Education and Development: Urdu, English and Pakistan

Posted on May 23, 2007
Filed Under >Pervaiz Munir Alvi, Culture & Heritage, Economy & Development, Education, Society, Urdu
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Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Pakistan is blessed with number of beautiful regional languages and language-based local sub-cultures. This diversification along with many other regional nuances and historical developments has given Pakistan its colorful and interesting overall national culture. On lingual side, in addition to its regional languages, Pakistan also has Urdu as its national language and English as an official language.

Normally having a singular national language would generate a cohesive nation capable of conducting open dialog on any subject of national importance. Also having a singular official language will open doors of opportunity equally to all regardless of their own regional language.

But in Pakistan that is not the case.

During a time of any region-based national controversy Pakistanis from various parts of the country are just not capable of opening up an amicable national dialog. Also not all graduating students have equal opportunities of advancement in their chosen fields. This lack of open and free communication between people of various parts of the country contributes towards regional tensions and misunderstandings. The lack of equal opportunities of advancement creates resentment. There is need to understand reasons behind these national deficits.

While the regional languages of Pakistan are centuries old and are rooted in the soil of their respective areas, Urdu is a relatively younger language that had initially emerged more as a necessity than as a result of an organic process. Similarly Pakistan inherited English from its latest colonial past and has retained it for the convenience of the officialdom. However both Urdu and English have been under-utilized in Pakistan as tools for mass communication, national integration and economic advancement.

The birth of Urdu coincides with the arrival of Muslims in the area. Muslims of Arab origin first arrived in Southern Pakistan in the eighth century. Later in the eleventh and consecutive centuries arrived Muslims of neighboring Persia and Turkic Central Asia. Each one of these three new arriving groups brought their own languages and cultures with them. The result was that not only most of the locals converted to the religion of the new arrivals, they also took in many words and phrases of the languages of the new comers into their own regional languages. Urdu language and Pakistani culture is a direct result of this synthesis that took place over a prolonged historical period.

Muslim rulers held their courts first in Arabic, then in Turkish and finally in Persian language while Urdu over the period developed as a non-official language in the shadow of other three consecutive official languages. However the end of a central Muslim authority in the beginning of the eighteenth century also saw the end of Persian as the official language. For the next one hundred years, in the absence of a central authority, each local government conducted its official business in a language it saw fit. Things however changed when in the mid nineteenth century British took over the areas that would later constitute Pakistan. British installed English as the official language while encouraged use of Urdu as a medium of instruction for the Muslims. At the independence of Pakistan in 1947, while the official business continued to be held in English, Urdu was adopted as the national language of the new state.

Today each region of Pakistan, at various levels, operates in three and some times in four languages. First each region has its own regional language as language of every day communication; then Urdu as the language of instructions in official schools and English as language of official business and language of instruction in the private schools; and finally Arabic as language of learning and performing Islamic religious rituals. One would imagine that after sixty years of official patronage of Urdu and English all Pakistanis, regardless of their own regional language, would be able to communicate with each other freely in one or two languages; all educated Pakistanis will have equal opportunities of learning and advancement. But that is not the case.

The main reason for this deficit is the lack of universally available education and unequal educational systems. Since at the national level only two-thirds of the children enter school and only half of them reach middle school level, the possibility of the entire nation learning Urdu and being able to communicate with each other at the national level is only limited. Also since instructions in English are available to only lucky few, not every student is able to enter into the fields of science, technology and administration which have created further economic stratification and social alienation. It is to be realized that members of a nation who are not able to freely communicate with each other are unable to develop a national dialog and forge a national thought on any subject of national significance. Also not being able to function effectively in the official language of the country virtually shuts down all doors of personal and economic advancements for most.

Not being able to read, write or even speak ones national language is a national tragedy. To have doors of opportunity open to select few is unjust. And that in essence is one of the many problems of Pakistan.

18 responses to “Education and Development: Urdu, English and Pakistan”

  1. khairsoomro says:

    [quote comment=”48502″]Under present conditions mostly those studying in English medium schools are able to get good jobs or admissions in professional fields while rest are left behind in the dust. Should this “Educational Apartheid” be eliminated? What way forward?[/quote]

    Educational Apartheid has more to do with economic inequalities than with language. Even if Urdu were made only language of teaching all over the country this “Educational Apartheid” would remain there between those who study in yellow government schools and those who study in elite schools of aircondioned classes. The apathy of the government, selction of the teachers on political basis, no check on educational standards, obsolete syllabus, economic burden on students and parents and others countless problems are the reasons of students of goverment schools not performing well in job market. In the face of econmic disparites the question of medium of instruction is meaningless. This is the reason introduction of English in government had not given the desired results.

  2. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    Dear Mr. Hafeez Jamali: You have put your views across very eloquently. Thanks for taking time to express your opinion. Hope to hear from you again.

  3. Hafeez Jamali says:

    Dear Pervez,

    Thanks for your appreciation and clarification. My comments were meant to shake up the complacency in most Urdu/Punjabi speaking compatriots regarding the language question. Also this would be the end of my comments on this issue as I don’t want to crowd out the opinions of other friends on this forum. I appreciate your concern with economic development and your suggestion for making English instruction universally accessible is very commendable. I agree with you that it will go a long way towards ending education apartheid.
    My objection is that looking at the language question in Pakistan from a purely economic/developmental/communications perspective is woefully inadequate and does not square with the cultural politics obtaining in Pakistan. It belies a wish to take the politics out of the language question and assumes that the certain notions of progress/economic development/communication are somehow good for everyone in Pakistan. They are not. If Pakistan’s constituent ethnic groups/nationalities linguistic and cultural heritage is suppressed and denied in the name of economic development then they won’t accept this. It is now an accepted practice across the world to encourage and celeberate linguistic and cultural difference. Canada is one such example. Our next door neighbour India has 23 national languages. (Ironically Sindhi is recognized as a national language in India whereas it is denied the same status in Pakistan. Can anyone explain why?) In today’s world, the best way to move forward is to treat a country’s constituent cultural groups with fairness and justice and adopt inclusive policies by recognizing and promoting their languages and cultural heritage. The recognition of ethnic and culutral diversity never impeded the development of India or Canada and it will only make Pakistan more prosperous. However, the dominant ethnic groups in Pakistan are still hooked on to arcane notions of a unitary state and monolingual cultural nationalism. (Just think of NWFP’s name: our elites are hooked on to a mindless colonial era name for this region just because they are afraid that recognizing Pashtoonistan will somehow rock the boat of Pakistaniat !!)In doing this, they fail to learn any lesson from similar disastrous experiments in our not-so-illustrious past. Shall I repeat that disrepect for Bengali language and culture was one of the main reasons for the rise of separatist feelings in former East Pakistan? Is it such a difficult thing to comprehend? In any other country this disaster would have led to soul-searching and display of some regret/contriteness on behalf of people from dominant ethnic groups (read Urdu and Punjabi speaking peoples). In Pakistan instead, we see fresh attempts to deny and crowd out the economic, cultural and political interests of other ethnic groups in the name of developmentalism and Pakistaniat. If we are really interested in promoting national harmony and making this country a better place to live for all of our peoples, we need to move out of this monolingual and unitary rhetoric of economic development and Pakistani nationalism. The way forward on the language question, in my humble opinion, is to assure people from Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun, Saraiki and other ethnic groups that their languages, cultural heritages and national histories will not be sacrificed on the altar of Pakistaniat but will be respected and given due representation on all public forums and in all national discourses.

  4. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    Dears Mr. Hafeez Jamali & Mr. Khair Soomro: Thanks for the input. Your points are very well taken. In a short essay like this it was not possible to go into detailed history and politics of language in Pakistan. More over it was assumed that an informed reader would already know the historical development of Urdu and English languages. The intent of this essay is to stimulate thoughts and generate discussion on a subject of national significance and not to impose any particular bias.

    The questions needing our attention are these:
    Should Pakistan have one or should it have half a dozen ‘national’ languages?. Or should Pakistan have any national language at all? If not then how people of one region could effectively communicate with people of other regions? Is it important that Pakistanis of every region should be able to communicate with each other? Should Urdu be used for this purpose? Should there be a common reservoir of national literature and knowledge equally accessible to every one? Should all schools use English as medium of instructions so that every child has equal opportunity to advance? Under present conditions mostly those studying in English medium schools are able to get good jobs or admissions in professional fields while rest are left behind in the dust. Should this “Educational Apartheid” be eliminated? What way forward?

  5. Hafeez Jamali says:

    This post is not well-researched, it is very biased and the views expressed in it are not conducive to a national dialogue. First up, more needs to be said about the origins, richness and diversity of of Urdu itslef as the result of interaction between Muslim ruling classes and native peoples. I reproduce one line of inquiry here:

    “Let us now assess and determine the nature and extent of Muslim contribu¬tion to the creation and development of Urdu. Urdu took its shape first in the Punjab and Delhi during the Ghaznawid and the early Sultanate period6
    when the first powerful commingling of Hindu-Muslim cultures occurred,
    causing a productive intermixture of Muslim (i.e., Persian, Turkish, and
    Arabic) languages with Prdkrits (the Apabhransa of the Punjab and the Khari
    Boli of Delhi, Meerut v and the adjoining areas) of Northern India.
    This situation had its effect in two directions. First, it created a hybrid
    form of speech used by Hindus and Muslims in the bazaars with a sprinkling of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words; subsequently, it developed into a crude vehicle of lyrical utterances (cf. Amir Khusrau’s Rekhtahs). Secondly, it caused an infiltration of Hindi words into Arabic and Persian books on the one side and of Persian and Turkish words into Hindi books on the other. The Kitdb al-Saidanah of al-Biriini and the early lexicographical works in Persian written in India contain a large number of Hindi words and idioms, and Chand’s Prithvi Raj Rdsa3 and, later, Ad Granth of Nanak embody large
    materials drawn from Muslim sources.9
    But, apart from this linguistic fusion, a distinct language came into being
    with the passage of time as an admixture of Persian and Arabic words and expressions in use more in Muslim circles, with a clear bias towards Muslim cultural modes and attitudes. Persian enjoyed the status of the Court language, but side by side with it this new language too kept on progressing
    from one stage to another.” ( MM Sharif: A History of Muslims Philosophy)

    Second, the development of Urdu language is related to the politics of Muslim nationalism in South Asia which was articulated and spearheaded primarily by North Indian Muslims. This linguistic politics, especially in the post-independence period, was not shared by Bengali, Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch ethnic groups who comprised the dominant majority in Pakistan. Mr. Jinnah, with the support of the Urdu speaking leaders of Muslim League such as Liaquat Ali Khan, IMPOSED Urdu on Bengali, Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch people in Pakistan which they never accepted and have resisted in various forms. The farce of Urdu as national language becomes most apparent in Sindh where the majority of incoming Mohajir people have made no effort to learn Sindhi language or respect local norms and mores. Instead, they look down upon the local culture, remain aloof from Sindhi language and engage in a kind of cultural elitism which has played havoc with the inter-ethnic relations in that region. In this article, the writer shows no sympathy with the aspirations of different ethnic groups in Pakistan but is instead interested in parading his own Urdu-centric views in the cloak of Pakistaniat. This is very hegemonic and dangerous move which does not help achieve a dialogue.

    Lastly, modern research on educational develoment clearly suggests that instruction in one’s mother-tongue at an early age greatly improves educational outcomes and the ability to learn other languages for children. So if we are really interested in developing Pakistan, we should actively encouraging the development of all the major languages in Pakistan and ensure instruction in people’s mother tongues at early stages in their schooling. Also the appropriation of mainstream print and electronic media, language development funds and language research by Urdu needs to be questioned and other languages such as Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto and Saraiki need to be given more representation in public discourse.

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