Education, Development, and Change
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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Language Obsolescence

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Dawn, Monday, 27 Sep, 2010

LANGUAGE and society have a two-way relationship. On the one hand, social factors such as age, gender, social relationships, class, and religion influence language. On the other hand language, in a relatively subtle way, impacts the world in general.

This phenomenon was underlined by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that suggests that language is not merely a passive tool but is actively involved in the creation of the perception of the outer world, and the construction of social reality. Language thus emerges as a powerful manifestation of culture that acts as an identity marker at individual and societal levels. There is a strong link between the language users’ beliefs, their language and their understanding of the world since the world is perceived, understood, interpreted and represented along lines of thought that are unique to each language.

Keeping in view the centrality of language in individual and societal lives, it is shocking to learn that a number of languages are facing the threat of extinction or contraction. If we look at the human history we do find incidents where languages have disappeared, yet the alarming fact about the present situation is that the rate of extinction has accelerated by many times in the contemporary world.

Currently, according to Ethnologue (2009), an encyclopaedic reference work that catalogues the world’s living languages, just under 7,000 languages are spoken in the world but the distribution of their speakers is far from even. For instance, according to linguist David Crystal, just 4 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by 96 per cent of the population. In other words, 96 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 4 per cent of the population. A Unesco report estimates that about 2,471 languages are endangered.

Historically, we see two approaches to the issue of language. The first can be called the ‘melting pot approach’ that believes that there is no justification for the existence of a number of minor languages — that they should be put into the melting pot of the dominant language that represents power. This approach was advocated and practiced by imperial powers as they tried to impose their own language over native populations and ignored the local languages. Deep down in this approach one can sense, as Edward Said might suggest, a sense of positional superiority. The different dominant groups in a given society try to promote and impose their own languages on the marginalised groups. It is important to note that language is the main constituent of discourse that plays a vital role in the dynamics of power. A number of scholars, from Gramsci and Derrida to Foucault and Fairclough, have focused on the role of the discursive approach in obtaining and sustaining control over others.

The competing school of thought opposes the melting pot approach and maintains that there is beauty in diversity, and thus every language has the right to exist. According to the adherents of this school, linguistic diversity is as important as biological diversity.

But this diversity is at risk now, as languages are dying fast. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, including natural, cultural, social, economic and geographical factors. One major factor that has dwarfed others is the pragmatism that forms the basis of modern globalisation. Social, cultural and geographical reasons are in a subtle way linked to the process of globalisation. For instance in Pakistan, English — being a symbol of power — is associated with the elite. In order to align themselves with the elites, people would use English. At another level Urdu is at a similar vantage point as compared to the local languages of the country such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Seraiki etc. It is important to understand that no language is superior or inferior in itself. It is the socio-economic status of the speakers of a certain language that bestows it strength.

In Pakistan, about 66 languages are spoken in different parts of the country. The main languages, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Seraiki, Urdu and Balochi, are spoken by 95.34 per cent of the people whereas the remaining sixty are spoken by 4.66 per cent of the people. According to a 2009 Unesco report on endangered languages, 27 Pakistani languages are facing the threat of extinction. These include Balti, Bashkarik, Bateri, Bhadravahi, Brahui, Burushaski, Chilisso, Dameli, Domaaki, Gawar-Bati, Gowro, Jad, Kalasha, Kati, Khowar, Kundal Shahi, Maiya, Ormuri, Phalura, Purik, Savi, Spiti, Torwali, Ushojo, Wakhi, Yidgha and Zangskari.

Most of these languages are spoken in the mountains. With the advent of globalisation the compact community system and their cultures and languages are at risk. The young people of such linguistic communities are moving to large cities in connection with their education or jobs, where they have to use Urdu or English in order to assimilate. Another important factor is the attitude of policymakers towards certain languages. This complacent attitude is common among authorities at the local and federal levels. No serious measures have been taken to legitimise such languages.

The extinction of a language would not just mean the disappearance of a number of words and expressions. In fact, it would translate to the loss of identities, the death of particular viewpoints and the extinction of social histories. We need to act now, and fast. Some serious measures need to be taken to save Pakistan’s dying languages. Such actions can be taken at the local level by interested groups and organisations, which ought to be supported by the state. As Ezra Pound said, “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”

The writer is a professor and director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dr. Shahid Siddiqui Constructs Dreams

by SAJ Shirazi
SAJ Shirazi
Let’s construct dreams, in the 21st century that is being characterized as the attention age. Dreams that are able to point to the cultural and social political complexities of our education system. Who can do that? Someone insider, with a broad education background, who has worked at a variety of jobs and experienced life in different fields of education all his working life.

And someone able to embody much of the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions of our education system in bold and innovative fiction.

Meet Dr Shahid Siddiqui — a teacher, thinker and writer who has lived and felt the society we live in. I often meet him in different alcoves of Lahore School of Economics, a charming urban oasis amid the green fields, under main shed, on walkways, in office and every time I meet Dr. Siddiqui I discover him more. Every time I meet him, keep trying to figure out similarities between him and Professor Roy – a character he has created in his novel.

I recommend this book to all those who believe in dreams of social change, economic parity and social justice in our society and consider education as a potent tool to realize these dreams.

Author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan, Dr Siddiqui has written his first novel, Adhe Adhoore Khawab, that is creating waves in literary and academic circles. The novel and the novelist both have received widespread acclaim from literary critics in Pakistan. Dr. Siddiqui was probably the first who attempted to construct dreams around education system – one of the most important and at the same time most neglected fields in modern Pakistan.

I think the production of text is only a small part of being a writer. Being a writer has more to do with observation, thinking, and constructing dreams around your deeper feelings. And I know there are different writing projects (books, weekly articles for Dawn, guest lectures and presentations) on his desktop and Adhe Adhoore Khawab came off his desktop during very ‘happening time’. Readers can relate to famous long march for restoration of judiciary while reading this novel.

The novel tells the tale of a professor, a student and the struggle in the times of political turmoil Pakistan was going through during early 2010. The novel’s language is an energetic combination of styles and sensibilities that are as contemporary as today’s headlines. The characters of the novel are multidimensional. Dr Siddiqui seems to have a direct association with his story’s setting. That is what makes Adhe Adhoore Khawab a convincing story, a story that transcends its immediate context and milieu.

I recommend this book to all those who believe in the dreams of social change, economic parity and social justice in our society and consider education as a potent tool to realize these dreams.
Book: Aadhay Adhooray Khwab
Author: Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Published by Jahangir Books, Lahore
Price: 250
Publisher's Tel:042-37220879
Buy online:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Teachers' fest at AIE

Dawn, 10 Oct. 2010
LAHORE, Oct 10: Teachers need to change their attitudes, keep revisiting their knowledge and teaching skills and ensure that they are able to help clear thought process of their students.
This was stated by speakers at a panel discussion on “Teachers for Tomorrow’s Pakistan: Expectations and Challenges”. The discussion was part of Teachers’ Fest at the Ali Institute of Education in connection with the World Teachers Day on Saturday.
Speaking on the occasion, Dr Arifa Syeda Zehra said it was an unfortunate fact that the teaching profession had become the last choice profession because social norms motivated the youth to acquire authority and power. She, however, acknowledged that the salary structure did not offer teachers proper social status.
Dr Zehra emphasised the need to recognise the role of national language and history in education. She stressed that teachers should honestly contribute to character building of students and encourage critical thinking among them.
Lahore School of Economics’ Dr Shahid Siddiqui said there were three challenges facing the nation: students’ access to schools, massive dropout rate and quality of education. He said there was not a big gap between haves and have-nots in the past, but now there were separate schools for the poor, lower middle class, middle class and the elite class. He said social inequalities needed to be addressed because economic disparity was a great hurdle in the way of quality education. Similarly, he said, there were schools that were promoting rote learning instead of honing analytical skills of students.

Dr Shahid Siddiqui stressed that teachers should impart quality education by continuously upgrading their own knowledge and inculcate interpersonal skills among students. He stressed that teachers should play a key role in contextualising pedagogical skills to enhance life chances among their students. “A teacher should not be a consumer of knowledge or a mere technician rather he should become a reflective practitioner,” he added.
Beaconhouse National University’s Dr Mehdi Hasan said teachers’ duty was to develop a civilised nation. He, however, regretted that teachers had so far failed to educate students to become citizens of the modern world. He stressed that the curriculum needed to be revised, as it was not capable of making students compete in the international market. He said curriculum should cover human rights education, democratic traditions, tolerance and peace education. He said secular academic environment was required for educational growth in Pakistan.
The panellists also discussed private schools that were in a cutthroat race to ensure that their students get maximum As.
AIE director Dr A H Nayyar said teaching was important for nation building and educated youth in some societies decided that they would dedicate their lives to the teaching profession. He said Finland was one such country where teaching was a first choice profession.
He said public schools were in bad state physically as well as intellectually because teachers were unable to make teaching a joyful activity and attract students to schools with full enthusiasm. He said there was an acute shortage of teachers as required to impart education to students enrolled in schools. He said existing schools were catering to only 60 per cent of the school going age population.

The panel discussion was followed by Dr Shahid Siddiqui’s lecture on “Reflection, Innovation and Change and launch of his new book entitled "Rethinking Education in Pakistan".  Later, parallel workshops on a number of topics were conducted by senior educationists and films on inspiring teachers were shown to Teachers’ Fest participants.Dawn