By Anjum Altaf
Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country.
That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support my contentions.
In the context of this discussion, language can be considered to have two primary functions. First, as a tool to facilitate learning across generations and, second, as a means of communication between people in any given period of time.
The evidence as regards the first function is so overwhelming that those who disregard it can justly be classified as ignorant, the only ambiguity pertaining to whether the ignorance is real or contrived for some unstated purpose. It has been repeatedly proven that the mother tongue is the most effective vehicle for instruction during the early years of education.
While the evidence has become scientifically more rigorous in recent decades, the insight itself is not only quite old but also directly related to our own region. Almost everyone is aware of the infamous 1835 Minute on Education by which Macaulay is said to have favored the use of English as the medium of instruction in British India. Very few know of the evaluation of that policy by George Curzon who became the Viceroy in 1898: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”
Note the observation from the 1904 resolution that followed on the education policy in India:
It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.
Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan offered the following major recommendation:
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.
Given the above, it should be obvious that as far as the learning function of language is concerned all the objections to the Supreme Court’s decision are not only misplaced but irrelevant. The choice is not between Urdu and English but between either and the mother tongue. The real policy question is at what stage in a child’s education a second language should be introduced and whether it should be Urdu or English.
All those harping on the importance of English as the dominant global language of science and technology and thus necessary for development are being dense to put it mildly. First, the choice of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years and Urdu as the second language does not rule out the acquisition of English at a later stage. Second, the evidence regarding development from countries like Japan, South Korea and China that use their national languages as the medium of instruction is so stark that only the deliberately obtuse could overlook it. If facility with English had been the dominant requirement for development, Pakistan and India should have been global leaders and if lack of facility in English had been a genuine hindrance Japan, South Korea and China ought to have been laggards.
The fact is that facility with English in non-English speaking countries is very poorly correlated with any index of development. Pakistan’s elite, responsible for all its policy decisions, is fluent in English and yet what do Pakistan’s rankings reveal: the sixth largest country in the world ranks 146 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures health, standard of living, and education and 136 out of 144 countries in primary education according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Arguing that this abysmal plight would improve if the entire country learns English is the kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking that has plagued our education policies to date. More seriously, it also ignores the evidence that even the acquisition of English depends on sound early education in the mother tongue.
Communication at any given point in time is the other primary function of language and this has two dimensions. First, horizontal communication amongst citizens and second vertical communication between elected representatives and the citizens. Clearly, the existence of a common language greatly facilitates communication across both dimensions as we can observe again from the examples of Japan, South Korea and China.
Of course, this quest is greatly complicated in multi-national countries like Pakistan and India when the choice of a single language becomes politically fraught. This is particularly the case when there are distinct linguistic groups with equally large populations as is the case in India and was the case in Pakistan before 1971. The decision to force one language as the national or official language in such cases is a mindless application of the model of the nation-state borrowed from Europe. Consider this excerpt from Jinnah’s speech in Dhaka in March 1948:
…let me make very clear to you that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Any one who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State Language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries.
Both the tragedies mentioned in the beginning of this discussion stemmed from the lack of sensitivity in how to negotiate such linguistic minefields. The choice of any one language in such circumstances would disadvantage a part of the population. While the provinces of West Pakistan did accede to the choice of Urdu in order to counter-balance the political weight of East Pakistan, there was absolutely no lack of understanding that the decision would disproportionately disadvantage the Bengali speaking population. In such a case the choice of a neutral language like English would have been a sensible second-best compromise without, of course, conflating the issue and imposing it as the medium of early education as well. The Mughals, when they arrived in India, were faced with a similar conundrum and chose a neutral language, Persian, as the language of administration even though, and it is very important to recall this, it was not their native language. It was a pragmatic not a chauvinistic compromise. Precisely because Persian was a foreign language, every non-Persian speaker had an equal opportunity to learn it if he/she aspired to positions that required knowledge of the language.
But the Pakistan of today is in a very different situation. If horizontal communication amongst citizens is important it would not be politically possible to do so in any of the sub-national languages. The only choice is between Urdu and English and here the fact that the provinces of West Pakistan had agreed to Urdu as the national language very early has altered the linguistic demographic beyond recognition. Almost everyone now has a working familiarity with Urdu, much more than the familiarity with any other language including English.
Thus the argument that Urdu is the mother tongue of only eight percent of the national population is only a polemical one without any real relevance. If the choice being debated is between two foreign languages then English is not the mother tongue of even a handful of Pakistanis – Urdu wins handily on that count.
Furthermore, it is really an advantage if Urdu is considered a foreign language in Pakistan by virtue of not being the native language of any of its constituent nations. That makes its acceptance much more possible compared to any one of the sub-national languages just as Persian was the neutral choice in Mughal India.
The fact that Urdu is understood to some extent by the majority of the population, that it is akin to a foreign language and not one of the sub-national languages makes the case for its acceptance as the language of horizontal communication very strong, certainly stronger than the case for English. The unstated fear that the choice of Urdu would somehow enable the eight percent native Urdu speakers from conquering all the commanding heights is misplaced, to say the least. One can rest assured that regional elites which did not allow that in the past will certainly not do so in the future, more so since many have already adopted Urdu as their language of communication. Amongst the educated cohorts, the native Urdu speaker today has virtually no advantage over the native speaker of the other sub-national language – all of them communicate equally well or equally poorly in a mangled hybrid of various languages because of the breakdown of primary and secondary education.
The function of language for vertical communication is much more important in some senses and here the situation has deteriorated to a critical pass. Inclusive development calls for a common medium of communication and its absence is stark in countries like Pakistan and India where the ruling elites communicate in English while the majority of citizens is unfamiliar with the language. Ministers and experts pronouncing in English leave virtually the entire population out of the national discourse at great cost.
One illustration would suffice to make the point re lack of inclusion. The entire debate about development centered round the Millennium Development Goals is taking place without any credible translation of the term in Urdu or any other national language. How can the people participate in this debate? Contrast the case of China where every policy decision, sensible or otherwise, is summarized as a slogan in Chinese for popular dissemination – ‘Away With All Pests’ being one example.
This gulf is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s deliberation and decision. We need inclusive development, participatory governance, and a shared discourse. How are we going to get there? That is the real question that we face today
Is it possible to bring the entire population to the level where it could follow the mangled English of its elite? Do we even have teachers with sufficient grasp of English to teach others? Or is it politically possible to do so in any one of the sub-national languages, even Punjabi that is the language of the numerical majority in the country? Or is Urdu the sole remaining feasible choice that the tragedies and follies of the past have, so ironically, transformed into the commonly understood language of the majority of the population. When a cruel fate throws us some crumbs we should at least have the sense to pick them up.
There is little doubt in my mind that the choice of Urdu as the official language would be the sensible and far-sighted one in the concrete situation that exists in Pakistan today. The debate should really be on how to operationalize the transition. My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.
The experience of the European Union where the “mother tongue plus two” mandate is widely accepted, and where there is great emphasis on the acquisition of English, can provide very useful guidance on the stages at which each of the languages is best introduced and the points at which the language of instruction is switched, if warranted. There is little need to reinvent the wheel.
It is an added advantage that this transition does not take away the option of the provinces to conduct their parliamentary procedures in their own language or to make information available to their citizens in the language with which the latter are most comfortable. Indeed, this is what they should be doing in any case just as in the US most material related to citizen-state interaction is made available in Spanish as well as English.
Alam, Muzaffar. ‘The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,’ Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1998.
Altaf, Anjum. ‘Stupid in English,’ Dawn, December 3, 2010.
Altaf, Anjum. ‘Macaulay’s Stepchildren,’ Himal Magazine, January 2010.
Altaf, Anjum. ‘Millennium Development Follies,’ Dawn, December 24, 2010.
Coleman, Hywel. ‘Teaching and Learning in Pakistan: The Role of Language in Education,’ British Council Pakistan, 2010.
Coleman, Hywel and T. Capstick. ‘Language in Education in Pakistan,’ British Council, 2012.
Evans, Stephen. ‘Macaulay’s Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India,’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002.
Haqqani, Hussain. ‘Let Down by Both Carrot and Stick,’ The Hindu, October 23, 2015.
Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Oxford, 2015.
Macaulay, T.B. ‘Minute on Education,’ February 2, 1835.
Supreme Court of Pakistan. Order on Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, August 26, 2015.
Wright, Wayne E., Sovicheth Boun and Ofelia Garcia, Eds. The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
Anjum Altaf is Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.
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