Monday, December 08, 2008

Doing No-thing - I

So last night I realized, fabulous! I am so well behind on most of the goals I had set myself. Actually I had not even bothered to set them - which I think is rather an act involving motor skills: actually picking up a pen and setting your goals on paper. (Pen and paper here could be digital, of course.) 

In my life,I have often transcended my situation by setting myself goals.

How to Learn a Language
I have done things like teaching myself O-Level English back in 1990 when I came to Karachi from Faisalabad, and found myself woefully inadequate when it came to the knowledge of language. In Faisalabad, we read English even though I went to the top school, that being Faisalabad Grammar School. Yet the culture of Faisalabad was a culture of Faisalabad, it did not even venture as far as emulating Lahore, the more metropolitan neighbor. People did not speak English in Faisalabad.

When I came to Karachi to live with my parents, having lived previously in a large joint family headed by my paternal grandmother, I faced a different world. People were decidedly more shrewd, savvy, and calculated here. The pace of life was faster. I was a quiet, observer kind so I did not break ice with people for a few years to come - but I did embrace my new life.

So one of the early challenges that I faced was in school. First, schools here had a more pluralistic demographic of students: children came from multiple ethnic backgrounds. The society was more open. Girls and boys were not separated and certainly did not have gender issues on their mind - rather they were focused on personal achievements. We were only in 6th grade, and already, the people were quite savvy in getting along independently in the world. One of my first challenges was with language, or rather speaking at all. I was not talkative, and often adamantly refused to join the chatter. The other part was a bit embarrassing to me. I was a top student in my previous school. Here, I was challenged with a more sophisticated level of education, the high point of it being the English Language. Now, schools in Pakistan make a great deal out of English. It is a matter of status and distinction. And in 1990, when Pakistani society still did not have open media, I'd say we still saw English through the lens of a colonial mentality. That was the awkwardness part.

However, a language itself is a language and English, without denial, is a useful medium that gets one to connect with the people of the world. Period.

I had, now I realize upon reflection, a healthy approach to the issue. It was simple: "I have to learn."

Thus began my personal learning campaign. I picked up text books, an Oxford Dictionary, and a notebook. I underlined every word that was unfamiliar in the textbooks, checked the meaning and the pronunciation in the dictionary, and copied the word and meaning in my notebook. Then I constructed sentences. I read aloud passages from the textbooks. When I was gifted an electronic dictionary four years later, I searched all the idioms, copied them in a notebook, and learned their meanings. I practiced them (unnecessarily) in conversations and verbose essays. My teachers could not get through my writing which was often a string of big words, antiquated idioms, and olde spellings.

While many find it embarrassing, I can assure this: the fastest way to learn a language is to copy the accent. It is a delightful activity. Besides, there is a kind of gestalt effect in it. Copying the accent not just teaches us words and meanings, it somehow reverse-engineers the culture behind that language.

I have only visited two countries so far in my life: Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, and South Africa for pilgrimage of a spiritual kind. But my knowledge of the the world is wider and deeper than this limited exposure. The key is to understand language and tone - and television and the Internet are my media to language.

And so, 19 years later, after enduring critique for fake accent, big words, and other bizarre experiments in learning languages - I think I have ended up fairly well. When I write or speak now, people find it compelling enough.

Continued in part II

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