Education / 15.06.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, In my last letter, I had spelled out the way a child learns his or her first language so well at home before even getting to school. This process needed to be articulated because, while it is so obvious, it does not get the attention it deserves as it takes place on its own without any need for experienced teachers. For the same reason, because it is so successful, it should serve as the model for how new languages should be taught at school. You would recall that the four essential stages in this learning process are LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING, and WRITING. Equally importantly, they must be IN THAT ORDER. For home languages, this order is imposed by nature -- a child does not begin to speak till at least six months of age and is immersed in listening to sounds of the...

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 / 17.05.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, We are dealing now with what is perhaps the trickiest issue in early childhood education in Pakistan, one which probably has the most impact on what a child learns at school. It is the place of the English language in school education. You need to pay special attention to this because the responsibility for what exists is laid squarely on the shoulders of parents. All questioning is countered with: What can anyone do when this is what parents want? Even those who concede that the way English is being used is not good for learning shrug their shoulders and pass the blame on to parents. Let us look at this argument in several different ways. First, parents want a lot of things. They want clean water, safe sanitation, less pollution, better public transport, more accessible health care, cheaper and more reliable electricity, reasonably...

Education / 09.05.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, I have been arguing that you need to watch out for the interest of your child because, unfortunately, no one else is doing so. No one else cares whether the education your child is getting is good or bad and whether you are getting a fair return on the money you are investing in your child and paying out to schools as fee or to private individuals as extra tuition to make up for what is being taught badly or not being taught in school at all.  You should be asking yourselves this question: Why do you need to pay extra for private tuition when this was not the case in the past? Isn’t it a sign that schools are doing a poor job of teaching? This is the second aspect I have tried to bring to your attention -- that you have...

Education / 06.05.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, I have been trying to convince you that you need to pay attention to the quality of the education your child is receiving in return for the money you are paying for it. I have also alerted you to the fact that, based on all available evidence, one can make a strong claim that the general quality of education being provided to children in Pakistan is quite poor. In this connection, I had mentioned in my last letter that there were some things that are being done completely wrong in our method of education and unless they were identified and corrected no improvement in inputs like the quality of teachers and textbooks is going to make a significant difference. In this letter, I will start with one thing I believe is completely wrong and that is the LANGUAGE in which a child begins to...

Education / 15.03.2021

By Anjum Altaf How convenient it is for people to earn brownie points at the cost of others and with no cost to themselves. The neocons in the United States postured as super-patriots while sending young people to die in Iraq using fabricated evidence on weapons of mass destruction. Our legislators have at hand an equally easy way to earn free hasanat at the cost of children by posing as champions of Islam. The Senate approved, with just one dissenting vote, the Compulsory Teaching of the Arabic Language Bill 2020 mandating the teaching of Arabic in primary and secondary schools in Islamabad. Within six months, the language will be taught in all schools in the city from grades 1 to 5 while its grammar will be taught through grades 6 to 12. The proposer of the bill claimed that "we would not go through the problems we are...

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 / 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...

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...