Pakistan: language policy and our national character

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jan 6 21:04:44 UTC 2007

Language Policy And Our National Character


In a recently published editorial in Daily Times, the editor , Najam Sethi
attributed the root cause of Pakistan's current problems of religious
intolerance and sectarianism to the , in his opinion, ill fated decision
of late Z A Bhutto to declare Urdu as a national language, nationalize
educational institutions and the policy goal of making Urdu the language
of state institutions. In thus rewriting the recent history of Pakistan,
Mr. Najam Sethi employs a logical sleight of hand that would make even the
worst kind of sophistry an exercise in earnest reasoning. Central to Mr.
Sethi's argument is his assumption that the habits of mind that a truly
liberal education foster- tolerance, enlightenment, critical thinking- are
the result of not only what is being taught, but also the medium in which
it is taught. From this totally unfounded premise, he then goes on to make
an equally outlandish assertion- unprecedented in the annals of
pedagogical prescriptions- that only English is a suitable medium for this
kind of education. The implication is that not only Urdu but also various
major regional languages such as Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Balauchi, spoken
widely and constituting the mother tongues of the majority of Pakistanis
living in the four provinces, are also not suitable for modern education.
It is not that Mr. Sethi is arguing against Urdu and in favor of arguably
a better policy of promoting mother tongues, a position that would have
made his argument totally different and much more persuasive, but he seems
to be holding the position that regards English language as sine qua non
for achieving modernity and progress.

Before examining the historical veracity of Najam's preposterous claim
about the connection between religious extremism and Urdu, let us see if
there is any merit to the premise on which he rests his whole case,
namely, the centrality of English language to achieving modernity,
progress, or to use his words " for plugging in to the world of global
commerce and market". It never ceases to surprise me that this
misconception is not peculiar to Mr. Najam Sethi, but is shared by many so
called "enlightened" and "educated" Pakistanis. It is surprising and not
the least ironic that all these people who are advocating English medium
education in the name of modernity are promoting an extremely medieval and
reactionary approach when it comes to the role and place of language in
the collective life of the people . For an important and indispensable
part of the story of the rise of the west is the linguistic assertion of
the vernacular against the ecumenical hold of the Latin from the time of
imperial Rome, through the feudalistic and church dominated Holy Roman
empire, to the dawn of modern age. The "age of the masses" that aptly sums
up the coming of the modern age, is inseparable from nurturing, building
and making central in the life of the people their most precious
institution, their native language, thus providing them with the most
potent tool for unleashing their creative energies, which in turn are
harnessed by the nation state giving it a kind of competitive edge over
other states, that failed to "liberate and modernize" thus. This lesson of
western success was duly noted and incorporated by the East Asian nations
when they chartered their development strategies to catch up with the
west. Thanks to this intellectual clarity and national pride
"westernization" for them could never become synonymous with the apish
imitation of the manners and speech of the west, which, owing to the
slavish mentality of the member of the elite like Najam Sethi, it did in
the Pakistani-Indian context. Hence as far back as the middle of the
nineteenth century we saw the imperial Japan setting up a formal body to
translate the "works of the barbarians"! It is not coincidental that every
nation that achieved remarkable development in the last century,
especially the nations of east Asia, did so not by displacing their native
languages with English, but making their languages central to their state
institutions. They did not ignore English but accord it the place it
deserves as the most important international language, while conducting
all their affairs in their respective languages.

So the facts of recent and contemporary history are as conclusive as they
get when it comes to the relationship between linguistic policy and
development. In fact the evidence is so crystal clear and preponderant ,
it needs either egregious ignorance or plain dishonesty to ignore it , and
advocate the "linguistic hara kiri" of following the path which no
successful nation on this planet has followed, namely displacing its
native tongue by an alien language, however important in international
arena. Why is that every economically developed nation in the world
conducts its affairs in its own language? So much so that, China which has
arguably one of most complex and difficult writing systems is not even
prepared to change its traditional pictographic alphabets, let alone
replace its language with the foreign tongue! The national pride provides
part of the answer. But it is not pride alone, since if it had not worked
in practice no degree of pride would have been able to sustain something
that is an utter failure, especially when one's rivals are forging ahead
following a more pragmatic approach. The linguistic philosophy of "mother
tongue first" is not only borne out by the "success stories" of the
developed nations - after all, nothing succeeds like success - but also by
the serious academic research into the psychology and sociology of the
best ways of educating the child.  Hence the university of Toronto
professor says:

"Any credible educator will agree that schools should build on the
experience and knowledge that children bring to the classroom, and
instruction should also promote children's abilities and talents. Whether
we do it intentionally or inadvertently, when we destroy children's
language and rupture their relationship with parents and grandparents, we
are contradicting the very essence of education. (Jim Cummins, University
of Toronto) Teachers have known for years the value of teaching children
in their mother tongue, says Nadine Dutcher, a consultant with the Center
for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C.

The United Nations duly recognized the obvious when it declared in 1953:
"It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child is his mother
tongue. Psychologically, it is the system of meaningful signs that in his
mind works automatically for expression and understanding. Sociologically,
it is a means of identification among the members of the community to
which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than
through an unfamiliar linguistic medium. (UNESCO, 1953, p. 11) A 1999
UNICEF report agreed with UNESCO: There is ample research showing that
students are quicker to learn to read and acquire other academic skills
when first taught in their mother tongue. They also learn a second
language more quickly than those initially taught to read in an unfamiliar
language. (UNICEF, 1999, p. 41) In its 2003 publication, Education in a
Multilingual World, UNESCO reiterates the points made in its 1953 report
and states that virtually all research since 1953 has served to confirm
the earlier argu- ments in support of mother tongue education programs.
The 2003 report argues forcefully for the use of the mother tongue in
primary education.

Against this mountain of respected evidence, Najam Sethi sets the survey
conducted of English, Urdu medium and madrassah schools in Pakistan. And
in evaluating the response to highly loaded and irrelevant questions,
Najam Sethi concluded that teaching in Urdu or anything other than English
promoted intolerance. He conveniently ignored the class and status chasm
that separate the English medium from Urdu medium and madrsassah students.
Also he conveniently ignored that intolerance coming out of madrassahs is
a result of very complex socio-economic factors, as well as the content
and methodology of what is being taught, rather than the medium of
instruction. Also he conveniently ignored how much the enlightened west
with the help of their english speaking stooges in Pakistan promoted the
jehadization of madrassahs during the Afghan war, turning the hitherto
benign institutions into nurseries for producing fanatics on the cheap.
Also he conveniently ignored the snobbish and shallow attitude prevalent
in English medium elite schools, and the total ignorance of and alienation
from the society they are living. I would suggest Najam Sethi goes to any
Lahore Grammar School, an elite English medium institution, and asked if
Pakistan should become the 51st state of the USA. Or asked them to name
the main festivals of Punjab, main crops, main rivers, main folk artists,
major divisions, and compare it with their performance in naming the fifty
states of the USA. Again he should ask them what they thought about
Islamabad their own capital being surrendered to US security personnel who
were even checking the Pakistani dignitaries, when US president visited
Pakistan. Again ask them what they felt when our own official delegation
was made to ignominiously go through the security procedures in USA. Again
asked them how they felt when US president thanked Musharaff for helping
the USA war on terror, knowing full well that hundreds of Pakistanis have
sacrificed in fighting another proxy war for US. Again he should ask them
how they felt when the educational minister of the country run down the
national hero, the cricket team captain, for his lack of proficiency in
English. The answers to all these questions hopefully would open his mind
to the kind of effect the current linguistic policy has in educating our
future generations. We are producing a dumb generation, one that can
neither express itself in English nor in its mother tongue! Not only that
we have been producing a mindset that is overawed by the west, and suffers
from the deepest of inferiority complex , and totally lack any kind of
genuine national pride. How one could fail to observe how desperately our
so called members of the elite, and those who aspire to that august
status, try to insert English sentences in their speech just to pass the
perceived sophistication test? It seems like in the name of "enlightened
moderation"  we are producing a generation reduced to robotic cosumption
of western popular culture , gadgetry and anything that titillates and
glitter such as Bollywood ( the latest addition to the idols), and totally
insensitive to the values that produce a healthy and high achieving ,
proud nation. No slight is too low, no issue worth agitating about, if
does not stand in the way of this "decadent cosumption" and obscence
flaunting of the riches by the elite and powerful The other day the actor,
Ajay Devgan, who openly abused Pakistan in Bollywood movies was accorded a
super hero's welcome in Kara's film festival: Najam Sethi's newspaper
proudly announcing this "enlightened" gesture with pictures!!

The whole point of all this is that language is not just a tool of
communication, it is deeply wedded to the collective psyche and self image
of the people. That is why a famous philosopher has said that dying of the
language is the same as the dying of the human soul! Also it was i think
Nehru who said that if you wanted to enslave people just take away their
language. Not only Najam Sethi incorrect at a theoretical and purely
academic level, he was dead wrong on the factual points of history. Though
pronouncements were made to make Urdu the national language,during
Bhutto's era, what was most required to bring it about was never touched
upon, namely, the conduct of official and legal business of the state in
the national language, and to make it the medium of education in all
institutions, starting from primary and progressively moving to higher
grades with time.  Neither was anything done to promote Punjabi , the
language of the 50% of the people of Pakistan at any level of state
institutions, educational or state. English continued to be the passport
to success in career and education in Pakistan, and all those
pronouncements did not as much as change an iota of that basic reality.
The half hearted and half baked measures of making some English medium
schools Urdu medium or privatizing some schools were neither here nor
there. In face, it added to the current malaise of two school systems, one
for the elite where the teaching is in the language which is the gateway
to success in the society they live (since it is the official language of
the land and business, and a status symbol)- one for the masses where they
are destined to imbibe attitudes of inferiority through going through the
educational process in the medium looked down upon by the ruling elites.

There is one last confusion regarding the place of mother tongue in
teaching that needed to be cleared. Education minister, who should not
even run a middle school in any civilized society, said the other day,
defending the linguistic status quo, that even in China they are teaching
English from first grade. What a disingenuous argument and specious
comparison! In china all subjects are taught in mother tongue right up to
the university level, and all official business is in Chinese. Ever heard
Chinese prime minister in any forum where he is representing his country
or in speaking to his country men using anything other than Chinese?
Musharaff after taking over the reins of the government spoke to the
nation in English!!!!! This incredible affront, our tolerance of it, and
our stature in the world are directly related. There is a direct
correlation between our government playing the toady of foreign masters ,
our leaders speaking even to their own people in alien language, the
elite's total alienation from the land and its nauseating aping of all the
shallow aspects of the west, its insenstivity to any slight to national
honour and our language policy. Our politics and national policies are
just the outcroppings of our national character, shapped by our
sociological circumstances , of which our attitude towards our own
language is the most important and critical.


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