[lg policy] The Cinese language in Sindh

Zaidi manoo at BRUNET.BN
Sun Sep 18 02:04:16 UTC 2011

 Mind your Chinese language
Instead of forcing Chinese down the throats of all children, universities
and schools should make efforts to teach Chinese efficiently to a few
motivated students
By Dr Tariq Rahman

The Sindh government has decreed, or so we understand, that Mandarin Chinese
would be compulsory for school students all over the province. Now if a
university had declared that it would be offered as a subject, but an
optional one of course, I would have lauded the decision. Indeed, even if a
school had offered it as an option there would be reason to commend the
decision. But for public-sector schools to teach Chinese and that too as a
compulsory language is a very questionable decision. In the interest of
saving poor children - and I mean 'poor' both literally and metaphorically -
from becoming the 'guinea pigs' of yet another experiment and saving public
funds for something more useful let me give a few comments about the
teaching of languages.

First, let us examine the whole question of why foreign countries want their
languages to be taught abroad and why do other countries teach them. For
details of this the reader is invited to my book Language, Identity and
Power: Language-learning Among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India (OUP
2002). The gist of the matter is that foreign countries want to spread their
languages since the number of foreigners who can use them is an indicator of
the soft power of that country. It confers tangible benefits: trade,
exchanges, influence through obtaining contracts for providing services,
making people understand the country and become friendly towards it,
increasing cultural contacts and so on.

Indeed, the use of the English language has given a tremendous boost to the
dissemination of British and American cultural products and worldview in the
whole world. Just the sale of British and American books has increased by
leaps and bounds in the last fifty years. And, if one includes the global
reach of Hollywood, the internet revolution, the soft power and the good
image the USA has received, it may be said that no mere conquest could have
made such good publicity possible. Indeed, had the military muscle not been
used in recent history, the positive image would have predominated.

So, if Chinese is taught in Pakistan, China is going to gain in terms of
trade, cultural dissemination and will bridge the gap which exists between
our world and theirs. It is quite understandable then that if China provides
teachers the cost will be nothing compared to the gains that country will
make in the long run. Indeed, China might well have the long-term interest
of replacing our Anglocentric worldview and elite acculturation with their
own cultural hegemony.

But what do the countries learning a foreign language gain? They gain
proficient young people who can gain access to a foreign point of view. Such
people can carry on many activities including trade, commerce, academic
exchanges, art and cultural exchanges, joint military exercises and even
spying. A foreign language is a window to a new world, a new point of view,
a fresh way of experiencing reality - in short, it is a new kind of wealth
which can enrich life. At the mundane level one can get jobs in the
institutions which use that language; in that country itself; and become
pioneers who gain access to a foreign culture. So, those who know Chinese
will stand to gain and, of course, having a number of such people is in the
national interest of Pakistan.

But, while this does mean that our universities and even some good schools
should make efforts to teach Chinese efficiently to a few interested and
motivated students, it does not mean that we should force Chinese down the
throats of all children. Firstly, the cost involved in providing so many
teachers of Chinese is prohibitive, but let us assume China pays for all
this army of teachers and let us also assume that we can protect them
against abduction, dengue fever and other mishaps. Even then there are many
reasons why Chinese is much more difficult to learn than English which, by
the way, we have not yet been able to teach in our ordinary government
schools competently.

First, while English belongs to the large Indo-European family of languages
to which Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi and even Pashto and Balochi also belong,
Chinese belongs to an entirely different family of languages. Secondly, and
this is even more significant, the scripts of English and Urdu (and also
Hindi etc) are phonographic while the Chinese script is logographic. This
means that if a child learns to write Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto, Persian
etc he or she has to learn the symbols (alphabet or graphemes) representing
the consonants and the vowels. These are not more than fifty in most of the
languages we write. But in Chinese the child will learn symbols for units of
meaning of words. Thus the concept of 'man' will have a symbol and than of
'woman' another one. Thus the child will have to master around 600 symbols
in order to be able to write basic Chinese. For sophisticated writing about
2000 plus symbols will be required. This means that no matter what you call
an apple in your different dialects of Chinese, when you write the concept
of 'apple' you will use symbols which will remain the same for all dialects.
This makes the writing a unifying factor but at the cost of making the
learning of basic literacy a great feat of memory.

In short, the learning of this language is a very great burden on our
students who will not get any certain or necessary benefit out of this
prodigious effort. The effect of this will be that students will drop out of
schools or the language teachers will pass everybody and the whole
experiment will be a farce just as the teaching of compulsory Arabic was.
Nobody really learned Arabic though the influence of the religious right did
increase on the minds of students.

Such experiments are especially unjust since the children of the
underprivileged are the ones who have to suffer. In the 1990s, Balochi,
Brarhvi and Pashto were made compulsory to classes 1 and 2 in Balochistan.
Language activists were pleased and the experiment started with enthusiasm
but the English-medium and cantonment schools were exempted. So, as soon as
the teaching was made optional, parents opted for Urdu since they knew that
rich and powerful children were not learning the mother tongues and there
were no jobs in the end for their children who were burdened with yet
another language.

It is actually a good policy to teach in the mother-tongue as far as
possible to young children. Many countries, including China, are doing that.
But then all children are taught in the mother tongue and not only the
underprivileged ones. This is what we need: the same uniform policies for

In my view the mother-tongue should be the medium of instruction in the
lower classes. Then we should teach in Urdu or an indigenous mother-tongue
according to the will of the province concerned. English should be taught as
a subject throughout the schooling years as should Urdu. Higher education
should be in English as research is mostly in that language. As for Chinese,
and perhaps other foreign languages, we should teach them as optional
languages and give special inducements to university students who want to
learn them. Forcing them down the throats of helpless children in Sindh is
completely wrong.

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