A debate devoid of sense - Maria Kamal - Thursday, March 10, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=35417&Cat=9

It appears that the debate surrounding a bill that presumably “kills Urdu” in fact kills good sense, and any hope of a progressive education system ever existing in this country.

It is unclear what inspires the bill for eight national languages more – a desire to appease ethnic groups in the country who are increasingly disenchanted with the federal government, or an attempt to celebrate our rich cultural heritage in the hope of distracting ourselves from more pressing problems.

To begin with, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds this bill and the discussion has gone off on all sorts of tangents. A majority of this discussion assumes rendering these languages ‘national’ will give them some kind of legal status. This is to say, these languages will play a role in government policies, particularly in the areas of education and official documentation.

But a national language is not the same as an official language. For instance, declaring Sindhi a ‘national language’ is simply acknowledging national ties to it. It is to associate Sindhi with our national identity. This does not necessarily mean everyone in Sindh will wake up tomorrow to find Sindhi has suddenly become the medium of instruction in schools, and all official paperwork will hereon be carried out in Sindhi.

What the bill itself appears to suggest is fairly harmless and uncontroversial; there’s nothing wrong with honouring our languages, preserving them, and giving them the status of national languages.

But discussion surrounding this bill has adopted a nationalist tone, pitting proponents of one regional language against the other, each nursing the grudge that the bill was concocted to dethrone their particular language.

Most frightening of all, anti-English interpretations attached by some, if acted upon, threaten to deal an already ailing education system, a final fatal blow – it has been suggested that we must not study English, at least not until after graduating (from university) because it is a foreign language, a tool of subjugation, and will stunt our creativity.

True, English has played a largely divisive role in Pakistan’s social dynamics. It is the invisible line that separates the elite from ordinary citizens, prevents communication between the two, and is the one standard used to instantly determine social class, education, and an individual’s chances of success. To many, English also represents the lingering presence of our colonisers whose tongue continues to be viewed as the colonising force in our society today.

But do we have to set out to destroy everything that pertains to them, the colonisers, without considering the repercussions of our actions for our own people? The idea that slighting the West is tantamount to asserting our national sovereignty is alarmingly reactionary, counter-productive and, unfortunately, widespread in our society. But let’s not allow sentimentality and misplaced patriotism to translate into ill-advised policies that will only bungle our education system and create a generation of young people who are even more confused – if that’s possible.

Presuming the above mentioned policies were to be adopted, would the elite cut off their ties with English? Private schools and those with any means would find some way or the other to continue learning in English. Denying others the chance to study English in school would only widen the Urdu-English divide, not bridge it. It would, in effect, consolidate the elite’s monopoly over the English language.

Of course, there are countries in the world that have stuck to their native languages, without necessarily compromising intellectual growth. Turkey, Japan, and Iran are among them. Unfortunately, we are not equipped to follow in their footsteps because doing so would require an intense revival of Urdu and turning around various aspects of our education system. Not only do language and education rank at the very bottom of our national priorities, the view that Urdu should be the dominant language is still contested by many. Perhaps, this is why we have failed to develop Urdu, or any of our regional languages fully.

This is also not surprising, considering that a measly two percent (approximately) of our national budget is allocated towards education – a country’s single best hope of prospering in the long run, also its best guarantee against producing and nurturing savages. Our languages have also been marginalised because of a greater demand for English in almost all walks of life.

All of us undeniably stand to benefit from an improved command over our languages and a better appreciation of the works of our literary geniuses. But Urdu has occupied a dominant position, and replacing it with another language now is not a practical suggestion, even though the sentiments of those advocating the cause of other languages deserve respect and understanding.

Even with regard to Urdu, we have failed to cultivate love for the language and interest in it, and have largely succeeded in evoking dread and boredom at the sound of it. Ideally, our education system should promote proficiency in both English and Urdu – perfect bilingualism, if you will. But how are we to deal with the resentment this will incur from proponents of regional languages? The claim that regional languages deserve greater importance cannot be refuted. They too will have to be accommodated.

However, we must not allow debates about our languages to sideline the importance of English. To say that English is only required for the purpose of communicating with foreigners is to deny the very nature of the world we live in. The truth is that English is the closest thing there is to a world language. It is the language in which the greatest numbers of non-native speakers communicate. Our world is an increasingly globalised one – as dreadfully clichéd as this word sounds – where physical borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant to communication and interaction.

It doesn’t matter if only one percent of Pakistanis travel overseas (assuming this is the case). What matters is that even the 99 percent who don’t are interacting with the rest of the world remotely. A majority of websites are in English. And can we actually legitimately claim that there exist textbooks in Urdu that are at par with the latest books on law and medicine published in English?

We would be lying through our teeth if we answered yes. For one thing, English is the single-most published language in the world. If we really want to teach our students solely in Urdu, we must either settle on teaching them archaic books or spend vast amounts of money – which by the way, we don’t have – to undertake translation on a massive scale.

But let’s be honest. In the midst of escalating terrorism, religious zeal, political chaos and, with all roads leading to economic collapse, who has time to even think, much less do, anything about education?

Intellectually, it helps to consider how others have approached the problem of multilingualism. The European Union’s policies aim at citizens speaking at least two other languages, in addition to their mother tongue. Why can’t we endeavour to do the same? The obvious answer is we are not the European Union and don’t care half as much about improving communication.

It still doesn’t hurt to debate the kind of education we should be imparting. We should be aiming at Urdu and English proficiency as far as is practically achievable. With regard to teaching regional languages, beyond a certain point, perhaps beyond primary education, learning them should be optional. However, those who are interested should most definitely be provided with resources for further learning.

Most importantly, let’s not impose hard rules in the name of progress and linguistic diversity – language-based policies should not simply be imposed. They must be arrived at through consensus, after consideration of different perspectives, and after all available options have been weighed. We must not allow any of our languages to die out on account of negligence and marginalisation.

This debate also inevitably leads us back to one simple question: where do we want to go? Do we want to reject all that is foreign and boast about our cultural heritage – a heritage so rich it cannot withstand competition from external influences?

Or do we want to open ourselves to external influences and benefit from groundbreaking research being done and advancements being made in other parts of the world, even if they are articulated in a foreign language? Rest assured: our boycotting English will not lead to a countrywide creativity spurt.

Our answer to this fundamental question will determine some of the most important decisions we make as a country.

The writer is a staff-member.

Email: maria.kamal@thenews.com.pk

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