Your Child Deserves Better – A Letter to Parents – VIII

By Anjum Altaf

Dear Parent, 

In my last letter I had asked you to think whether your child would learn anything at school if, from his or her first day in Grade 1, everything was taught in a foreign language, say Arabic.

Related to this thought experiment, I came across something relevant in an Urdu short story by Bilal Minto, an excerpt of which I am going to reproduce today. There are two reasons for this. First, in my own life I have gained more from fiction than from textbooks. For example, I have read a lot of books on the history of the subcontinent but nothing has yielded as clear as understanding of some aspects of it, especially the social ones that deal with real people, than the novels of Quratul Ain Haider.

Second, these stories by Bilal Minto are among the most refreshing I have read in recent times, in any language. I am not equipped to discuss their literary merits but I know they are exceptionally good because as soon as I finish a story, I want to read it again and every time I read it I invariably laugh at the same places though, in fact, the stories are not intended to be funny and some are tinged with sadness. I can only urge readers to sample the stories themselves. The book is titled Model Town and is published by Sanjh Publications, Lahore. It is in its third printing which is very rare for a work of fiction in Pakistan and is added testimony to its outstanding quality.

This particular story (Dr. Walter) is about the Walter family that is building a house in Model Town and getting ready to move into it. The narrator is a eleven or twelve years old boy who lives near the house being built. The excerpt that resonated with the thought experiment mentioned in the my previous letter follows in a translation by Kabir Altaf.

At this time, the insidious General Zia had not descended on our country like a curse and new revelations about our religion, Islam, hadn’t begun to mushroom. No one in their wildest dreams could have imagined that prayers would become mandatory in offices or that a woman wouldn’t be able to appear on television without covering her head, or that punishments would be meted out to people seen eating or drinking during the Ramzan fast. And, even more surprising than all these, that every day, before the entire country, the TV news would be delivered in Arabic. All this was about to happen, just some days after the Walters built their house near us. 

“This last bit — about the news in Arabic — was truly astounding. Every day a man appeared on TV and, without offering a reason, just turned his face to millions of people and began speaking a language they didn’t understand at all. The millions were us Pakistanis, whom the Arabs went about calling “Bakistani, Bakistani” only because the sound “p” is not in their language although, with appropriate practice, any sound can be produced from the mouth or throat. There is nothing really difficult in this because the tongue is only a muscle and training it to produce different sounds is an extremely simple task. In any case, it is fruitless to ask the Arabs why they call us “Bakistani, Bakistani,” especially when they themselves would be so shocked at the madness of the weird Pakistanis who broadcast the news every day in the language of the Arabs and when the name of their country is mentioned, refer to it as “Bakistan” themselves. There are also no grounds for complaint if someone doesn’t want to train their tongue and producing new sounds is not their priority. It’s their personal choice. 

“Whatever it was, broadcasting the news in Arabic was extremely strange although there is no doubt that I know something even more shocking than that. It could even be said that what I know deserves to be added to the collection of the world’s strangest facts. It is that most “Bakistanis” go on reading the Quran — Allah’s final revelation — in Arabic but don’t think it at all necessary to read it in any language that they understand and from which they might learn what great things Allah has included in his last book, what injunctions he has prescribed, and what superb rules he has revealed for the conduct of life.” 

It was obvious to a twelve-year-old that no matter how much one reads without understanding, it is not going to do much good — which can be verified by the fact that the level of morality in the country keeps plunging the more reading and memorization without understanding is injected in our lives to the point that now everyone is considered to be a crook. Still, one can argue that while it may not do much good, it does little harm either.

But the case of having all ones formal education in a foreign language, in this case English, is not so innocuous. First, learning it for years and years still does not yield any real benefit to the majority who continue to struggle to find decent jobs. Second, learning it in Pakistan comes at the cost of not only forgetting one’s home languages but actually cutting of all affinity to the rich heritage and wisdom they contain. The loss is huge and the gain miniscule. How can anyone justify such a bargain?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to first consolidate a child’s familiarity with his or her home language and its treasures before moving on to learn English at the right time and in the right way?

If a twelve-year-old child can see this truth why can’t our venerable policy makers? Perhaps, because only a child can say that the Emperor has no clothes while the policy makers have to kow-tow to their bosses to protect their jobs. One is reminded of the fools in Shakespeare’s play who are anything but foolish and can say the wisest things from behind the facades of their foolishness. Some are able see through the facade. In Twelfth Night, this is what Viola, the play’s protagonist, says about the witticisms of Feste, the fool:

…This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man’s art,
For folly, that he wisely shows is fit,
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.

Sincerely,

Dr. Anjum Altaf
Former Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

This letter was published in Sindh Courier on May 27, 2021 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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