Posts Tagged ‘Language’

Knowledge and Power

October 18, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language”?

All the issues that engage us at this moment are there in this debate from almost 200 years ago — the desideratum of scientific knowledge, the non-availability of content in local languages, the best medium of instruction, and the process of mental cultivation.

Reading history is so humbling. Everything being said today can be found in the columns of the newspapers of those days, The Tribune and The Civil and Military Gazette from Lahore among them, debating heatedly the pros and cons of the Anglicist and the Orientalist positions.

Reading history is also so very sobering. Then, as now, when all is said and done, when all the words and wisdom have been exhausted, it is power that carries the day. What is decided on high is impervious to reason, argument, or the well-being of the recipients and driven solely by the needs of the ruling class. 

There are many fascinating dimensions to this bit of history. Compare Macaulay and Mill to begin with. Were it not for the Minute, Macaulay would be a footnote to history. Mill, on the other hand, was the most influential English philosopher of the nineteenth century whose On Liberty is still considered a seminal text today. But the ridiculous pronouncements of the former trumped the commonsense observation of the latter just as the footnotes of today override experts of the stature of Dr. Tariq Rehman.

Why commonsense? Because it takes half a minute of honest reflection to recognize its truth. Imagine a five-year old child from a village trying to understand addition in her own language or in English. Which alternative would she find easier? Imagine her narrating the day’s events in either language. In which would she be able to express herself with greater ease, fluency, and creativity?

The answers are obvious. Why then would we want the child to learn in English rather than in her own language? Is it because content is not available in her language? But what content does a five-year old child need to learn to add? Give her a pile of stones, a bunch of marbles, a few apples and she would do a lot better than reading out of a book. What content does she need to tell a story or talk about a butterfly or a frog or about the weather and when it would be time to milk the cow? And why one milks the cow in the first place and what happens to the milk after it is collected? Making five-year olds learn out of books is a poor and unimaginative choice.

What is given up when a child is taught in a language not her own? “Mental cultivation” as Mill had mentioned nearly 200 years ago. Instead of learning about things and ideas, the child is left struggling with an alien language, fearful of making mistakes, preferring silence to being laughed at, apprehensive of being tested on things that are not fully understood. This is the beginning of the road to memorization, to reproduction without understanding, to acquiescence instead of enquiry.

If all of the above is so obvious, why is it that parents want their children educated in English, the argument always cited, then and now, in support of English as the language of instruction? In preparing the Minute, Macaulay had said that “English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit (sic) or Arabic,” and that “the natives are desirous to be taught English.” 

The simple answer is easily deduced by a student of the history of education in colonial India: “By making English a necessary skill to gain access to employment in the higher levels of the Indian administration, an English education became something to which all Indians strove.”

The answer to the puzzle is obvious and lies buried in the distinction between the two functions of education — that of mental cultivation or learning and that of a passport to employment. Parents, especially those who are poor and without old-age security, invest in their children in the hope that the latter find good jobs in the market. To that end, they are willing to sacrifice mental cultivation especially when no educationist has made them aware of how high the cost is of the sacrifice.

The English had an obvious vested interest in creating a class of people who, English in all but name, would prove to be “loyal servants of the colonial regime.” But no such interest is at play in a sovereign nation where power is supposed to reside in the people. Why then do we retain English as the passport to good employment requiring such a huge sacrifice in mental cultivation of which all serious educationists have long been aware since the time of Mill? 

This is the real puzzle that requires an answer. Why don’t we just do away with the requirement of such a colonial legacy. China does not require it; Turkey does not require it; and they are considered successful countries doing far better than us. For all our English-speaking geniuses we can’t even collect our own garbage for which we need assistance from the non-English speaking Chinese and Turks.

So why do we continue to require English as the passport for decent jobs? Is it because colonialism has never really left our land? Is it because our neo-colonial masters wish to cripple the mental abilities of the people to keep them loyal, docile, and uncompetitive? Is it because power is afraid of knowledge? Meanwhile, just as in colonial times, there are Chief’s Colleges, quite distinct from the intellectually impoverished institutions for the natives, to reproduce and perpetuate the status quo. 

Surely, it should not be so in an Islamic country aspiring to the Riasat of Medina.

Quotes are from Patriots and Practical Men: British Educational Policy and the Responses of Colonial Subjects in India, 1880-1890 by David Thomas Boven, Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, 2017.

This opinion was published in The  News on October 16, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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SNC and Language of Instruction

October 11, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled. 

This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged — to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit.

This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse none of which can bear the weight of evidence. The first pertains to the wonders that would result from packing even more religious content in the school curriculum. It cleverly manipulates societal values while ignoring evidence that religious education is not correlated at all with any indicator of development and not even with the value of goodness itself. The outcome of the Zia experiment should be sufficient to dispel the myth. 

The second myth is that a single national curriculum (SNC) would yield an equal, stable, and peaceful society. There is no example in history of a mere school curriculum yielding such lofty dividends. As it is, the lack of any serious commitment to the goal of equality is evident at the outset by the retention of schools that can bypass the SNC. Add to that the fact that instability in the country is almost entirely the outcome of conflicts between elites educated in the same schools under the same curriculum. That should be enough to expose the emptiness of the claim. 

While the aim of the SNC — dumbing down the population the better to perpetuate the rule of Brown Englishmen — cannot be camouflaged from any serious analyst, there are among the critics some who believe that teaching everyone in English, even under a SNC, can level the playing field and enable the masses to compete with the elite. Their efforts are thus diverted into a blind alley giving the SNC a free pass. Once again, there is no evidence from history of such an outcome from everyone learning in the same language. The USA is the most striking example of the fallacy of such a belief.

On the other hand, so much evidence has accumulated over decades that the languages spoken at home are the best for a child’s early education that one must wonder what is going on in the minds of the proponents of English as the language of instruction. On what basis can they argue for the proposition in the face so much evidence, both from controlled research studies and from direct experience of countries teaching in their own languages? 

All I can think of is that this is a manifestation of a perverse contrariness — because the elite is having its children taught in English, why should the masses be deprived of that privilege? This ignores completely the welfare of the child. The elite is the elite not because it can speak English but because it was either born or has bought its way into privilege. Even a cursory probing of Pakistan’s ruling class would reveal that speaking English has no correlation with superior wisdom. The proponents of English are prepared to sacrifice the intelligence of their children to satisfy a strange sense of envy. This ‘English Revolution’ — snatching English from the aristocracy — would be our non-violent equivalent of the French Revolution. I wonder what Gandhi would have to say of this approach to gaining equality. 

The other explanation relies on Khaled Ahmed’s distinction between Urdu as the language of ‘emotive walwala’ and English of ‘reasoned discourse’ on the basis of which he favours the latter as the language of instruction. Going by this hard-to-accept hypothesis, I can only conclude that the proponents of English, although educated in the language, continue, naoozubillah, to think in the vernacular. The solution might then be to aim for native fluency in English so that everyone can actually think in it and has no need at all to be held back by the malevolent burden of native languages. What a pleasure it would be to see our ministers transforming into little Shakespeares.

The evidence on what is the best language of instruction for a child is overwhelming and considered settled. Any critical engagement that does not feel compelled to take sides would arrive at that conclusion. What remains of interest is to figure out why there still are people who are not swayed by the evidence and think it is a subject on which they can start from first principles with their prejudices as the point of departure. 

This opinion appeared in The News on October 9, 2020 is is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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Language and Society

May 21, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order.

Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and shaap for shop. Once attuned to the pattern, you will see Bismillah Burger Point, Iqbal’s Beauty and Hair Salon, Butt Tailoring Services, Well Dress Garments, The Knowledge School System for Boys and Girls, etc., etc. Exceptions would be rare.

Shop Sign

The underlying phenomenon is the same in the small city except that names would now be written in both scripts reflecting the presence of a sizeable population familiar with English. Once you get to the posh areas of the metropolis, however, the Urdu script disappears altogether mirroring the clientele that communicates almost entirely in English. It is like being in California surrounded by Coffee Planet, Gloria Jeans and the like. Even Bundu Khan announces itself in English. The only unusual aspect in such environs, especially if you look at the billboards, is a coy use of Urdu written in the English script — slogans like ‘jeet ke jeeo,’ etc.

So, what’s going on? It needs an expert like Dr. Tariq Rahman to fully interpret the phenomenon but to a layperson like me it seems that the vast majority associates English so obviously with superior quality that even a lowly khoka senses the advantage of labelling itself a ‘kold kaarner.’ This is even more the case for services like education or training of any kind — varieties of ‘shaart’ courses are advertised all over in the Urdu script. Only the thin sliver of the population that has arrived because of its facility with English can afford the reverse snobbery of using Urdu words in its messaging.

This inference is strengthened by the observation that such linguistic practices are confined to goods and services for sale. Civic and moral injunctions continue to be written in Urdu as spoken in the language rather than rendered into more impressive English versions. There is no attempt to raise the acceptability of messages like ‘yahan peshaab karna sakht manaa hai’ or ‘namaaz qaim karo.’

(It is quite possible that the phenomenon I have highlighted is peculiar to the rural towns and small cities of Punjab and may differ in comparable localities in other provinces. I have asked a colleague to extend the scope of the observations and produce what could be a very interesting photo essay. Meanwhile, I request readers to email me any amusing signs they come across in their travels.)

Once alerted to these linguistic anomalies, you will begin to notice other things as well. When I say ‘shukria’ or ‘meherbani’ after getting the receipt at a toll booth the reply received more often than not is ‘welcome.’ I have often wondered how the power inequality in Pakistan stemming from differential access to English can be overcome. Many educational policies are framed on the premise that the mastery of the many can be raised to the level of the privileged few by making English the universal medium of instruction right from the very beginning. Alas, this is impossible given the quality of English language teaching in public and most private schools for the majority. (Pedagogical Alert: The policy is also ruinous for the cognitive development of young children — ask any expert in early childhood education.)

The realization of this impossibility may well be the reason for the radical choice of software used to provide road directions and to manage queues in offices. Both the language and the accent is American English in an environment where the majority of users are unfamiliar with either. I have become used to Multen, Mo-zang and Kasher (Kasur) roads but was completely floored recently by the instruction to turn left on Gallamandi road. For a moment I fantasized being in Italy till the illusion was shattered by a sign in Urdu pointing to Ghalla Mandi.

Our linguistic confusions are compounded by the fact that Urdu, unlike say Hindi, is very carefree with its pronunciation and use of diacritical signs. At a toll plaza in a Daewoo bus, one is always inundated with phone calls from passengers informing families that they have arrived at the ‘tool’ plaza. In this vein, many English signs written in Urdu can be a source of great amusement. I always have a silent laugh at a ‘Police Check Post’ thinking of their cheeks, silent because laughing at the police and the like is most likely a punishable offence in Pakistan.

A striking occurrence of this nature was witnessed at the time of the last elections when, looking up, I spotted an electoral symbol in Urdu written simply as BLA (Bay-Laam-Alif). For a while, one couldn’t figure out if it was really bla (as in the Shah of Blah) or balaa or bilaa or bulaa or balla or billa or bulla. Reverting as one does to one’s own language in dire circumstances, I could only worry about the cost of such sloppiness and mutter, again under my breath, jal tu jalaal tu, aaii balaa ko taal tu.

Many things are changing in Pakistan as is to be expected. Is it possible that linguistic changes of the type highlighted above are signalling a certain direction for the evolution of our society or are they just harmless epiphenomena that can be enjoyed without wasting a worry?    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 19, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Language, Learning and Logic

July 11, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning.

The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

This belief does not reflect just the opinion of the author. It effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

The major problem is the argument’s negation of evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximizes the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar  language.

Second, it is false that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the European Union has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.  

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighborhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.    

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr. Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognized. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835 triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion:

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 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalization and, longer term, a risk of language death.” The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education.”

Parents most in need of this message, with children shortchanged by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to respect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 10, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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CSS: Why English?

January 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject.

The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals.

On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More than one survey has identified the low quality of many teachers in the school system.

However, little can be done to improve the quality of education in the short term. Critical to any education system are curricula, pedagogical ability, and room for open inquiry. All have to move together for the system to improve in any meaningful sense – changing one or two is not enough. Given the balance of forces in the country, there is little hope that the right combination can be achieved to make a difference to, say, the CSS results in the near term.

The one unexplored aspect in this regard is the nature of the CSS examination itself. It is not at all obvious whether the examination is screening for competence and intelligence or for conformity and compliant behavior. If the latter, the very low success rate may not be an accurate indicator of the quality of the applicant pool.  

Part of this bias in the testing instrument is, I suspect, deliberate. The nature of questions comprising the compulsory papers and the orientation of coaching in preparatory centers lend credence to the hypothesis that the test is consciously screening for a particular type of candidate.

But there is a less obvious bias related to the 92% failure rate in English which raises a profound question: Is it possible to be competent and intelligent without an adequate command of English? If so, how many otherwise qualified applicants are being excluded by the CSS examination? Keep in mind that asides from the compulsory English paper most other papers have to be answered in English as well.

[Consider the double burden under which even the best of the students labor. Here, from the FPSC website, is the instruction accompanying the CSS English Essay paper: “Candidates will be required to write one or more Essay in English. A wide choice of topics will be given. Candidates are expected to reflect comprehensive and research based knowledge on a selected topic. Candidate’s articulation, expression and technical treatment of the style of English Essay writing will be examined.” Pity the examinee attempting to articulate a research-based reflection and expressing it in accordance with the technical treatment of the style of the English essay. English appears as elusive to the examiners as it is to the examinees.]

This is a self-inflicted problem that does have a short-term solution. It may seem radical at the outset to suggest that applicants may be allowed to answer all papers in the language in which they are most comfortable with English being made a non-compulsory paper. But how radical is it really?

Accepting for the moment that competence in English is necessary for Pakistani civil servants, is it not possible to attain this by having the selected candidates undergo intensive language instruction with expert tutors during their first year? How difficult is it for an intelligent adult to learn English as a foreign language? Many Pakistani students awarded scholarships for higher education in European countries are able to learn the languages sufficiently to pursue their degrees. It is by no means an impossible task.

This suggests a radically different approach to selection: Pick the brightest applicants and teach them enough English rather than rejecting potentially superior students because they have been inadequately schooled in the language. The pool of qualified applicants could be expected to increase despite the admittedly poor system of education in the country.

The sceptics should consider the precedent for the selection of British civil servants in Colonial India. The ablest candidates were screened for general competence and subsequently trained in Indian languages under highly qualified teachers at Fort Williams College. Imagine if they had been selected based on prior familiarity with a foreign language.

Improving the health of the ailing civil service in Pakistan is possible. As for all maladies, the first step is a credible diagnosis.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 5, 2017, in English and Urdu and is reproduced here with permission of the author. This is the second article in this series. Read the first part here.

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Language and its Functions

March 14, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country.

This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world.

Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province in Pakistan, is also the least developed?

A great deal of similar confusion on language stems from not realizing that it has very distinct functions in society. Take only three that are extremely important in Pakistan today – language as a glue to cement nationhood, as a necessity for participatory development, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Consider nationhood. While it is true that no nation can become stronger just by having a ‘correct’ official language, it does not follow that nationhood cannot be weakened by having an ‘incorrect’ one. For proof, recall the contribution of imposing an ‘incorrect’ language on East Pakistan which not only weakened the nation but split it asunder.

The choice of language to build nationhood needed a lot more thought and discussion in 1947 than it was given. The situation was particularly complex but, as the example of India shows, more intelligent alternatives were available. In any case, this remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process. Citizens can decide whether they agree on a common official language for present-day Pakistan. If not, some other formula needs to be found.

Regarding development, it is hard to imagine socially meaningful progress occurring in a country without an inclusive dialogue. How can there be a shared vision if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that so few understand? Take, for example, the campaign for the Millennium Development Goals that consumed enormous sums in five-star talk-a-thons. How can citizens participate when there is not even a semi-comprehensible translation of the title in any local language? When officials speak in important forums do we want citizens to follow what they are saying? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for official purposes. Whether it should be Urdu or Urdu and other regional languages is again a choice that needs analysis and democratic resolution.

As an educationist, I believe a critical function of language is as the medium of instruction which bears on the cognitive ability of successive generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that this is yet to be addressed seriously in Pakistan borders on criminality as it has impaired the ability of millions whose parents set aside scarce resources hoping to educate their children.

Here the evidence is overwhelming – early learning, which provides the foundation on which later learning is acquired, takes place best in the language spoken in the home. This does not imply a binary choice between one language and another that has become the staple of partisan polemic in Pakistan. The emphasis is on early education which is followed by appropriate changes in the medium of instruction over the years depending on the needs of students.

There is lot to go on for those seeking a rational approach to the issue. Many multi-national countries have evolved bilingual and trilingual sequences for sound school education. In such countries people still manage to acquire good English despite early education in a different language. This should discredit the rhetoric that education in any language other than English would close the door to the modern world. Had this been even remotely true, South Asian countries would have advanced much faster than East Asian ones.

It is important to realize that education in Pakistan, like in many developing countries, is a highly contentious ideological and political issue. Its problems, largely of content and pedagogy, are not amenable to technocratic remedies but confusion on the importance of the medium of instruction does little to help.

We need vigorous, open, inclusive, and participatory discussion on the issue of language followed by democratic decision-making. It would help towards this end to separate the various functions of language and be open to the possibility that each might call for a different formula and compromise.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 13, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Which Language Should We Choose?

March 12, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points.

Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart.

Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be improved by flipping from English to Urdu or vice versa. Change can happen only when education is seen as a means for opening minds rather than an instrument of ideological control.” No one will dispute the claim that opening minds is critical but that has more to do with the content of education and pedagogy than language. Even so, the question of which language would be more effective in opening minds in Pakistan, provided the intent is there, does not become irrelevant.

In this connection, the author himself states that “Using different mixes of bilingualism and even trilingualism… has enabled some [former colonies] to develop a better education for their young. Pakistan has not.” Clearly, if Pakistan were to emulate these countries, it would have to decide what mix of languages it would need.

Some of these contradictions have arisen because the author has not addressed separately the three quite different functions of language – as a means to cement nationhood, as a mode of communication between the rulers and the ruled, and as a medium of instruction in education.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is quite right that “nation-building needs more than a common language” but at the same time one cannot dismiss the functional need for an acceptable common language in a nation. It was indeed impossible to find one in 1947 but today, as the author points out, Urdu is Pakistan’s lingua franca. This remains an issue best addressed through the democratic process – citizens can decide whether Urdu can serve as the common language of Pakistan. If not, some other formula would need to be found.

Regarding communication, it is hard to imagine that real development can occur without being inclusive. How would we progress to a shared dialogue and vision for the country if the state continues to conduct its business in a language that “fewer and fewer people speak and understand”? It is this concern that motivated the Supreme Court to mandate Urdu for “official and other purposes.” The fact that “English stayed” is to be taken seriously as a failure to include citizens as full partners in the business of the country.

The most critical aspect of language is its function as the medium of instruction because it bears on the cognitive ability of new generations and thereby on the future of the country. The fact that it is yet to be addressed in Pakistan does not lessen its importance. Here, the author himself states that “Early learning happens fastest in the mother tongue, and only the tiniest fraction of Pakistanis speaks English at home.” How then can one be indifferent to the importance of having a ‘correct’ language policy for purposes of education?

It is a bit odd when the author goes on the state: “So go ahead and change the language to the ‘right’ one. You might get a 10 pc improvement at most.” The author does not clarify what the improvement would be in but whatever it may be, in a country of close to 200 million people a 10 pc improvement is not something that can be discounted so readily.

I am fully aware that Pervez Hoodbhoy, like many others, is frustrated by what is being taught in schools and the manner in which it is being taught. This is a contentious political and ideological struggle which does not make the choice of language irrelevant. In fact, even if nothing else changes, the use of languages more easily understood by those being educated would be a step in the positive direction.

In this context, one can subvert the author’s claim that “A parrot singing in Urdu or Sindhi understands no more than one who sings in English.” True enough, but for listeners it would be much easier to distinguish sense from nonsense if the parrot were singing in Urdu or Sindhi rather than in English.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 11, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Urdu in Pakistan: Do We Need It?

November 7, 2015

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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Urdu in Pakistan – Language as the Key to Wisdom

October 31, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself.

The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings to be compounded by the comments of those who have advocated their own points of views without reading the previous article. While I respect their views, I don’t think there is much to gain by talking past each other. We need the patience to listen to a point of view if we are to move from mindless confrontation to meaningful communication.

The first point I am forced to make is that I have no material stake in the outcome. My life has been lived out and even my children are out of college – a new language policy is for me a purely academic exercise. I believe I had a reasonably good school education benefiting from some exceptional teachers and from the period before the real confusion in language policy crept into our system of education. My college and university education in Pakistan were much poorer but that can be left for a separate discussion.

My concern in this matter is triggered by my association with two of the leading private undergraduate educational institutions in Pakistan – as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at one and as Provost at the other. Close contact with students has left no doubt in my mind that our language policy has had an extremely debilitating effect even on the best students in the country – the majority are not solidly grounded in any one language.

One can ask why that is a problem? Why is it not good enough to know a language just sufficiently enough to undertake every day transactions and to buy and sell whatever it is that one might want to transact? Indeed, one should ask what being solidly grounded in a language means and why it is of any importance for students.

I believe an understanding of this dimension is vital for the discussion we should be having, keeping in mind that at this time we are talking not of the entire population but about students attending the leading universities in the country. These are the students from among whom will emerge the decision-makers of tomorrow and we should have a very great stake in the creativity and intellectual ability of this cohort.

In the earlier post I had identified two practical functions of language – to transfer information between generations and to be able to share information within a community. Here, I would like to add a more fundamental function, that of education, which stems from the characteristic of language that makes it a key to the storehouse of wisdom. This needs some elaboration.

One can readily accept that a great number of extremely learned and gifted human beings have been part of human history and that their accumulated wisdom is enshrined in the texts they wrote and the commentaries that have been written on those texts subsequently. Access to this storehouse of wisdom, and the ability to interpret it, is an essential starting point for all those who aspire to contribute to human progress. This is best exemplified by the saying attributed to Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Examples of the creators of wisdom abound – Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, Panini, Buddha, to name just a few. It was the wisdom of the Greeks, kept alive by the Arabs, which re-lighted the lamp of knowledge in Europe. In our region, an incredible amount of wisdom resides in the legacy of Mirabai, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif, Ghalib, and Iqbal down to our times. Creativity is enhanced by being able to draw upon this knowledge in the performance of our everyday tasks. In a way that forms the positive aspect of a question like “What would Jesus do?” You have to know what Jesus did in order to answer that question. A useful analogy is of a plant that, without conscious effort, draws nourishment from the soil. If the soil is dry, the plant withers in no time.

Our linguistic heritage is akin to the soil that nourishes our ideas, that makes possible the spark that can connect disparate thoughts and thus lead to new ways of seeing things. If we lose access to this nourishment we weaken the source of our creativity and thereby the ability to draw upon the wisdom of the past in deliberating intelligently on current problems and their possible solutions.

When I come across students who cannot read their first language, whose second language, in most cases Urdu, is barely adequate for verbal communication, and whose English is only proficient for essential reading and writing, the critical dimension of our dilemma becomes obvious. In no language are they equipped to access the many storehouses of wisdom.

The difficulty is compounded in our region because the wisdom of our vernacular traditions is not adequately translated into English, the one language in which our best students can read with any proficiency. This is unlike the West where, say, the wisdom of the Greeks, is kept alive by continuous reinterpretations in local languages so that some access is possible for those who are educated in those languages, say French in France or German in Germany.

I am being generous in conceding that our students are proficient in reading English – the ability to truly understand a language comes from being imbued in its culture. Stanley Fish has mentioned that just one course in one poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost, is sufficient to make students rethink all the big questions of life:

“You who read “Paradise Lost”… what do you read but everything? This book contains all things and the origins of all things, and their destinies and final ends.” How did the world begin? Why were men and women created in the first place? How did evil come into the world? What were the causes of Adam’s and Eve’s Fall? If they could fall, were they not already fallen and isn’t God the cause? If God is the cause, and we are the heirs of the original sin, are we not absolved of the responsibility for the sins we commit? Can there be free will in a world presided over by an omniscient creator? Is the moral deck stacked? Is Satan a hero? A rebel? An apostate? An instrument of a Machiavellian and manipulative deity? Are women weaker and more vulnerable than men? Is Adam right to prefer Eve to God? What would you have done in his place? Wherever you step in the poetry, you will meet with something that asks you to take a stand, and when you do (you can’t help it) you will be enmeshed in the issues that are being dramatized.

It is not enough for our students to pick up Paradise Lost and get the same out of the poem. For one, one needs to be steeped in that culture to make sense of the literary allusions – much of English literature has its roots in the Bible. For another, we don’t have enough teachers who can make up for that deficiency. But we do have similar wisdom in, say, Noon Meem Rashid’s Hasan Koozagar or in Kabir, Bulleh Shah, and Ghalib that can be much more readily accessible because the allusions and metaphors belong to our own lived reality. We do need to ensure a solid grounding in our first language and/or Urdu to get to the point where we can access this wisdom.

Hopefully, I have made the intellectual case for why we need to ensure mastery in at least one language. If we are convinced of this its translation into reality is actually quite easy. All we need to do is to get rid of the confusion in policy and structure the linguistic education appropriately.

See the post Milton and Ghalib on this blog and our attempt to make the wisdom of Ghalib accessible to students in English. See also my 2014 presentation on this subject (Bunyaad Kuch To Ho) to the entering freshman class at LUMS.

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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Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis

October 24, 2015

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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