The Role of Language in National Progress


The Role of Language in National Progress
Language has played a significant role in the rise and fall of civilizations.

Language presents humankind with a variety of possibilities. Since language is the portrait of human thoughts, it reflects the quality of thought generated in a society. Training in language therefore, enables an individual to express his thoughts in the most eloquent way.

But a person has to learn to think before learning to express. The skill of driving has to accompany the ability to know or remember directions. Without the ability to navigate, even a good driver will be lost.

The selection of language tools used to express thought reflects the priorities of a person or for that matter a nation. The way language is acquired and then used can make a tremendous difference in the success (or failure) of a person or nation. The quality and quantity of language is a barometer of the intellectual health of the people.

There are two types of language skills, each having its own specific role to play in society. The growth of a society depends on the importance given to each one of them. The first type is BICS ( Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills). This is our ability to interact with others in society. Many forms of language that concern with human relations fall under this category.

BICS can be in the form of verbal dialogue or written text. In both its forms BICS concerns with human feelings, social and religious arguments and entertainment. Political and religious rhetoric fall under this category. Much of BICS is done to leave a lasting expression on the listener or the reader. It’s a tool used to arouse feelings in humans, convincing them to take up a certain task. Plenty of BICS is simply entertainment. The time humans spend in leisure or to relax engages BICS and the forms of BICS used in such situations can be poetry, drama, theatre or discussions.

The other type of language used to express human thought is CALP ( Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) . Whereas BICS concerns with human emotions and social issues, CALP is the language of science. CALP is the language used by the scientific community to produce and share research. It is used to read, analyze and generate scientific papers. CALP deals with natural phenomena, discoveries and issues of scientific importance. It is used in research reports, dissertations and theses. CALP is the ability to present a problem, building a hypothesis, analyzing data and then presenting solutions. CALP is less concerned with emotional appeals and rhetoric. The words used in CALP may not make us emotional or entertain us but have accurate scientific references. Since CALP mostly deals with data, facts and figures, it lacks the beauty of Shakespeare or the imagery of Mirza Ghalib.

Humans must possess a balance between the two types. Without BICS human life can be dry and boring. A society may lack colour, warmth and movement if there is no BICS. Human relationships as well as national identity are kept strong with the help of BICS. On the other hand, CALP is needed to make scientific advancements. A society lacking CALP starts to fall behind in the League of Nations. Lack of CALP leads to lack of scientific knowledge and discoveries, creating a severe handicap for a society.

At individual level we can find people who had little of CALP yet they made a name for themselves due to their BICS. For example, a person might be able to make people laugh or cry, motivate a group of people to sacrifice their lives for a cause that is dear to the orator, but may have poor ability to make sense of any kind of scientific knowledge.

Similarly there have been plenty of eminent scientists who made long strides in their own field of science but had little or no BICS. Many of scientists are considered dry with hardly any love for poetry but they were excellent in making sense of scientific knowledge.

So a question arises:  Which one is more important to acquire, CALP or BICS?

We can find the answer to this question in the landmark book of Michael Hart –
The 100.  The book, as many of us know, is famous in the Muslim world because
of its ranking of the Prophet of Islam as the most influential personality of the entire human history. Coming from a westerner, the ranking of the last prophet at the top talks plenty about the professional judgment of the author. But that is not the only credit that is due to Hart. Throughout the book he has been a competent researcher, who has carefully evaluated the lives of hundreds of people and weighted the effects they had on human history. To specifically calculate the achievements of a person and then to see how much
they have been able to change the course of human history is a difficult job.

The book can help us create two groups of personalities i.e. the people who succeeded because of their BICS and those who influenced due to their CALP. From the list of hundred we can find the people who were successful for their CALP. The CALP personalities would include scientists who are not considered excellent communicators but their works have helped improve the quality of human life. The book lists 36 scientists and inventors. Each one of these 36 scientists and inventors left a mark on human
history because of their CALP.

It would be a surprise to many Muslims who look only at the first chapter of the book, that the second most influential personality of the entire human history is none other than Isaac Newton. To understand the effect Newton has left on human civilization, I quote here Alexander Pope, one of the most renowned of the English poets:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night
God said, let Newton be! And all was light.

It would be worth mentioning that Jesus Christ is ranked at number 3, one step below Newton. Why? Because the author of the book considers the changes that world has seen due to the scientific discoveries of Newton far outweigh the changes that Jesus has been able to bring about in the world.

Now to understand the role of CALP in the development of this scientific genius, I quote from the first paragraph of the second chapter:

“As a child he ( Newton) showed considerable mechanical aptitude, and was very clever with his hands. Although a bright child, he was very inattentive in
school and did not attract much attention. When he was a teenager, his mother took him out of the school, hoping that he would become a successful farmer.

Fortunately, she was persuaded that his principal talents lay elsewhere, and at eighteen, he entered Cambridge University. There he rapidly absorbed what was then known of science and mathematics and soon moved on to his own independent research.”

From this we can see that due to his lack of BICS, even his mother considered him a poor student who could only be a good farmer. Fortunately in 17th century England there were people who did realize that poor BICS does not mean a mental handicap and thus Newton’s mother was persuaded to let Newton continue with his education. We see that once at the Cambridge University, Newton, who severely lacked BICS absorbed all the scientific and mathematical knowledge of that time using his CALP.

There are plenty of others who make this list of 100 because of their excellent CALP. Some of these belong to the Greek era when philosophy and science were still intermingled and great scientists were also great philosophers.

The book lists no less than 14 in this category. The greatest of all the philosophers is Aristotle at 13 th position followed by his mentor Plato at number 40. Both of them had been good teachers (teaching requires more of BICS) in their own ranks, where Plato had an opportunity to educate the world’s foremost philosopher, Aristotle, and then Aristotle tutored the greatest military leader of all times – Alexander the Great.

But none of the two are remembered for their students. Aristotle wrote 170 books of which 43 survive up to this day. Some of the fields of science that he discussed are: astronomy, zoology, embryology, geography, geology, physics, and anatomy.

Plato, on the other hand, is best remembered for his work, The Republic. Much can be said about this book, but it suffices to claim that almost every western political system from ancient Greeks to the United States has been influenced by this work.

Even Voltaire, who is accepted as the most witty and eloquent of all the
philosophers, has left behind 30,000 pages of written materials that can easily make Voltaire a possessor of above average CALP.

So how many of the people on the list can be considered to have better BICS than CALP? To answer this question we have to identify the individuals whose success was hidden in their motivating and managing people. Political and military leaders are definitely the type who left a mark on history by leading people. And communicating with masses always needs BICS. The book lists 31 political and military leaders. None of these leaders have left behind any written works, and they are all known for the political changes they had caused or the conquests they had made.

To summarize it all 69 of the most influential individuals used their CALP,
whereas only 31 can be selected as the great user of BICS. In other words for every one person who is part of the list due to BICS, two are there for their CALP. It appears that the author did not have adequate access to the treasures of Muslim sources. we are sure, otherwise, he would have included Omer bin khattab and Iqbal in his selection.

A careful look at the list tells us of another amazing fact. At the end of 17 th century, as the people with CALP were dwindling in the Muslim world, their number was rising in the west. At this turning point of the history stands Francis Bacon (also ranked as one of the most influential personalities in the book), who eloquently advocated the use of scientific skills. Francis Bacon can be credited as the genius that made the West realize the importance of CALP bringing the western civilization out of the shingle of BICS.

From this point onwards there were hardly any at par with Al Beruni and Khawarizmi to come out of the Muslim world. The West went on to produce Newton and Einstein and the balance of power shifted between the two civilizations.

The Muslims lost their CALP and became more interested in BICS that involved futile entertainment and eloquent religious debate. Whereas, the West did away with BICS which was needed at that time to win arguments between Church and protestant movement and successfully developed CALP of its people, leading to hundreds of scientific discoveries and inventions in the last 3 hundred years.

The balance between BICS and CALP is so critical that it can make all the difference between success and failure of a nation. The education system, therefore, must provide appropriate impetus for the development of BICS and CALP. For non-English speaking students this becomes a daunting task and most students are then in a catch 22 situation. The BICS is the foundation of language. Whereas, most native speakers of English come to school with some BICS, the non English speaking children have to develop it at school, which only means less time for the development of CALP. Most non-natives spend most of their primary schooling learning BICS leaving little or no time for CALP.

Recent research shows that students should have some CALP by the end of class 6. Without a grasp of CALP by the end of class 6, students do not develop the basic aptitude and ingenuity to CALP that they would need when they step into the realm of higher education in sciences. Students in Pakistan complete class 6 with BICS only, hardly knowing anything about CALP. And that’s why we see so few Pakistani students entering university with any desire or ability to read and conduct research.

To change this situation teachers must realize that primary classes are not about acquiring the typical knowledge at all. The education till age 11 is all about, in the words of Stephen Covey, Sharpening the Saw. These critical years must be spent on developing BICS and CALP.

Secondly, teachers should remember what Leonard d Vinci has said: Everything in the universe is linked with everything else in the universe. And that goes for science and language as well. Teachers should bring language into science and science into language. While teaching how to write an autobiography in a language class, teachers can suggest students to write the autobiography of a raindrop thus introducing children to Water Cycle. Similarly while teaching children the part of a plant, teachers can suggest students to try writing a letter as a plant to a fish telling her all about the parts of a plant.

Considering that more than 80 percent of today’s scientific knowledge is in English language, students must acquire CALP and should not be limited to BICS only. Primary years play a crucial role in the development of both BICS and CALP. Now it is only prudent that, during these years, teachers spend maximum amount of time developing these 2 language skills, instead of making children learning information given in the books.


By  Rayed Afzal
Executive Director
New Century Education

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