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June 13, 2008



June 13, 2008

Michael Henderson once writing for a British newspaper quoted how John Osborne fulminated when he read someone declaring George Bernard Shaw the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare. Osborne said: "(Shaw) writes likes a Pakistani who has learnt English when he was 12-year-old in order to become a chartered accountant." The Hendersons and Osbornes flaunt the characteristic snobbery of native speaker intelligentsia. Shaw was Irish and Joseph Conrad was Polish. For a long time, the treatment their work received from arch English critics stemmed out of a deep-rooted conviction that only the native speakers are able to learn and write their language properly and it is their sanctioned duty to correct, criticise and certify all others.

I phoned Arif Waqar, the linguist, writer, broadcaster and TV producer, who has returned to Lahore after spending over two decades abroad. Listening to me intently on the subject and agreeing to some of my observations, the linguist in him asserted that may be the examples are not correct but to an extent Henderson is right when he insists on the usage of good, standard language. In our context, while Waqar dismisses the arrogance of the erstwhile native speakers of Urdu about the idiom and pronunciation of others using the language, he maintains that one should not take language for granted. He feels frustrated by the incorrect usage at such a large scale including in the media and the banal attitude of policy makers and academics towards language education in Pakistan. Dr Noman-ul-Haq, currently at LUMS and who otherwise teaches near eastern languages and civilisations at University of Pennsylvania, states that one of the primary reasons for the country's underdevelopment is our bad language proficiency in any language we use. The competence in any language we acquire defines the possibilities in our lives, individually and collectively.

In Pakistan, the issue is not just technical. It is an unresolved political

matter as well when it comes to deciding the medium of instruction, the language in which the affairs of the state are run and decisions are made, the language of power, prestige and lucrative employment, and of higher learning in physical and social sciences. Good language education, in any language that is used for general acquisition and impartation of knowledge, is a right of every citizen and a prerequisite for any intellectual, artistic, literary and technological developments in a society. We need to take our language policy seriously which would include the policy of language education. The financial and technical investments required for good language education, be it methodology, curriculum, teachers, infrastructure, should at least match what we spent through Higher Education Commission and the grants it proffered over the past few years.

As far as the approach is concerned, it should be acknowledged that since English is a true global lingua franca and a language of both commerce and trade, and knowledge, every Pakistani must be given an opportunity to learn it to be able to acquire specialised skills and new expertise. However, neither English nor Urdu should be used to exclude people from political power, social prestige and a respectable life. The function of Urdu has also changed from being a language imposed by the state at the cost of other languages as viewed by some nationalists to being a peoples' language -- a shared language for running inter-provincial and inter-regional affairs, in addition to being the medium of popular discourse, journalism and entertainment. Three quarters of the literate population in Pakistan is literate only in Urdu. Urdu must replace English at the federal level and major national languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi and Seraiki should be taught and used at the provincial and district levels to give people the basic right to learn their languages and include them in decision making. In addition to the major languages, all mother tongues, like Hindko, Brahvi, Potohari, Gujarati, Shina, Brushiski, Wakhi and Dhataki, etc must be seen as national languages and taught compulsorily in schools. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

The writer is an Islamabad-based poet and rights campaigner. Email: [email protected]

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