Sunday, September 17, 2006

Joy of Learning Languages

At the Government High School in Larkana in mid fifties, we were required to learn three languages simultaneously—Sindhi, Urdu and English. I hated it! Learning of three languages took too much time. It seemed like wastage of time. That time could have been used to learn more maths or more science or civics or so many other things.

It was only much later that I realized that it was important to learn Sindhi, because it was my mother tongue. Urdu, because it was the national language of Pakistan. English, because it was the language of higher learning and business. The languages became useful soon. Looking back, I enjoyed reading and understanding of Bhitai’s poetry because of Sindhi. Sain Wahid Bux Shaikh, our headmaster made a good use of English in explaining poetry of Shakespeare and other wonderful poets. Urdu opened doors to wonderful novels by Nasim Hijazi (Shaheen, Mohammid Bin Qasim and many more). Urdu also opened doors to many school and college friendships.

Later when I went to DJ Science College, Karachi in 1958, my knowledge of Urdu opened many doors. I can think of at least one Sindhi friend, who did not do so well at DJ College and in Karachi because he was not fluent in Urdu.

Knowledge of English made it possible to secure admission in an American College while I was still in Inter Science. I owe a lot to my English teachers in Larkana and Karachi for my relatively easy adjustment at the University of Illinois (1961-64) and subsequent carrier development. Urdu became useful in USA. There was no other Sindhi at the University of Illinois back in 1961. There were five or six Pakistanis. Urdu became the language of communication with them. There were many Indians though. It was there that I realized that there was small difference in spoken Urdu and Hindi. All of a sudden, I realized that I knew a lot of spoken Hindi. I got to know many Indians. I had imagined all of them to be enemies while in Pakistan. But I found that there was so much in common with them. My knowledge of Urdu and then Hindi made it possible to find that big secret.

I did not need any other language until I joined the World Bank in 1967. During early years, I worked on projects in several counties such as Syria, Singapore, Thailand, Malawi, and Ghana etc, where English was sufficient. However, in mid seventies, I had to travel to some francophone African countries such as Upper Volta (now known as Burkina Faso), Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Senegal etc. Knowledge of French became necessary. They taught me a fair amount at the World Bank’s own language institute. It was a good start but not a sufficient one. I went to Alliance Francais in Paris for a month to focus on conversation. It was a full immersion course. By the end of the month, believe me, I was dreaming in French. It was a lifesaver.

I remember a visit to Upper Volta around 1978 to discuss implementation of a telecommunication project. The final project review meeting was with the Minister of Telecommunications. I knew that he knew English. So I started speaking in English. But he refused. He insisted on speaking in French. It was my first “French only meeting at a senior level”. It was a detailed meeting lasting over an hour focusing on their national policy and specific project detail. I was nervous as hell. The meeting was over. The minister and the World Bank’s Resident Representative (who was a French speaking Moroccan) started to clap. We were all happy that the meeting went well.
In 1982, I was transferred to East Asia region. Among other places, I started visiting Indonesia. There was no real need to learn the local language, which is called Bahasa Indonesia. Every one that I met in Jakarta or provincial capitals knew good or broken English. On my 20th or so visit, I was at a nightspot with other World Bank friends. The locals were talking and laughing in small groups. I did not understand a single word. It struck me! I was in their country but not part of their personal world. I decided to try to learn Bahasa. I started lessons at the World Bank Institute in Washington and practiced in evening in Indonesia. It really opened up a new and wonderful world. Later, while visiting Malaysia, I realized that Bahasa Malaysia is very similar to Bahasa Indonesia—just like Urdu and Sindhi.

During my two month long visits to Dominican Republic, I engaged a teacher for learning Spanish. I was told that I had good pronunciation in Spanish. It has some common sounds to Arabic and Sindhi. I hope to learn more of Spanish.

I have many efforts to learn Arabic. It was one of my subjects in pre-matric. I learnt the words but the grammar was impossible. I gave it up and did not have it in matric. Then during my posting to Saudi Arabia (1978-80), I took lessons. I could communicate with local staff and say simple sentences in the bazaars. I continued the effort during my posting in Somalia in 1981. Subsequently, I keep trying—through reading Quran and its translation simultaneously. I keep struggling. Fortunately, my Arab friends speak English. However, while wandering in bazaars of Cairo or Bahrain, I do not know what common people are talking about. One of my biggest desires is to become more fluent in Arabic.

After matric, I really took Sindhi for granted. I spoke it during visits to Pakistan. There was not much practice until I got married in 1967 and began to speak Sindhi at home in Washington on regular basis. My children who are all born in Washington learnt some Sindhi. They got good practice during frequent visits to the family in Pakistan. Today, the understand Sindhi but unfortunately do not speak much of it.

I began to appreciate Sindhi as I became aware of Sindh issues. As I have noted many injustices and poverty of masses in Sindh, I have become more devoted. It is my mother tongue. I cannot forget it. I am glad to be a part of the struggle to revive Sindhi language and Sindhi people. May God help us all.


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