07 Nov 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:
- 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?
- 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.