English or Urdu: What should Pakistan’s language be?

In July 2015, a Pakistani government minister announced by way of an interview with Time Magazine that Urdu was going to be made a co-official language of Pakistan alongside English. Till then, Urdu had only been a national language – meant to unify the country’s different ethnic groups ­– while English was the sole official language. Being an official language entitled English to a status unknown to other Pakistani languages; all official government communications and legal orders were written in English, a language foreign to the land and familiar to none except the wealthy few. In order to address this issue, the (now former) Minister of Planning, National Reforms, and Development, Ahsan Iqbal, announced that making Urdu a co-official language alongside English aimed to democratize information in Pakistan by making government communications accessible to Pakistanis who do not understand English.

Some are praising the decision as an attempt to preserve Urdu, and by extension, the Pakistani culture. But, an increasing number of Pakistanis are choosing to neglect Urdu and Pakistan’s regional languages in favor of English, due to English’s status as the global common language and as a signifier of socioeconomic prestige. With English’s rapid ascendance in Pakistan, some fear the country will lose its own identity in an effort to assimilate into the global economy. Many are also concerned that the government’s decision to make Urdu a co-official language alongside English will set Pakistan back economically. They fear that the last thing a country with economic problems such as Pakistan needs is a move away from internationalization.

The official language issue highlights an important question concerning many Pakistanis: should we wholeheartedly embrace globalization with the benefits it may confer, or should we hold on to aspects of our culture that make us unique? The debate also concerns class: should poorer Pakistanis without access to English resources make a greater effort to learn the language in order to increase their chances of social mobility, or should the educational and commercial system be made more equitable to all Pakistanis by reducing the burden on citizens who do not understand English?

Whether many would like to admit it or not, in a country like Pakistan, the economic value of knowing English is tremendous. Despite its foreign origins, English carries immense power in Pakistan. The history of English’s status in the country can be traced to the 1830s, when Britain – the dominant colonial power in the Indian Subcontinent – denounced the Indian culture and created many English-medium schools in response. Subsequently, English became a very important language in the Subcontinent, forcing Indians to recognize and adapt quickly to  its social, cultural, and economic prestige. If Indians wanted gainful employment, they would have to learn English.

When Pakistan became independent from Britain in 1947, it inherited a system of institutions that used English to communicate. Pakistanis who had been educated in the West and understood English monopolized control over these institutions. From Pakistan’s independence till now, those same Westernized elites have maintained the country’s systems of commerce, governance, and education, all of which privilege the knowledge of English, and exclude the general population from a share in the country’s economic and political resources. Globalization also adds to English’s appeal. As the world economy becomes increasingly interconnected, Pakistanis seek to learn English – the lingua franca of international communication – to be able to take advantage of economic opportunities that lie outside the country.

And, due to the decrepit state of Pakistan’s public schools, wealthy parents tend to send their children to private schools that instruct students in English, while those who are not as financially privileged must send their children to public schools, where classes are taught in Urdu, and English classes (if offered) are inadequate. Of course English is certainly not the only factor affecting Pakistan’s class divide, but since a good English-language education is mostly just available to the upper class, poor Pakistani children are unduly burdened with working far harder than their richer counterparts to obtain the same level of English fluency. It is therefore very difficult for them to get high-paying jobs that can lift them out of their economic class. Their children then experience the same difficulty, thus leading to a vicious cycle that they cannot escape.

Given English’s contribution to socioeconomic stratification in Pakistan, Minister Ahsan Iqbal’s comments on democratizing Pakistan by promoting Urdu make sense. Urdu possesses the advantage of being a language that, while somewhat foreign, is more native to the land than English is, due to a majority of Pakistanis being able to speak and understand it. This is due to its national accessibility, being the language of instruction in most Pakistani schools and used by many popular TV channels and newspapers. Urdu can therefore help unify Pakistanis by instilling a sense of common identity between them and bridging barriers of communication created by local languages. For example, I – a member of the Punjabi ethnic group who speaks and understands Punjabi – can use Urdu to communicate with any Pashto or Sindhi speaker who is otherwise inaccessible to me due to his/her lack of Punjabi knowledge.

Yet, Urdu has its own history of violent domination. Once Pakistan became independent, its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made Urdu the country’s national language, believing it could act as a lingua franca for Pakistan’s numerous ethnic groups. The decision did not sit well with East Pakistan’s dominant ethnic group, the Bengalis, who felt that their culture was under assault by West Pakistan. In February 1952, Bengali students protested Urdu’s prominent position and demanded that the Bengali language be given an equal status as the country’s national language. Their protests were met with violence from the state; the police killed a number of protesters and injured many more. The occasion was a turning point in Pakistan’s young history – as divisions between East and West Pakistan cemented, Bengalis felt that they had no say in the affairs of a united Pakistan. Therefore, they began to strive for independence, which they ultimately won from Pakistan following the violent Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Many remember the February 1952 protests as a highly publicized example of state repression based on language. To honor of the Bengali students who advocated for the recognition of their language, February 21 now marks the official International Mother Language Day.

Given Urdu’s own controversial role in Pakistan’s history, it is important to consider whether the language is more suitable to be Pakistan’s lingua franca than English is. If Urdu were to become the sole national language, resources would still be concentrated in the hands of the powerful few who know Urdu. Could Urdu then become a steamroller that dominates Pakistan’s regional languages? After all, Urdu is only the mother tongue of an estimated 8% of Pakistanis.

Nonetheless, Urdu is spoken as a second language by a sizeable number of Pakistanis, thereby making it more accessible than English. Additionally, since Urdu is not seen as the property of any individual ethnic groups, it possesses a universality that regional languages do not. Urdu is also the language of much of Pakistan’s cultural production. Urdu poets such as Allama Iqbal, who wrote uniquely about Pakistani issues, are household names. TV soap operas, popular with a large number of Pakistanis, are almost exclusively in Urdu. The fact that Urdu-language literature and television are more easily accessible to Pakistanis makes the language more suitable to the national Pakistani identity than English could ever be.

But should the use of a particular language be encouraged just for nation building and social equality? Is it equally fair to ask whether we should prevent languages, inextricably tied to culture, from dying out? Such are questions that I have continued to ask myself throughout my life. As a Pakistani who was fortunate enough to be born into a wealthy family, I was educated in an English-medium school and generally neglected Urdu for the better part of my life. During my freshman year at NYU, as I began to interact with people from a variety of different backgrounds, I realized I did not really understand my own roots. With this realization came the understanding that my ignoring Urdu, a language to which Pakistan is more connected than it is to English, alienated me from my culture. As I started to ask other Pakistanis with similar backgrounds to mine about Urdu, I learned that a good portion of them could not read or write Urdu either. Many young Pakistanis, like us, do not see the point in learning the language – they do not see themselves using it in the workplace, or within a globalized world in which economic opportunities are best sought outside of Pakistan than within. In general, Urdu would not assist in communicating with many people. As I continue to tackle this hurdle, I wonder: should a language simply be learned for the sake of the utility it brings to its user? Are there reasons, perhaps more abstract in nature, that make preserving a language worthwhile?