Urdu in Pakistan: Do We Need It?

By Anjum Altaf

The article on the transition to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis) elicited a number of substantive comments which I will address in this third and concluding part of the series. Almost all these comments challenged, from one standpoint or another, the usefulness of and need for Urdu in Pakistan and stressed, by default, the importance of English in a globally connected world. I intend to defend the decision of the Supreme Court against these objections but before doing so I will spell out the recommendation of the 2010 British Council study on schooling in Pakistan, not because I consider it sacrosanct, but because it provides a concrete suggestion which can serve as a reference point for the ensuing discussion.

The study arrived at the following conclusion:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Based on this conclusion, it recommended initial education in the mother tongue to be succeeded as follows:

… from class three to five Urdu is introduced and gradually replaces regional language as the language of instruction… English is studied as a main subject for four years up to grade 9. At class 10 English becomes medium of instruction with Urdu and regional languages becoming subjects.

The first objection to any such schema that includes a place for Urdu in the school curriculum, a necessity if Urdu is to be the official language of the country, represents the view of certain constituencies in the smaller provinces. Simply framed, the argument is the following: Let us have the initial years of education in the mother tongue and then switch directly to English skipping the intermediate transition via Urdu.

The justification for this argument is that for employment and getting ahead in life in Pakistan today it is English and English alone that matters. Given the above, what is the point of wasting public and private resources on teaching Urdu?

The second objection can be said to represent the view of the national, supra-provincial, elite that has acquired proficiency in English at the cost of familiarity with either Urdu or a regional language, at least to the point of being able to read the latter two with any degree of comfort. The argument is, once again, that the primacy of English requires us to prepare world citizens for the globalized world of tomorrow but the solution advocated is somewhat different.

In this view, it is alleged that we are slowing down the progress of students by imposing on them the burden of learning two scripts, that of the vernacular languages and that of English to which children have to switch midway through their schooling. This group, although equally dismissive of the place of Urdu in a global economy, is willing to retain it as a subject as long as there is a universal shift to the Latin script as has been the case in Turkey and Indonesia.

There is a third, minority, opinion that can be said to reflect the preferences of religious groups. It advocates the inclusion of Arabic, at the expense of either Urdu or English, given its growing importance in the cultural orientation of the country and as a way to offset the advantage of the English-speaking elite.

Needless to say, these are elite perspectives, irrespective of whether the elites are presently empowered or marginalized, simply because this discussion is being carried out in English and over the Internet, both of which rule out the participation of non-elite audiences. It is therefore necessary for some institution to poll citizens and uncover the extent to which these views are representative when disaggregated across various relevant dimensions: ethnicity, level of education, gender, income, urban/rural location, etc.

However, even without such a survey, there is a general response that can be offered to these proposals. In my view, each of them is focused almost exclusively on the private returns to a student while ignoring the public benefit to the country. In taking this stance, they are missing entirely the thrust of the decision of the Supreme Court that is motivated to maximizing the public benefit even if that comes at the expense of some private gain though the latter is by no means a necessary outcome.

As argued in the first two articles in this series, the public benefits of language policy arise from promoting both a common medium of communication amongst citizens and of inclusive development in which citizens can participate in policy discourses that matter to their lives and those of their children. Citizens are entitled to being able to comprehend the laws that govern them and the communications they receive in their interactions with various organs of the state. In today’s world, this can be termed a basic human right – to be addressed as an equal in a mutually comprehensible language.

This perspective can reduce the policy alternatives under discussion to the bare essentials. Almost everyone is agreed that early education should be in the mother language so that component can be dropped from the discussion. The only substantive question that remains is whether the subsequent transition is to be directly to English or via Urdu. (For the purpose of our discussion, we can leave out for now details of the exact ages at which the language transitions are most effective.)

As a next step, we can, via appropriately designed referenda, pose two simple questions to the majority of our citizens in order to practice what we are preaching, i.e., having an inclusive, participatory, and democratic process of policy deliberation. The questions can be the following:

  1. In which language would you prefer your national representatives to address the citizens of the country, at home and abroad, on matters that pertain to the latter’s present and future?
  1. In which language would you prefer to interact with various organs of the state in communications, both to and from, related to the provision of services, e.g., justice, taxation, utilities, etc.?

My best guess is that Urdu would be the answer of the majority to the first question while that to the second would be some split between Urdu and the regional language depending upon the province.

The reason for the answer to the first question should be easy to grasp. Clearly, an address to the nation in any one provincial language would not be understood by the citizens of other provinces and one in English would be understood by less than one percent of the population. With Urdu, however, one could expect raising the outreach immediately to at least around half the population, if not more. Given that, the goal of reaching the entire population would be advanced much more rapidly and effectively by imparting a knowledge of Urdu than the alternative of either English or Arabic.

The reason for the answer to the second should also be easy to grasp given its local ambit and it favors the increased use of regional languages within provinces, something that the Supreme Court decision does not in any way discourage.

In view of the above reasoning, there is a place for Urdu in the school curriculum even if not as the medium of instruction. My own view as an educationist agrees with the recommendation of the British Council that the early introduction of English as the medium of instruction in Pakistan would be harmful for learning outcomes but this claim can be tested by further experimentation. What should be obvious is that there are huge advantages to retaining Urdu as a subject that is taught to everyone at school to an acceptable level of proficiency.

I am also not persuaded by the recommendation to switch to the Latin script for Urdu and/or the regional languages simply because there is no real evidence that the benefits are worth the costs. At the individual level, children have a truly amazing learning ability in the early years if taught well while at the collective level language has at best a marginal impact on development with other factors being more far more determining. To take just one example as an illustration: Vietnam changed to the much easier phonetic Latin script while China stayed with the much more difficult character-based script; yet both countries have equally high literacy rates while there is no correlation with economic growth.

It should be reiterated that outside of a specific context there needs be no logical objection to a direct transition to English from the mother tongue. After all, Urdu is not taught in Bangladesh where the transition is directly from Bengali to English. But as long as we are part of one country, we are all better off with knowledge of a language that most readily connects people across provinces and that language, at this time, unlike in the past, happens to be Urdu. Hypothetically, if KPK were also an independent country it could well choose the Pashto-English transition; or the Hindko-Pashto-English transition, till such time that Hazara also attains the status of an independent country. The implication of stretching the argument should be clear. It has an obvious bearing on the direction in which we wish to proceed.

What this boils down to is our ability to rise above making language a victim, as we have to our detriment in the past, of the desire to settle political scores, alleviate historical injustices, or disadvantage others. We should not cut our nose to spite our face. Languages don’t have religions or ethnicities. If Urdu is to be considered the language of oppressors then by that logic English is equally the language of oppressors. The argument does not hold. If the choice of language depended on such considerations we should all be learning in Chinese because it is the language of our best friends whose friendship, at this time at least, is sweeter than honey and deeper than the ocean. One should view in the same perspective the suggestion to create a hybrid Pakistani language incorporating bits and pieces of the existing regional languages as a compromise. It is possible, though, in my view, it would signal the victory of parochial over national interests. Nevertheless, this could be another proposition that could be tested through a poll of citizens.

People all over the world are eager to acquire proficiency in languages other than their own. In our case, we would be extremely shortsighted to throw away access to a language with which we are already partially familiar and which yields many collective benefits at a very low price. What we should avoid is turning this into a binary, either-or, discussion. Learning Urdu should neither be at the expense of the regional languages nor of English. It is really a matter of sequencing the learning of languages appropriately and effectively for which there is a lot of guidance from regions that have already successfully adopted the trilingual, mother-tongue plus two, mandate.

…Part 3 of 3 …Concluded

Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University. 

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17 Responses to “Urdu in Pakistan: Do We Need It?”

  1. sohailkizilbash Says:

    When INFAQ Foundation decided to found a high quality school in a poor area of Karachi, in 2001, this subject attracted heated discussions. The scholars who advised us recommended Urdu. The problem was that the local community had a mix of people whose mother tongue was Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto, Bangla, Burmese, Saraiki, Punjabi etc. Secondly, to obtain jobs and excel at the university level, we wanted to groom the students in English.

    As we admitted students at the age of three and a half, they grew up with the English language. There were hardly any dropouts and seemingly there were no problems. The students who have passed out and are at various professional institutions have done very well. Some were selected by a USA programme to study in the USA for a year (class 11) and they fitted seamlessly in the Americal households where they were housed.

    I have invited the attention of the Principal and teachers of the Korangi Academy to this article and have requested their views on the outcome. You may find this useful.

  2. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    I have visited Korangi Academy a number of times courtesy Mr Swaleh Naqvi. I agree that some children have done very well. The child who went to the US caught the attention of the US Consulate when I wrote a column on him. It was not so much about his English language skills but about a video he made which was screened at an event where I was present. Later I interviewed the child. He was a bright boy and I was impressed by how he had moved up from a very depressed background. But I still believe that had this child been taught in Urdu or his mother tongue he would have done even better. He was having difficulty expressing himself in English. When I encouraged him to tell me in Urdu what he wanted to say he had a lot to say which he simply could not articulate in English. If you believe in participatory education and not a culture of silence in the classroom, then English is not the language to be used as the medium for our children.
    I have tried this out with the children I am mentoring at the moment in Neelum Colony. They have excellent ideas — some very abstract — which they can never express in English. Why do we want to dumb them down by asking them to speak in a language they do not even understand fully.
    I agree with Anjum Altaf about Urdu being taught at some stage. The details will have to be worked out.

  3. sohailkizilbash Says:

    Zubeida Mustafa Sahba, how that boy would have done, if taught in Urdu from the beginning, is a matter of conjecture. Anyway, as I understand it, the Urdu medium schools in Pakistan used to teach in Urdu until class 5 and English was taught from class 6 onwards. Perhaps that system is still in vogue. I would suggest that you take the brightest few children from class 9 or 10 of an Urdu medium school eg TCF and compare them for their knowledge, articulation, confidence etc. with the brightest few from Korangi Academy. Or compare how many students of a class from an Urdu medium school were able to get into Engineering, Medical, IT or Business schools as compared with a similar size class at KA. It should be an interesting research. If the Urdu medium school has done much better, perhaps KA management can be persuaded to make Urdu as the medium of instruction, based on concrete and verifiable data.

    Thank you for writing about Babar and KA.

  4. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Thank you Kizilbash Sahib. You are right when you say that even a child taught in Urdu in any other school is not as good as a child from KA learning in English. But that is because now we consider Urdu to be bad and English to be good. After all education in Urdu can be as good as education in English if we want it to be that way. But we don’t want it that way. KA is a good school and is investing a huge amount in its teachers. I tried to convince the Board (Mr Swaleh Naqvi called a meeting to discuss it but they didn’t agree). Actually to test this hypothesis the KA should run two streams — one in English medium and the other in Urdu (in fact Urdu should begin from Class 1 and in pre-school the mother tongue of the children should be used while they are acclimatised to Urdu) Let the children be compared after a few years. That would be a test. If you look up my book The Tyranny of Language in Education (which INFAQ subsidised enabling me to distribute it so freely and see the chapter on Random Testing you will see this comes out very clearly. TCF’s children have also gained admission in medical , engineering and business colleges,

    Anjuma Altaf has written an excellent three part series. Anjum you need to do a fourth one on the social aspect of language in Pakistan.
    I would refer you to

  5. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Sohail: Thanks for the introduction to Korangi Academy. I don’t believe the comparative test you have proposed between students of KA and an Urdu-medium school can be scientifically rigorous. There would be too many variables to control including quality of teaching, resources spent per student, etc. The sample size required would be too large. If KA started in 2001, I presume by now only a few cohorts have completed 12 years of schooling there.

    The test that Zubeida Mustafa has proposed (KA running two streams in parallel) would be more rigorous but there is no likelihood of it ever being implemented.

    I propose a much simpler measure. KA should invite an independent third-party evaluation of the competency of its high school graduates in three languages – native, Urdu, and English. This can be carried out by, say, the British Council using the internationally acceptable scale for language proficiency, the ILR – http://www.govtilr.org/skills/ILRscale1.htm

    Based on the findings, KA could adjust its policy, if warranted. This would also be a great service to education in Pakistan and an input into policy making at the national level.

    I must add that while the proposed tests at KA are difficult, there is now a great deal of rigorous evidence on the positive impact of the use of the first language in early education – just see the studies produced by the Language Policy Unit of the EU.

    I am surprised that this evidence continues to be ignored. It is like the case when people kept either denying or ignoring for decades the evidence about the ill effects of cigarette smoking.

  6. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Anjum you are spot on. I haven’t read the EU report you cite (I will now that you have mentioned it) but in my Dawn days I visited Sweden a number of times and have a friend who taught in a Swedish university for decades and I corresponded with the Swedish Education department on the issue and they confirm as many others do that a child who begins her education in her mother tongue activates the language organism in her brain which gives her an advantage when learning any other language later on. There is a biological aspect of language which we seem to ignore. Yes as you say, we have been in a state of denial about the damage cigarettes cause. That is biological but we as a society are not oriented towards science

  7. Clarence Maloney Says:

    First, the study by the British Council referred to “home language’ (on purpose) but the other pieces all used “mother tongue.” Sorry, but I am a father and I communicate with my children from birth almost as much as the mother, so please drop this gender biased phrase.
    Second, the main principle should be all education in the home (or peoples’) language. You may note that generally all “developed” societies as in Europe, China, Japan, Korea, etc. do– you cannot argue that education in the 4 main people’s language in Pakistan or 28 in India is unworkable when 28 official language in Europe are used mostly right trough basic college- while most academic students there also learn 2 other languages. See, when the people’s language comes to express most modern thought, it is creative and the whole society is creative. South Korea on independence vowed to put 10% of GNP in Education, and in the PEOPLE’s LANGUAGE– and note how the whole society has moved in unison in just 2 generations to become an astounding modern state. Hindi-Urdu (same language, as classified gramaticaly) is the 4th language in the world, but where is the peer-reviewed scientific and social science and agricultural and arts-related PEER-REVIEWED literature. Almost none.
    Pakistan can offer all education through basic college in its 4 main languages, along with Urdu, Chinese, Arabic, English, Japanese, etc. as options for 2nd and 3rd language. Advanced students of course need good English. But methods of teaching them must involve CONSTANT DISCUSSION and dialog so the students are comfortable speaking and using them, as in Europe. Then the messages from Islamabad can be delivered in Urdu or English or Panjabi (how they do it in the European Union) and translated when necessary

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Clarence: Thanks for drawing attention to the gender-biased usage. I will take care of it when the article is revised.

      On your main point, I share your belief that all four languages in Pakistan can be used up to college level if there is the will. What is actually lacking is the belief that this would actually be good for the students. We have become so obsessed with preparing students for the global tomorrow that basic pedagogical common sense as well as all the overwhelming evidence to which you have pointed is overlooked.

      It is true that language acquisition takes place differently during childhood and in later years but that is not an argument for making English the medium in which all other subjects are taught in the early years. Enough English can be picked up to suffice for global citizenship at a later stage, as it is in many other countries, without sacrificing the acquisition of many other forms of learning that are fostered by communication in the dominant languages of a student’s environment.

  8. sohailkizilbash Says:

    I think there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that starting school education in the home language has definite advantages. The problem arises when the students of one class, have seven different home languages. For them, at the age of three or four, Urdu is as much a foreign language as is English. Another problem is the availability of books in Urdu. Still, your suggestion is good, Anjum. Perhaps Zubeida Sahiba is the right person to convince INFAQ, as she knows Mr. Naqvi so well.

  9. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Sohail: This is a practical difficulty that is commonly faced in many large cities in Pakistan and India where the entering class can comprise students with diverse home languages. Obviously, there cannot be multiple languages of instruction in such situations.

    This challenge has to be met creatively. A determination has to be made as to what would be the second-best medium of instruction. I would presume that in a city like Karachi, students would have some exposure to Urdu in their surroundings, at least much more than English. Therefore, Urdu would be the medium of instruction that would make sense if the learning environment is to be maximized.

    At the same time, I would suggest including a period for conversation in the home language. Children with different home languages could meet separately in the period. This would enable them to express themselves freely and confidently in languages with which they are most familiar. The opportunity for expression itself fosters the ability for free and abstract thinking while also inculcating a sense of pride in one’s heritage.

    I am sure you recall schools where students were not even allowed to converse in Urdu let alone the regional languages. Children apprehended speaking Punjabi were admonished and were told they were doomed to becoming nothing more than ‘tongawallas.’

    English can be introduced as a subject at the appropriate stage but certainly not as the medium in which other subjects are taught in the first few years of education. On this, the evidence is clear and overwhelming.

  10. sohailkizilbash Says:

    Anjum, I agree with you.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sohail: Just to add a note here which I came across while trying to find some Persian writings by Moahammad Husain Azad:

      “Around 1845, he enrolled at Delhi College in the Urdu-medium ‘Oriental’ section, which offered Arabic and Persian rather than English. He pursued his studies for some eight years before graduating in 1854.”

      I started thinking if any of the people we have educated in English medium institutions have produced in English the equivalent of Azad’s output in Urdu and Persian.

  11. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    I disagree with Kizilbash Sahib that for a child whose home language is another language, Urdu and English are equally unfamiliar. How do we acquire a language? By first listening to it. Now every child in Pakistan would have heard Urdu in her environment — through television in the rural areas. Besides all our languages share a lot of common vocabulary. When it comes to the literacy stage, our scripts are common — though not identical. Anjum you are right about the practical problems of teaching children speaking different languages in one class. Solutions can always be found if the will to solve the problem is there. You can use the pre-school stage to familiarise the child with Urdu. Have small sections of children speaking the same language.
    Kizilbash Sahib, the decisions at KA are taken collectively. It is not in my power to convince the entire board. Anjum if you have seen the second report by the British Council you will notice that Hywel Coleman had to retract his dream policy and simply called for more research, data collection and advocacy. The so-called experts he met here were so staunchly for English as the medium of instruction that he just had to drop the whole issue. No linguist worth his salt would ever support the use of a foreign language to teach a small child.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Zubeida: I did note the reversal in the British Council recommendations when I found that the original study was no longer available on the web and had been replaced by a later one. This is also a common characteristic of Pakistan – executives in positions of power truly believe that their gut feelings carry greater credibility than the recommendations of scholars and can be imposed on huge numbers without any need for validation. I recall a year when a new education policy was being announced and the medium of instruction was under discussion. The then Minister of Education put an end to the discussion by stating that he had been educated in English and had not suffered anything as a result – that was evidence enough in his opinion and ought to suffice. What linguists think or have shown by rigorous research carries little weight in Pakistan. This is the reason I wrote many years ago a polemical piece against research as an aid to public policy making in Pakistan.


  12. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    The incident that you mention Anjum about the Minister and the White Paper is very interesting. It was in 2006 when Javed Hasan Aly was appointed as head of a committee to draw up an education policy. He worked very hard on it — going all over the country and consulting all stakeholders. The outcome was a White Paper. I think it was the best document on education prepared in Pakistan. It was distributed in all provinces to elicit public opinion on it. Anita Ghulam Ali sent me a copy. I was fascinated and told the editor about it. Abbas Nasir asked me to write three pieces on it which appeared on the front page of Dawn. The Education Minister (an ex-ISI general) on whose desk the White Paper had been lying gathering dust, saw the Dawn report and was furious with the recommendation on the medium of instruction. He asked Javed Hasan Aly to retract that recommendation. Javed refused saying it was a recommendation and the minister could reject it. The minister wanted the recommendations to support his own foolish views. Javed resigned. Then it took the government three years to frame the 2009 education policy with the help of some Canadian expert. Even that had to be revised at the 11th hour because the Canadian had forgotten that we are an Islamic state. A new chapter on ideology was added and the language issue was duly made ambigious — it is actually contradictory in places.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Zubeida: Yes, we are talking of the same policy. I recall the Minister was a retired general. Is it possible to draw Javed Sahib into this conversation?

  13. sohailkizilbash Says:

    The hard-nosed executives, specially of commercial organisations, rely on their instincts more than what consultants advise because they regard theoretical exercises as irrelevant. I remember one senior executive in the bank saying to me about someone, انہوں نے پان کی دوکان تو کبھی کھولی نہیں ہے۔ انہیں کیا معلوم کے کسی ادارے کو شروح کرنے اور چلانے میں کیا کیا کرنا پڑتا ہے۔

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