WASHINGTON DIARY: Mastering the mother tongue —Dr Manzur Ejaz

Credible research has proven that children who know their mother tongue well have a much better chance to master other languages. But in the Pakistani educational system, the poisonous injection of alien language to tender minds results in a deep inferiority complex

The jury is still out on Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s trip to Washington, sabotaged by design of his deficiency in English. The Governor Punjab has some clue to its root cause and has declared that Punjabi will made compulsory at the elementary level to save future prime ministers from such embarrassment. The logic behind this argument is a bit involved but Punjabi lovers are so neglected that even a consolatory statement or an empty promise can keep them enthralled for a while..

On his oath-taking ceremony, Governor Salmaan Taseer had pleased many Punjabi lovers when, after being distracted by certain wasps in the crowd, Punjabi words started flowing out of his mouth spontaneously. We hope that he does not revert to Punjabi only when bitten by wasps and he has thought hard about why he wants to introduce Punjabi as a compulsory subject at elementary school level and intends to adopt measures to preserve indigenous culture.

In this regard, Najam Hussain Syed has narrated a historical episode how wasp biting can result in spontaneous utterance in one’s mother tongue.

According to this story, during the Mughal period, there was one Maulvi Ghaneemat who was so immersed in Persian that he would make it sure that not a single Punjabi word slipped out of his mouth. People around him used every trick but Maulvi sahib stood his ground.

One day, in poetic trance, when he was reciting his Persian poetry, a wasp made her way into his dhoti (loincloth). Maulvi Sahib, thrashing his dhoti, spurted out “oh teri maaN noon”! The elders, shy of folk cursing, claim that Maulvi Sahib had said “oh baybay”! (oh mother!). But whatever Maulvi Sahib said was not in Persian. Hurriedly, all his students ran to the village and informed the folks that “Maulvi Sahib has spoken”.

I hope that Mr Taseer has spoken without a wasp’s help. However, the way Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani confused “handful of terrorists” with “hand-picked terrorists” he really needs help from a wasp.

It is another matter that I felt really bad to see Pakistani mediapersons judging a national leader from his expertise in an alien language. If we need English-proficient national leaders we should make it a necessary qualification for their selection. Then even a simple BA degree will not suffice; only foreign educated elite would be eligible for the top national positions.

The joke around the White House was that President Bush was very pleased to hear someone speaking worse English then himself. However, being a very shrewd politician, Bush knew if journalists were let loose on Mr Gilani it may lead to a political disaster. Therefore, he grabbed Mr Gilani’s hand and took him to a safer corner of the White House. But the next day, no one could save Mr Gilani from the think-tankers. Mr Gilani, according to observers, hardly understood what was being said.

Why did he have to speak in English and why he did he not ask for a translator? None of the foreign heads from Europe, Japan, China or Korea speak English on such occasions, even when they are fluent in English. Arabs don not need to speak English because the petro-dollars do the talking. But even leaders of small and poor countries from South America speak Spanish and the translators do the rest. Feeling the compulsion to speak in English in foreign capitals is a curse specific to India and Pakistan.

We develop this compulsion from our early schooling when we are alienated from our mother tongue. Credible research has proven that children who know their mother tongue well have a much better chance to master other languages. But in the Pakistani educational system, the injection of alien language to tender minds results in a deep inferiority complex.

Our serving PM is a Saraiki-Punjabi. If he delivers his speeches in his own mother tongue, he would do much better. As a last resort, he could have spoken in Urdu which he knows much better than English.

We think Governor Taseer represents a new breed of politico-economic elite. Probably, he knows that wasp bites are very painful. I wish Mr Gilani and the Sharif brothers also become aware of these realities.

The writer can be reached at manzurejaz@yahoo.com

Source: Daily Times, 13/8/2008

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