Education / 05.06.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, With regard to the teaching and learning of English in Pakistan, I have been making six points: First, that as long as the present socioeconomic system in Pakistan remains unchanged, the learning of English is a necessity for those who aspire to higher education and certain types of jobs in the public and private sectors. Whether the system needs to change so that brilliant students who are not adept at English are not penalized is a separate question that I will address in a subsequent letter. For the moment, keep in mind that that is also an alternative which exists in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, and Iran, all of which are more advanced and more prosperous than Pakistan. Don’t be fooled by the argument that we will be left behind if we do not learn English -- the truth is...

Education / 01.06.2021

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...

Education / 01.06.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, Let me summarize the main points of the discussion thus far: First, and most importantly, no one is suggesting that children in Pakistan should not learn English if they or their parents want them to. But, experts recommend that early childhood education should be in a language that a child understands and is able to communicate in easily. Here, one must be very clear about the difference between learning a foreign language as a SUBJECT and using it as a MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION, i.e., using it to teach other subjects like arithmetic, science, etc. Parents often overlook the great significance of this difference and its implications for learning. Children can start learning English as a subject from Grade 1 although that early a start is not recommended for students whose home language is not English. The best practice recommended for such children is to start learning...

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,...

Language/Meaning / 28.10.2020

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...

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,...