitsinh Disale, a primary school teacher in a village in Maharashtra where he teaches girls from tribal communities. There were more than 12,000 contenders from over 140 countries.  Two things stand out about the winner. First, Ranjitsinh learnt the local language to translate class textbooks into his pupils' mother tongue. Just this confirms that he is wiser than all our ministers of education and policymakers put together which makes him deserving of the highest recognition. Second, Ranjitsinh belongs to the rare category of those who think beyond themselves. There were ten teachers on the shortlist from which he was declared the winner. Ranjitsinh gave away half the million-dollar prize to the other nine on the list because "Their incredible work is still worthy...

Miscellaneous / 23.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf The real elephant is gone but the one in the room is still there and as invisible as ever. It doesn’t strike anyone as odd that the courts declared Kavaan to be living in an inhuman habitat, “no less than a concentration camp,” there was a years-long global campaign to make his life less miserable, Cher herself came to cheer him up, the President and his spouse serenaded him, special equipment was devised to provide him decent transport, and a chartered plane to took him from elephant-hell to elephant-heaven. What about the millions of human beings living in much more inhuman habitats than Kavaan? There are no similar court decrees to make their lives less miserable, no global campaigns to argue for their rights, no one there to cheer or serenade them, no decent transport, and no escape to a more livable locale. If the park...

Education / 01.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf I sent my last column (Thought experiment, Dawn, November 15, 2020) to Professor Noam Chomsky. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I had cited in that column, was the leading philosopher of language of the first half of the 20th century, Chomsky is the leading theorist of language acquisition and cognitive development of its second half. I solicited his opinion as a linguist on the choice of language for early childhood education. Here is the relevant part of Professor Chomsky’s reply: “There's no doubt that instruction is more successful in the native language, and there are obviously also important reasons to gain fluency in an international language. Should be possible to balance these needs. Linguistics doesn't tell us much beyond what common sense provides.”  The important message in this response is that there is really no need for any sophisticated theories to address this issue. All...

Language/Meaning / 23.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf On November 14 I participated in an event jointly organized by the Ma Boli Centre of the Institute for Art and Culture and the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) at the latter’s serene premises in Lahore to discuss various aspects of native languages including their contribution to the creative process as also their future in Pakistan. The event, besides being informative and entertaining, succeeded in its objective by provoking many thoughts and raising many questions. I explore some of them to include those who might be interested in the issues but were unable to join for one reason or another. To start on an incongruous note, I was struck by the fact that in an event aiming to highlight native languages the opening addresses leaned on English with forays into Urdu when emotions welled over. This recalled Khaled Ahmed’s claim that...

Miscellaneous / 18.11.2020

By Sakuntala Narasimhan For Sakuntala Narasimhan’s generation born before Independence, Lahore and Karachi were part of India. With Partition seven decades ago, new geo-political borders were put in place, but there are thousands of families that have close relatives on both sides of the border. The people-to-people equations between Indians and Pakistanis are nothing but friendly, as she discovered on each of her three visits “My aunt lives in India,” says a Pakistani friend, while another friend, living in Karachi, says her mother is from a royal princely family of central India, and she has cousins living in India. And so it goes -- one brother choosing to settle in Pakistan after Partition, while another preferred to stay back in their ancestral village in Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Examples abound.  The young waiter at the hotel in Islamabad where I stayed, sidled up to me shyly and looking...

Education / 16.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf Sometimes an extreme example is useful to make a point and I am going to rely on one to argue about the language of instruction in early childhood. Imagine a girl in a village in Baltistan where no one speaks any other language than Shina. Now imagine someone deciding that Chinese ought to be the medium of instruction there because it is the language of the future. In order to rule out extraneous considerations, imagine the most competent Chinese instructor deployed there with the best texts in the Chinese language. The girl would receive the best education in Chinese and be tested in it. Reflect on this scenario and decide whether there would be any difference in the girl’s ability to learn about herself and her world based on two different mediums of instruction -- Shina and Chinese.  This stylized scenario is so blatant that everyone,...