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Spotlight: Zakia Sarwar

“It would be a fallacy to conclude that if you teach a foreign language at a very early age then the child will acquire proficiency in that particular language. Remember, first the teachers ought to have command over the language and secondly they should be trained in language teaching, which, as you know, is a highly specialised job. Ten years of teaching English inefficiently is not going to work.”

Zakia Sarwar has enormous reserves of energy, something an average person half her age can’t boast of. What is no less important is that she doesn’t run in too many directions, hers has been a focussed approach. She has dedicated herself to the promotion of teaching English as the second language in the country. But if she were to read this, Zakia Sarwar would insist that the statement is only half correct. “I and my colleagues in SPELT are also involved in teaching English as a foreign language.”

SPELT, by the way, stands for Society of Pakistani English Language Teachers. She is often called Mother SPELT because she has been a driving force behind the functioning of the organisation.

Zakia Hasan, which was what she was before she got married to Dr Mohammed Sarwar, was born in Partabgarh in Uttar Pradesh, which is only known for being an important railway junction. Hers was a family of professionals. Her paternal grandfather was an advocate, and father honorary magistrate in the town. Her elder brother Zawwar Hasan, an eminent journalist had crossed the newly carved border in the late forties. In 1954 the family moved to Lahore, where he was settled.

Zakia graduated with honours in English literature from the Lahore College for Women and a year later did her Masters in the subject from the prestigious Government College. In those days when one did one’s Masters in English, it was in literature, not in language. It was later that the much needed distinction was made. Before she and her classmates got their results, they were given letters of appointment as lecturers and posted by the Government of Punjab to Gujranwala.

Looking back, she says, “It was the excitement of being on one’s own that induced me to accept the offer.” Since there was no women’s hostel, we decided to rent a house. That made them feel secure and, of course, resulted in the division of overhead expenses. “It was fun and it was also a great learning experience,” she says drifting down memory lane.

Whatever it was, the period was short. A year later Zakia moved to Karachi because Zawwar Hasan was transferred to what was then the capital of the country. “It was Zawwar Bhai who instilled in me the love for literature and it was through him that I got to know and interact with such luminaries as Faiz, Sibte Hasan, and Hameed Akhtar,” she says, “They later became family friends.”

“You are forgetting one person,” I remark.
“Who?” she queries.
“Dr Mohammed Sarwar, who was, if I am not mistaken, your brother’s close friend,” I answer.

“Oh! Yes, of course,” she chuckles. “Again it was because of Zawwar Bhai that I got to meet the eminent educator — Mrs Salma Zaman, who offered me lecturership in Sir Syed College, way back in 1961. Can you guess what was my initial salary? I got Rs240, which was not such a meagre amount at that time.”

Referring to her spouse, she says, “I acquired leadership skills from my husband. He was a student leader, as you know. He had also been jailed for his leftist leanings. The late poet Habib Jalib, was among his disciples. Jalib became a good family friend, too. Sarwar has always been very supportive of me. In the eighties it was quite unusual for a woman to leave three children with the husband and go abroad for studies. Thanks to Sarwar, I spent one year in 1982 at the University of Sydney.”

Zakia Sarwar insists that at primary level the medium of instruction should be the mother tongue of the students. “And when you start teaching them the English language, the focus should be on language learning. There shouldn’t be lessons in Pak Studies and Islamiat through English as is the case with our textbooks. To say that they are uninspiring and insipid is to state the very obvious,” she adds.

The Sarwars’ residence has, as far as I can remember, always been an open house. Whenever Faiz was in Karachi, Sibte Hasan –– who was a frequent visitor to their house –– and many others would drop in. When Ismat Chughtai, Ali Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi would visit Karachi, a dinner at the Sarwars’ residence was a done thing. The environment at home motivated her two daughters to take up writing seriously. Bina is a journalist and the Houston-based Sehba is a fulltime writer. Her debut novel Black Wing was published quite recently. She also has a son, who sells cars in the US.

Answering my question “Which side of the great divide are you in: those who believe that children should be taught English from class one or the ones who think it should be done later when they are, say in class six?” she says, “It would be a fallacy to conclude that if you teach a foreign language from a very early age then the child will acquire proficiency in that particular language. Just forget everything, tell me where would you get skilled teachers in such large numbers from? Remember, first the teachers ought to have command over the language and secondly they should be trained in language teaching, which, as you know, is a highly specialised job. Ten years of teaching English inefficiently is not going to work.”

Zakia Sarwar insists that at primary level the medium of instruction should be the mother tongue of the students. “And when you start teaching them the English language, the focus should be on language learning. There shouldn’t be lessons in Pak Studies and Islamiat through English as is the case with our textbooks. To say that they are uninspiring and insipid is to state the very obvious,” adds the woman, who was one of the four founders of SPELT, which was way back in 1984.

The idea germinated a year earlier at a seminar on English language teaching that was organised by the University Grants Commission, which is now called the Higher Education Commission. It was the first ever seminar on language teaching in the country. The teachers who thought of it were from different parts of the country. With communication being so time consuming in those days, the plan could not take off. Now, though based in Karachi, SPELT has participation from teachers from different parts of the country.

SPELT is a teachers’ organisation, which provides opportunities for the academic enhancement of its members. “It is a forum where teachers share ideas, skills and information for further professional development and networking. It also serves as a platform for teachers where they can unite and advocate change. By that change I mean the updating of educational processes,” says Zakia Sarwar.

SPELT has been conducting a nine-month in-service course since 1989 at the end of which the qualifying teachers get the International Certificate for English language. The certificate is given by Cambridge University and SPELT, as Zakia proudly claims, is the only body in Pakistan allowed to train teachers for this certificate. This is in addition to short courses and workshops that the organisation conducts. A quarterly journal on the subject of English language teaching is also published regularly.

However, the most important event in SPELT’s calendar has been the international conference that is held religiously for the last two decades. Currently, Zakia and her colleagues are up to their neck in organising the 23rd conference. As many as 20 experts from Brazil, Turkey, Japan, the UAE, the UK and the US are expected to be in Karachi for the three-day conference, which is to start from tomorrow –– November 2 to be precise. With a view to benefiting teachers from and around Lahore and Islamabad, similar conferences will be held there a week later. In between Multan and Abbottabad will be the venues of what they call mini conferences.

Networking and sharing of ideas around the globe form the raison d’etre of the conference. This year’s event will cover apart from learning theories and practices, such subjects as cultural adaptations, global issues, as well as peace and human rights issues.

These are, of course, the need of the hour at a time when tolerance and the ability to understand other people’s viewpoints rule the roost. This would percolate down to the grassroots level, is what this writer feels and Zakia Sarwar wouldn’t agree more.



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