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 / 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...

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...

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,...

Behavior / 07.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf A book that left a lasting impression on me was Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978) by Thomas Schelling who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 2005. Its central message remains unforgettable -- what is good for an individual can often be bad for the group. Microsense can be macromadness. I recalled this phenomenon because of current debate on the language of instruction in early childhood. I have noticed that no matter how much rigorous evidence is presented in support of the mother tongue, the exact same objections are repeated without fail -- one, we would be left behind in the world without teaching toddlers in English and, two, parents want to educate their toddlers in English. The first objection is negated by so much real-world experience that it can only be characterised as silly -- despite teaching in English, we have been left...

Education / 27.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf Policy-making can be based on self-interest, whim, opinion, dogma, or evidence. The choice we exercise says a lot about us. Take the language of instruction that is in the news once again. There is less self-interest on display here than there is in the case of sugar and sweets and other such things. But we have seem whim at play many times. Among the most egregious was the case mentioned recently by Zubeida Mustafa (Dawn, Which language, September 25, 2020).  Referring to the 2006 White Paper on Education (2006) as “the only thoroughly deliberated official policy document on education that I have read in Pakistan” she recalled how the education minister at the time (an ex-army general) rejected it because “it recommended the mother tongue to be used as the medium of instruction.” I recall the rationale that was proffered -- I was educated in...

Education, Pakistan, Religion / 02.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf The Single National Curriculum has some very laudable objectives including raising good human beings and promoting inclusiveness and tolerance. It has decided on a methodology to achieve these aims. For the sake of discussion, I am suggesting an alternative to the proposed methodology. The chosen methodology leans heavily on religion as the vehicle for raising good human beings. Muslim children will be introduced to Ahadees, Ayaat and Quaranic injunctions in support of habits that include speaking the truth, respecting one’s elders, being kind to fellow humans and animals; and of beliefs that all citizens have an equal standing in society regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, gender and colour. Muslim children will be learning these good things by memorizing the relevant Ahadees, Ayaat, and Quranic injunctions and will be tested on them. While Muslim children are attending the class on their religion, all non-Muslim students would...

Law / 14.12.2018

By Anjum Altaf Education is a big-ticket item. Clarity is needed about its relationship to economic growth and development before betting the house on it. Otherwise a lot of resources would end up being misallocated. It is in this context that I respond to Mr. Miftah Ismail’s diagnosis and prescription presented in his opinion in this newspaper (‘Educating Pakistan,’ December 5, 2018). Mr. Ismail begins by asking why any country is richer than another and answers with the assertion that “education is probably the most important factor in determining the wealth of nations.” From this follows the prescription that the path to richness is education. I offer some cross-country evidence using literacy rates as a proxy for education and GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth -- for each country the data that follows in parentheses shows percent of adult population that is literate and GDP per...

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...