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...

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...

Language/Meaning / 11.10.2020

By Anjum Altaf Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled. This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged -- to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit. This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse none of which can bear the weight of evidence....

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...

Democracy/Governance / 06.01.2017

By Anjum Altaf The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject. The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals. On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More...