Education / 19.04.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, In my previous letter, I made one central point -- that, just as for any other product you purchase, you pay money to buy education for your child. And just as you are careful in buying other products, you should be careful to make sure that the education you buy is the best for the money you spend. You should be concerned about the QUALITY of the product. We live in a market economy and just as there is adulterated milk, adulterated medicines, and low-quality merchandise, there is a lot of variation in the quality of education available. But it is much harder to judge the quality of education compared to that of milk. Unfortunately, there is no agency that protects you or watches out for your interest. You are on your own and the future of your child depends on the care...

Education / 08.04.2021

By Anjum Altaf Dear Parent, I am writing directly to you because you care about your child more than anyone else. You, more than anyone else, want your child to be successful in life which his why you invest a lot of your hard-earned income in his or her education, not just in school but in private tuition as well. You invest this money in your child’s education because you believe that for the majority of people a good education provides the best chance for success and upward mobility, for your child to have a better life than you have had. If you did not believe this you would have apprenticed your child to a tailor or a mechanic to learn a trade which would not only guarantee a steady income for life but also add to the households income during training. Real money would be coming into...

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...

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...

Miscellaneous / 23.12.2020

By Anjum Altaf The real elephant is gone but the one in the room is still there and as invisible as ever. It doesn’t strike anyone as odd that the courts declared Kavaan to be living in an inhuman habitat, “no less than a concentration camp,” there was a years-long global campaign to make his life less miserable, Cher herself came to cheer him up, the President and his spouse serenaded him, special equipment was devised to provide him decent transport, and a chartered plane to took him from elephant-hell to elephant-heaven. What about the millions of human beings living in much more inhuman habitats than Kavaan? There are no similar court decrees to make their lives less miserable, no global campaigns to argue for their rights, no one there to cheer or serenade them, no decent transport, and no escape to a more livable locale. If the park...

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...