How Language Acquisition is Made Difficult for Children: Eight Lessons from an Urdu Acquisition Case Study

How Language Acquisition is Made Difficult for Children: Eight Lessons from an Urdu Acquisition Case Study

[The later part of this post would derive the lessons that I learned from my experience of how I learned Urdu which is described first. These lessons address the problems that our faulty methodologies are creating today in language acquisition especially in teaching of Urdu. The lessons are general and apply to other languages also as highlighted by references to well established and well known research. ]

The first Urdu Book I remember reading around 1966-67 was I think Urdu ki pehli kitab[?]I must have been around five or six
years old at that time. Those were the days when the madness of imprisoning two and three
year olds in the pre-school had not begun. (It is madness because nowhere in
the developed world any educationist recommends this except schools in Pakistan run by administrators not academics.) I had by then must have
gone through the Noorani Quaida. Anyhow, I distinctly remember a few lines from
the very first page of that pehli kitab. Surprisingly many others who had started their Urdu from this book also do so. The first page had some very simple rhyming sentences with very short “meaningful” words such as:

  • Aa baba aa.   
  • Aam la
  • La baba la
  • La Aaam La
  •  …. and on it went ..
The very next page followed immediately with short “full meaningful sentences” under
self explanatory descriptive pictures. No “nonsense” sentences that I remember to this day and many others would too:
  • Abba jan namaz parh rahay hain. Caption under the picture of an elderly man praying on a prayer rug.
  • Bacha ma ki goad may hay. Caption
    under the picture of a woman holding a child in her lap.
  • I think there were a few more pictures like these with self explanatory sentences
    serving as their caption.
Third page onwards had stories and essays. There was no
nonsense masquerading as language teaching methodology. There were no useless
exercises in phonetics. There were no useless exercises in tor-jor
(connect-disconnect). Whatever, was taught had meaning from the word go. The stories and essays included in the text book were interesting.

I also remember that interesting
Ferozesons’ book containing stories from hikayaat-luqman whose stories and even the pictures are
etched in my mind to this day. Famous stories with a single line moral at the
end. Piyasa Kawwa (thirsty crow) that puts pebbles in a jug to get the water to
rise up so that it could drink; khushamad buri bala hay, where the fox manages
to get the piece of bread from the crow by praising the beauty of its voice and making the crow close its eyes and sing by opening its beak and crowing, the piece of bread falls down and the fox runs away with it… I think the initial stories were read to me by my mother and later I was on my own. I think the name of the book was “mazaydar kahaniyaan“[?]. It is still available in the same print with the same text and
pictures with Ferozesons. I saw it the last time I went there a few years
ago. I tried opening up the website of Ferozsons to see the catalog but this fine institution seems to be suffering as appears from its website. However, you can gain access to many of these wonderful Ferozsons books here. 

My parents were avid readers. Morning could not start
without the reading of an Urdu and an English newspaper. There used to be tussle within my elder siblings as to who would first get to see the newspaper. The resolution would often be the pages getting distributed according to the interest.

I was around 6 years of age when my mother was reading to me the story of Tarzan that used to be serialized in Daily Jang newspaper in the comic-book style;  three or four pictures with descriptive sentences in the speech bubbles and in captions below the picture. One day, I don’t remember when and how, I found myself having transited from the stage of staring at the pictures trying to figure out what is in the text from figures and action depicted in the picture, to the stage where I had started
reading on my own. Very soon from Tarzan pictures, I had gone to interesting stories and then it all started.

The world around us used to be filled with books of all types lying every where. There were some very economical comics style books available on every tea and newspaper stall, very affordable and sold on the corner of busy streets. I remember one of them distinctively, a small pocket size story book (around 4” x 4”) titled tilismi khelona of about twenty-thirty pages. The book had an enchanting story of a princess
and a magic box, who finds herself alone in a new setting, tangled with strange people. The only thing she has to console herself was the magic box given to her by her father. She would take the box outside the castle at night when no one was watching and would open it and out
would come a magic world recreating the whole court and attendants and what
not. I don’t remember the story but I do remember the thrill, suspense and
excitement because I could not understand the whole story, but the mystery was nevertheless interesting. Books like these
could be finished in a single sitting by beginners. They had pictures on one page and text on the other.
My next memory is that of being in class 3 when I started reading those
wonderful Ferozesons books for the children. It started with the historical
drama of “Aik Sipahi ki Kahani”. I got this book issued from my primary school (IMSG) class library that had about twenty thirty books. Some how I read the book. Not understanding it completely but can still recall that it had to do with some Mughal treasure, loyalty, bravery and the jewel “yaqoot” which had some significance in the story.

One day, around 1969, I went with my
eldest sister to Pakistan Council Library (later renamed Pakistan Center
Library) in Islamabad near Melody, where she was attending a course to learn Bengali.
I was awed at the impressive and the well maintained collection of books there. I still remember going in front of each of the
racks containing rows and rows of thick volumes. A practice that continued each time I went to the library, which was quite frequently, over the next decade. That first day, from the rack in the children’s section, I
got another of Ferozesons’ Urdu translation of  Nikolai Gogol‘s Taras Bulba. I must have taken that book because of the title picture of the ferocious looking Taras Bulba with curved sabre. I remember taking this book
home and reading it. I wouldn’t say that I understood every thing in the book. What I do remember is that it was a fascinating and thrilling adventure. The scene described in the book where the father Taras Bulba and his two
sons are lying under the starry night sky and talking about their past and their dreams, is still etched in my mind. About a decade later I would go and see the Hollywood adaptation starring Tony Curtis and Yul Bryner in Ciros Cinema in Rawalpindi Saddar. What a wonderful experience.

Mind you, I did not understand these books fully as I read them the first time. I
think I read them because there was mystery, adventure, unknown words with
unknown meanings, and difficult words. But there was this continuous encouragement of my mother not to
worry about that. She said just go on reading, whether you can pronounce the
word or not, whether you can understand the sentence or not. The important thing is
to read about that mystery and that adventure and that drama in life. The
context and the story would itself reveal to you the meaning and the mysteries.
How true she was. Now when I compare this approach to the one followed in our
text books today, I know what the problem is. The books are too easy to be senseless. There is no story, no adventure, no thrill, no mystery and no urge to go behind the difficult words and sentences to explore the fascinating meanings that would make sense of the story. Our books suffer because they are an “Insult to Intelligence” of the bright active mind of the child.

That was the time when our parents did not make a huge issue of the grades. They probably saw me reading newspapers, books and saw my interest in nature and felt that this was enough of the preparation. They reposed confidence in us. No one cared about my grades (at least they did not show it to me to make me worry) till I was in my eighth grade. This was when I was made aware of the importance of grades in getting admission to the medical and engineering colleges and entering a career that had scope.  Before eighth grade everyone would want to know about what I
was reading and what wonderful new things that I was exploring. It appeared that
everyone was reading around me. I could not imagine a person at that time who
was not a reader.

My next book from my primary school (IMSG, later ICG) library was “PurAsrar Jazeera”; second part of the series of Daastaan e Amir Hamza by Ferozesons adapted for children. What an excitement, and what a thrill! Soon I had completed the book, and then to my disappointment I found that the story is serialized and is continued in next (third) part “Nausherwan ki beti“. Now the quest for the next in series was on. This was the time when Maqbool Jehangir, the writer, was in the process of writing this series for Ferozesons and the next part was not out yet. I had to go to the library again and again to see whether the new book of the series has arrived or not. Eventually, it came out after a long wait of a month or so. Once I had gone through it, I had to wait till the fourth part came out and so on it went, till the last one came out. In the mean time, there were other Ferozesons books that I was getting issued and reading them. I also remember getting “Mera Naam Mangu hay” which I got from my Uncle’s house which had a cabinet full of books. This story was about a boy who was kidnapped and turned in to a professional beggar. It was serialized later by PTV. This was followed by several others such as “Mujh pay kya guzri“, “Aali pay kya guzri” etc. Mind you, these books about kidnapping of young boys had a deep impact on our mind and would terrify me each time I would pass by a residential facility for the orphans near Faizabad. Why and how the connection was made between this facility and the kidnapping of young boys, I do not remember.

What a fascinating series of books was Daastan e Amir Hamza. My elder sister and I must have read hundreds of time as I bought the whole series later on and some of these are still with me to this day. My younger brother and sister must have also read the entire series scores of times. The ten books of this series were followed later by the ten books of Tilism e Houshruba series. These two series provided me with the vast vocabulary of words and diction of urdu. Soon, we were all using the phrases and mahavaraah, metaphors and similies used with wit and humor in these books.

Very soon I had a collection of about hundred Ferozesons books. I had the complete Kamran Kay Karnamay, Imran kay karnamay, Aryang series (Super man) etc. There were some great original books as well as translations
that Ferozesons did for the children. I remember in them Girah-kut (Oliver
Twist), Khoon ki Holi (A Tale of Two Cities), Sehra kay dayo, Hujjam aur Qazzaq (Hardy Boys Series), Neeli Roshni Ka Raaz, Neela Tota, Bhoot Bangla, Khooni Jazeera, Marekh ka Hamla (War of the Worlds), and many others.  I would longingly look at all the names of the books
printed at the back of these books and visualize myself owning and reading all of them. I would read all the names again and again.

Very soon I had collected nearly all of them. I got
a stamp made and became a proud owner of the Millat Library. I would rent out these books at the astronomical amount of ten paisa i.e. Rs. 0.10 per day! These were the
days when in each street there would be a library like this with a proud child
owner like me. This collection would eventually grow to over four hundred books.
A time came when I was reading these books of about 250 pages in half
an hour. I had Ibne Safi’s books that were some how considered stuff for grown ups. But I was reading them when I was in my class sixth. Very soon I had nearly all of them. To this day I retain some of these from that collection. People are now beginning to rediscover Ibne Safi after a hiatus of about two decades.

One of the cabinets had this wonderful collection of monthly
magazines in Urdu. Urdu Digests starting from their inception in 1961 were
there. I had preserved most of them lovingly and are still there in our Ahsan Memorial Library. I became acquainted with great
foreign literature and personalities through Urdu Digest that had such
wonderful stories of adventure and knowledge and discovery. My association with Urdu Digest seems to require another exclusive post. 
Around this time, my mother would make me organize and sort the books in my fathers’ cabinets and that began to expose me to the English literature about which I would write in a separate post. This was also the time I started reading all kinds of Urdu magazines that led me to the discovery of books on Islamic history and other literature as described in my quest to find a “Buzurg” or “Wali” of Allah.

Around mid seventies I was reading all sorts of books,
history books, literature, digests and what not. From Pakistan National Council
Library I had gotten issued the original thick volumes of Tilism e Hoshruba and had read them albeit with little understanding. A few years ago I finally got the donation of the original volumes of Dastaan e Amir Hamza and Tilism e Hoshruba from Ansari sb for the Ahsan Memorial Library.

I also do not remember too much emphasis on writing except khush khati. Although my father would always admonish me for not having a better handwriting. They knew at that time the importance of the maxim that reading comes before writing and listening comes before speaking. Later when I was in USA and used to write letters home (decade before the email days and decades before the Skype days), I made a conscious effort to learn khush khati. I bought calligraphic pens and the best letter heads. And then would painstakingly write letters to my parents every fortnight. These letters were preserved by my father and given back to me on my return. The quest for excellence comes later as described in my other post on Excellence vs Guzara.

Lessons Learned: 

  1. If parents are not reading, people are not reading, family members are not reading, why should the child read? If you want your child to read, (i) you and your spouse should start reading. (ii) There should be books and newspapers around you, (iii) you should be meeting those people who read and (iv) you should be going to bookstalls every week and buying books and enjoying those books. (v) Your home should be filled with books. (vi) If you are not interested in reading, your child would not be interested in reading. (vii) You should be discussing with other family members the joy and thrill of having read some thing interesting every day. (viii) The household culture should be where everyone should be doing this sharing of excitement. (ix) visit libraries and websites, (x) show movies based on classics
  2. I learned to read from meaning and not for meaning. One does not construct meaning by recognizing the alphabets, joining them in to words, and then connecting the words in to sentences. This process is against the experience and research. See for theory and details on this in Dr Dee Tadlock’s “Read Right“. 
  3. I learned to read so that I can enjoy and experience the thrill of adventure and excitement of discovery. See my post From Simple to Complex is an Insult to Intelligence of a Child. For the detailed theory see Frank Smith’s “Insult to Intelligence“. 
  4. Why should a child read a book that holds no excitement and thrill? Especially in the presence of such exciting and thrilling video games and videos. See why my child does not sit and concentrate.  
  5. Reading comes before writing. Don’t make the child write, if he is not reading. Stop making the child to write if he is not reading. The child picks up vocabulary, phrases, constructs, spellings from reading interesting stories. 
  6. I did not read for passing the exams or for homework or for rewards or for stars. For a detail exposition on this see “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn
  7. Throw away phonetics. This is the biggest scam in reading. See books and research by John Holt and others. 
  8. Throw away tor-jor (separating and connecting letters of a word in Urdu as their shapes change). A child learns to read and recognize “McDonalds” without any tor-jor, without any alphabets, without any phonetics. tor-jor is counter intuitive. See the works of Noam Chomsky on Cognitive Psychology for theory of how meaning is derived. 

See also:


  1. Your observations and analysis are spot on correct and examine the prevalent dilemma in the Pakistani society.

    However, how does one educate parents and the 'elder' extended family members who have this dogma of being unquestioned authoritarians with feudal customs dominating and oppressing enlightened thought?

  2. Very interesting, this was missing in my childhood. Now I am trying hard to make my son an addicted reader, because it helps you to build vacabulary and communicate your thoughts to others in effective way… Thanks Sir.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. some very interesting points, however, it is written from a vantage point of an 'ivory tower'……

  5. Use Stephen Covey Habit 5: "Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood! "

    This the only way one can influence our elders.
    First use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by the elders. This will compel them to reciprocate the listening and eventually adopt an open mind to be influenced by you. This habit creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving.

    Don't expect this (seek to understand, before you are understood) would happen in one sitting or even a few days. It may take months or even years. There are too many things our elders are trying to make us understand. We need to first understand them fully before we would be able to influence them.

    Remember Randy Pausch's famous "Last Lecture": Finding the Light in others: "I strongly identify with Randy’s message that everyone has a good side, but it just takes longer to find it in some than others. A lesson that as much as I strongly believe it, takes amazing patience to realize in one’s life. But when it finally does come, it’s like a blade of grass or a flower emerging from a crack in the asphalt. [copied from net]"

  6. You may very well be right. I am now realizing that the previlige of having a beautiful and rich learning environment to read and explore in my childhood may not be available to others. Hence it is my effort (i) to capture how I became who I am, my personal discovery of myself, and (ii) encouraging others to develop environments like these. I know even I have not been able to recreate a similar environment for my children. But I now realize that I never thought about the importance of these small things in my past that I am now discovering and would like to share them with others.

  7. Thank you for the excellent post! I re-posted in the group of our homeschoolers' book club as well for the mothers to read. I totally agree with what you say – books must capture the interest of children and carry the mystery that keeps them reading. My three-year-old is already demanding 'real stories' to be read to her, not just picture books with a single sentence on the page.

    Also, what you are discussing resonates a lot with what Charlotte Mason was saying more than a century ago. She was totally against 'boiled down' to the level of children literature – just like you say, she felt that such books are insulting to the intelligence of the child. She wrote about using for studies 'living books' – books written on single topic by a person who is passionate about the topic – instead of chopped up and fragmented textbooks.

    Thank you once again for the post!

  8. you are right. if we dont read regularly And with interest how will the children learn to love reading.
    thanks for the enlightening article.

  9. You seem to be among the very few from the family who are reading the blog posts. I welcome your suggestions or areas where you would like me to concentrate more or a topic that you would like to be covered.

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