An interview with Noam Chomsky

By: Dr. Habibullah Pathan

[Dr Habibullah Pathan is the Director and Associate Professor, Directorate of English Language and Development Center, Mehran University of Engineering and Technology @ Jamshoro.  He has done his PhD from from UK , Postdoc and HigherEd Cert from USA. He interviewed Prof Avram Noam Chomsky at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during his postdoctoral studies. Chomsky is the author of over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media and sometimes described as “the father of modern linguistics”. ]


The 21st century has witnessed many drastic changes in the field of education in general and in linguistics, in particular. The traditional approaches towards pedagogy and language have come under attack. One of the significant figures among the critiques of traditional approaches is an American Philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky who is the father of modern linguistics. Chomsky is also expert on foreign policy, global politics, and education. In linguistics, Chomsky is particularly known for his cognitive approach to understanding human language. Universal Grammar (UG) is one of his contributions in linguistics that help us to understand how human languages actually work. He is named as the most influential intellectual alive in the world today.
I met Prof Noam Chomsky at MIT in his office as Hubert H Humphrey Fellow and later as postdoctoral scholar under his supervision and discussed various issues facing the world today including the latest advances in the field of linguistics.

Chomsky considers human language as distinctive property of human beings that distinguishes them from the rest of organic world. He believes that language is a particular biological system which is localized in certain part of brain and mind. All human beings have innate capacity to acquire a language. Chomsky argues that human capacity to learn a language evolves—something that was not million years ago is present today. He explains that when human beings left Africa some sixty thousand years ago and settled in other parts of the world, this capacity has not evolved since then. It is same among all human beings.
Human language is generally restricted to human communication. However, Chomsky thinks that human language is very complex in nature. Human language is a designed system and does not merely exist for communication. According to him, when we investigate this design of human language, we find certain properties of language which conflict with communication efficiencies.
English language is used globally for diplomacy, science and international exchange. Most of the people still believe that there is one English circling around the globe. The current spirit in sociolinguistics and world Englishes suggests that there are varieties of English worldwide: Native and indigenized. Talking about language dominance and localized varieties of English Chomsky believes that any language is hegemonic if it promotes violence. If people in Pakistan want to sustain their own values, traditions, historical significance and cultural welfare, they should use localized varieties in the case that American or British English harms their culture and alienate them from their historical and past accumulations. If the way we (Americans) learn English does not harm them, they should learn it in order to understand the international community.
The studies suggest that Pakistan is a multilingual country which has about more than 72 languages wherein 7 languages are major. There is no tangible solid language policy in the country. According to Chomsky, this problem of language policy is faced all over the world wherever English or other language is taught as a second language. He believes that in this complex situation where there are many languages in the country, it is necessary to devise a sensible policy for languages which should place a mother tongue of a child on top when it comes to education. He argues that a child performs comparatively well when he interacts in his mother tongue. At the same time, in the world of nation states it is unavoidable to learn a national language. Also, there is no serious problem in learning a language that connects us to the international community. English in this sense can be learnt if you want your children to interact with people abroad to learn new knowledge.
Pakistan is a country with more than 25 million children out of school and there are studies that suggest that more than 6 million children will not be able to go to school at all. This issue is not local. It prevails everywhere. Chomsky on investigating the major causes for such conditions in education in general and specially in Pakistan comments that the socio-economic conditions are responsible for huge number of children not attending the schools. He says that in many cases schools do not provide opportunities to the children nor they accommodate them. Besides, there are certain social and economic problems which can be held responsible. In a country like Pakistan, the major issue is the huge military budget. This is why, Pakistan spends a meagre amount of GDP on education section.
Chomsky seems concerned with overall falling standards in the field of research and education. For people in Pakistan, he suggests if Pakistani nation wants to understand the world, the nature and the social problems in essence, they need to participate and contribute in physics, biology, and human sciences including linguistics which is one of the fields in human sciences. The linguistics should not be limited to English teaching alone; it should employ multidisciplinary approach. Besides, Chomsky believes that English language is not as such threat to others’ identity, culture and religious values. English can be learnt as a second language only to enter the international community for diplomacy, science and research.


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