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.

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

  1. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    Thank you Mr. Khair Soomro. I respect your honest opinion. So your perspective is that Pakistan is not one nation but a federation of four or five ‘nations’ (not provinces) and language of each ‘region-nation’ should be granted the status of ‘national’ language not just Urdu. However Urdu and English could be used as mediums of education and ‘intra-national’ communication but there is no need of developing one country wide common language. That brings us back to point zero.

    a) Each child must be able to attend school. The standard of education must be raised to the international standards.
    b) Urdu and English along with respective regional language must be taught from grade one in all schools.

  2. khairsoomro says:

    My response to the questions is :
    1) Should Pakistan have one national language?
    I think the word National language is misnomer and misconception. This has emerged from the notion that Pakistani is one single nation and it should have one single national language. We must recognize the fact that Pakistan is a federation consist of four major nationalities ie. Punjabi, Sindhi, Pakhutun and Baloch. The languages of these nationalities should be given status of national languages. This is good for the national integration of the country.
    2) Should Pakistan have as many as half a dozen national languages?.
    All over the world multi-ethnic countries have more than one official languages representing the cultural and ethnic mosaic of that country. India has 23 official/national languages. Singapore has four ie. English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Switzerland has three ie. German, French and Italian. Look at the profile of the countries all over the world and you will see countries having more than half dozen national languages having less population than Pakistan.
    3) Should Pakistan have any national language at all?
    Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi and Urdu can be national languages of Pakistan.
    4) In the absence of one national language how could people of one region effectively communicate with the people of other regions?
    Urdu and English can be language of communication.
    5) Is it important that all Pakistanis should be able to effectively communicate with each other?
    People can even today communicate with each other without bothering themselves whether urdu is national language or not.
    6) Should Urdu be used as means of national communication?
    Mother tongue should be used at elementary level and English at higher level.
    7) Should there be a common reservoir of national literature and knowledge equally accessible to every one?
    It is better to have literature translated in all national languages.

  3. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    Mr. Hafeez Jamali writes:

    “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.”

  4. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    Dear Mr. Khair Soomro: Thank you for the response to the bottom part of my last comment. However would you care to respond to the rest of my questions as well. Your responses are very valuable for this dialog. These are the Questions.

    1) Should Pakistan have one national language? 2) Should Pakistan have as many as half a dozen national languages?.
    3) Should Pakistan have any national language at all?
    4) In the absence of one national language how could people of one region effectively communicate with the people of other regions?
    5) Is it important that all Pakistanis should be able to effectively communicate with each other?
    6) Should Urdu be used as means of national communication?
    7) Should there be a common reservoir of national literature and knowledge equally accessible to every one?

  5. Aqil Sajjad says:

    My personal observation is that the medium of instruction does seriously exacerbate the apartheid. If Urdu were the medium of instruction and better textbooks were available in this language, some students and teachers would at least be able to read the books and understand what is being said on their own if they tried.

    Now, people from less privelleged background have double catching up to do, first they must make up for the inadequacies in their English skills and then they have to do more reading etc to cover the gaps in the quality of teaching etc in order to compete with the English medium class.

    So while I agree with the overall argument about the quality of education in the previous post, I would also partially disagree with the point that the question of the medium of instruction has nothing to do with the educational apartheid. But yes, it’s also undeniable that teaching English from class 1 without ensuring the quality of instruction is going to achieve very little.

    PS: I am not saying that we should not make English the medium of instruction, just stating that the medium of instruction does make the apartheid worse.

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