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Language is the mirror of a culture. Language is heritage. Language is literacy. Language is progress. Language is an exam. Language is a burden. Language is a divide. These are the many uses and abuses of speaking and promoting a language. In Pakistan, the language debate has been eternal. Pakistanis like many other post-colonial countries find it difficult to accept that English is a foreign language that must be respected and learned but not obsessed with. While most agree that Urdu should be promoted and popularized the total overhaul needed in mindsets, skill sets and tool sets to do so is too much for the governments, civil society and the people to really put their hearts and souls into.

Class difference is created by wealth brackets, by family names, by social status, by occupation, by the colour of your skin, etc. However, in Pakistan, we have a class difference by the language you speak. English is cool, Urdu is by necessity, and Punjabi is crass. Language, accent and fluency determine the strata of society he or she belongs and that just sets the tone for the opportunity to meet, greet, treat and grow, unfortunately. English-speaking has become the biggest barrier in breaking the shackles for the people who belong to a less-privileged background. Being educated in Urdu medium is like a doomed failure in life. The complex of not being able to speak English or speak with great difficulty is a source of embarrassment and low self-esteem.

There are many myths that have created this language ‘apartheid’ in Pakistan. Apartheid was a system of legislations that created segregation policies for Non-White of South Africa. Similarly, English is a language that has segregated the haves from the have-nots in Pakistan. The public school education is Urdu medium and the small private school education is in English. Working life requires English proficiency. This then determines your future growth and prospects to progress. A very good example of this was the recent video going viral where two “A strata” restaurant owners were humiliating their manager about his terrible English. They were mocking him on how much they had to pay him despite his poor English language skills. This is a reflection of how his loyalty, efficiency, hard work, etc., were just nullified by his limited English skills. We need to build a campaign, a case, a compulsion for promoting Urdu not just because we are nationalistic but because it is necessary to speed up our much neglected education and skills sector:

  1. You cannot learn, when you cannot understand-The child learns most what he or she hears. What he or she learns becomes his or her medium of communication. What he or she hears most is his or her mother. That is why all researches show that the best understanding happens when the mother language becomes the communication to learn and use when they go to school. Based on this principle many countries in the world have made progress. China is an example. The most developed country in Europe, Germany, is another example. Most of the Asian ‘tigers’ like South Korea are proof in the pudding too. In India they promote their local languages and English and thus you see provincial languages being spoken and English being written. Pakistan is stuck with English, Urdu and local languages where it causes confusions, loss of learning and loss of identity. The waiter in the café was a great example of being an excellent worker but doomed due to the trilingual chaos in his learning life.

  2. Make foreign language learning easy- Research also shows that in the early years when the child is comfortable and confident in his or her own language, its ability to learn a foreign language is much more. That is why when we look at our parents’ era we find many of them speaking English with much more facility despite being taught in the so-called “Urdu medium”. Pakistanis in any case have a great advantage in speaking foreign languages. Urdu has one of the richest alphabets in the world as it is an amalgamation of many languages. Arabic, for example, does not have a “P” sounding alphabet. Thus they will pronounce Pakistan as ‘Bakistan’ and Pepsi as ‘Bepsi’. Similarly, Hindi does not have Zee sound thus they will pronounce ‘zee’ as ‘jee’, etc. In French H is silent, and the in English there are no ‘ghain’, ‘khay’, etc. This means that learning Urdu gives a person a much broader base to learn and speak other languages with proficiency with the right accent.

  3. Get the Confidence- Stuttering and stammering happen due to lack of coordination between mind and mouth. When you think in another language and speak another one the tussle between the two causes pauses, wrong accents and words. This creates hesitancy, embarrassment and lack of self-esteem. That is why many brilliant thinkers in our society do not get the courage to express fully and do not reach the pinnacle their talent deserves. This causes severe intellectual loss to the nation.

The government has made a bold decision to have a single syllabus for public and private schools with early years teaching in Urdu. However, more needs to be done. To support this effort, we need a system that prepares teachers who are trained to teach this way. Teachers who are not experts at making language difficult but interesting and easy. Teachers who inspire students to think and write creative essays, poetry and prose. We need textbooks that are easy to follow and learn. But most of all we need a mindset and paradigm change in giving due respect to our national and local languages. We need to treat foreign languages as foreign that are good to learn but do not define our class, our cadre, our personality, our culture, our identity, and our worth. Development in a foreign language has and will keep on creating an education and communication ‘apartheid’. Foreign languages are rented words that are borrowed and never owned. It is your own language that gives you a sense of belonging and identity. As Jack Edwards said, “What is a nation without a mother tongue”.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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