Thursday, January 27, 2011

Education and Development: Urdu, English and Pakistan

By Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Pakistan is blessed with number of beautiful regional languages and language-based local sub-cultures. This diversification along with many other regional nuances and historical developments has given Pakistan its colorful and interesting overall national culture. On lingual side, in addition to its regional languages, Pakistan also has Urdu as its national language and English as an official language.

Normally having a singular national language would generate a cohesive nation capable of conducting open dialog on any subject of national importance. Also having a singular official language will open doors of opportunity equally to all regardless of their own regional language.

But in Pakistan that is not the case. During a time of any region-based national controversy Pakistanis from various parts of the country are just not capable of opening up an amicable national dialog. Also not all graduating students have equal opportunities of advancement in their chosen fields. This lack of open and free communication between people of various parts of the country contributes towards regional tensions and misunderstandings. The lack of equal opportunities of advancement creates resentment. There is need to understand reasons behind these national deficits.

While the regional languages of Pakistan are centuries old and are rooted in the soil of their respective areas, Urdu is a relatively younger language that had initially emerged more as a necessity than as a result of an organic process. Similarly Pakistan inherited English from its latest colonial past and has retained it for the convenience of the officialdom. However both Urdu and English have been under-utilized in Pakistan as tools for mass communication, national integration and economic advancement.

The birth of Urdu coincides with the arrival of Muslims in the area. Muslims of Arab origin first arrived in Southern Pakistan in the eighth century. Later in the eleventh and consecutive centuries arrived Muslims of neighboring Persia and Turkic Central Asia. Each one of these three new arriving groups brought their own languages and cultures with them. The result was that not only most of the locals converted to the religion of the new arrivals, they also took in many words and phrases of the languages of the new comers into their own regional languages. Urdu language and Pakistani culture is a direct result of this synthesis that took place over a prolonged historical period.

Muslim rulers held their courts first in Arabic, then in Turkish and finally in Persian language while Urdu over the period developed as a non-official language in the shadow of other three consecutive official languages. However the end of a central Muslim authority in the beginning of the eighteenth century also saw the end of Persian as the official language. For the next one hundred years, in the absence of a central authority, each local government conducted its official business in a language it saw fit. Things however changed when in the mid nineteenth century British took over the areas that would later constitute Pakistan. British installed English as the official language while encouraged use of Urdu as a medium of instruction for the Muslims. At the independence of Pakistan in 1947, while the official business continued to be held in English, Urdu was adopted as the national language of the new state.

Today each region of Pakistan, at various levels, operates in three and sometimes in four languages. First each region has its own regional language as language of every day communication; then Urdu as the language of instructions in official schools and English as language of official business and language of instruction in the private schools; and finally Arabic as language of learning and performing Islamic religious rituals. One would imagine that after sixty years of official patronage of Urdu and English all Pakistanis, regardless of their own regional language, would be able to communicate with each other freely in one or two languages; all educated Pakistanis will have equal opportunities of learning and advancement. But that is not the case.

The main reason for this deficit is the lack of universally available education and unequal educational systems. Since at the national level only two-thirds of the children enter school and only half of them reach middle school level, the possibility of the entire nation learning Urdu and being able to communicate with each other at the national level is only limited. Also since instructions in English are available to only lucky few, not every student is able to enter into the fields of science, technology and administration which have created further economic stratification and social alienation. It is to be realized that members of a nation who are not able to freely communicate with each other are unable to develop a national dialog and forge a national thought on any subject of national significance. Also not being able to function effectively in the official language of the country virtually shuts down all doors of personal and economic advancements for most.

Not being able to read, write or even speak ones national language is a national tragedy. To have doors of opportunity open to select few is unjust. And that in essence is one of the many problems of Pakistan.

About the author: Pervaiz Munir Alvi was born and raised in Pakistan. After graduating from Government College, Lahore (now Government College University) with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree he proceeded to the USA for further studies. He received his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Civil Engineering and Master of Science (M.S.) in GeoTechnical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mr. Alvi resides and works in the USA as a consulting GeoTechnical Engineer. He has compiled his essays, short stories and poetry which provide an in-depth insight of his mindset, aspirations and concerns.


Please read the book Urdu Qaum or Urdu Nation available at

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