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Language confusion: Urdu or English?


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The polity of our national confusion on most issues facing the country stems from the unresolved adoption of a single medium of instruction in schools. Living in a part of Lahore, which is the preserve of the Cantonment Board, this confusion seems even more bewildering and unsettling to one’s psyche.

Recently, the repainting of road signs was undertaken in the Cantonment area but the repainted road signs are now just in English. The names of the roads in Urdu have simply been left out. One can only surmise on what prompted the Cantonment authorities to take this decision of not having road signs in both Urdu and English?

There could be a number of reasons for this choice. Firstly, why bother with Urdu at all — it is presumed that everybody knows English in the country, anyway. Second, it looks more ‘educated’ if the road signs are just in English. Third, one’s amnesia about the common man in Pakistan — why look out for them as most are illiterate or semi-literate and they cannot read road signs in English. Fourth, the officials at the Board are unaware that Urdu is our national language and countries across the world write road signs in their respective national languages. Or, maybe it is a ruse to make all Pakistanis switch over to English entirely and ensure that all its citizens must now use English at all cost?

It seems that there is no conspiracy theory behind this but it is surely an indication of the utter confusion that prevails in our country due to a lack of a solid education that promotes good moral values and principles, analytical thinking and a curiosity of mind that accesses all kinds of knowledge through reading and observation. For the past so many years, the view of education has been to provide textbooks, guarantee that they are learnt by rote, and make sure that examination questions provide a platform for regurgitation of knowledge. The skill to understand and comprehend fully the knowledge being imparted is sacrificed at the altar of firstly, the choice of language to adopt as medium of instruction and then, not laying enough emphasis on learning that language fluently. Today, barely a handful of Pakistani children can claim to be fluent in Urdu or English. In fact it has become “Urdlish”, a mixture of both languages and extremely unnerving to watch and hear when exposed to it on media channels.

Just a couple of days ago, it was reported in the newspaper that Jamaat-i-Islami had criticised the policy of teaching English from class-1 in government schools. The Jamaat-i-Islami felt that this policy will create a further decline in educational standards because English as a medium of instruction will ensure that many will lag behind because of non-fluency in the language. They recommend that English be taught as a subject and not as a medium of instruction. Thus, the debate continues on whether the language of instruction should be Urdu or English and till this issue is sorted out, raising educational standards in the country becomes impossible.

Since 2008, the Punjab Education Assessment System (PEAS) is assessing the standard of government school students in two or three subjects. Their findings reveal that students gain less marks in Urdu language compared to other subjects. English is not one of the subjects chosen by them to test students on, so the standard of English cannot be gauged. However, the quality of the prescribed textbook for class-1 English in government schools leaves much to be desired and is sure to promote rote learning of English. As for the medium of instruction, the Education Department officials are adamant that only Mathematics and Science subjects will be taught in English.

A renowned educationist suggests that those of us who are trained in the western tradition of education are made to think in the “either/or” strain. It is either quality or cost; either service or speed; either academic excellence based on marks and examinations or overall development. However, success comes with thinking with an ‘and’. This means quality at an affordable cost; service fast; academic excellence with overall development as success comes through character building. It is the same with the language issue where an “either/or” thinking has to stop. The Urdu or English debate has to stop and an honest approach should be adopted. Both Urdu and English must get premium time and the best of learning tools to make students fluent in both languages while research clearly enunciates that the use of the mother tongue at the primary level promotes better understanding and literacy. Learning English as a second language is important in a world of increasing globalisation but as a language of communication and not, perhaps, as a medium of instruction.

Linguistic ability is the medium through which knowledge is acquired and if that is not up to par, the purpose of educating an individual is lost and quality suffers. Pakistan’s policy makers have dilly dallied for far too long on giving firm direction to the way languages will be acquired at school level. The English/Urdu medium divide has already created apartheid in society and lowered standards of education in the country. Will policy makers take note and decide whether it will be Urdu and English with regional languages being used at primary level or are we to interminably continue with the Urdu or English divide?

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore.

Comments (4) Closed

shumila malik Jul 01, 2013 01:26am

This Urdu-English divide is beyond me. it's a pity our policy makers don't get the idea straight that English is a universal language and that we need to adapt to change if we wish to ever prosper. speaking English or learning English at schools and colleges doesn't mean in any way that we are moving away from our culture; it only means we are keeping pace with change for change is the only thing that's constant in today's world. I believe all students in Pakistan should be taught English and teachers and educators must be trained to perform their jobs better! Check out our neighboring country for a change...they speak Hindi and English as fluently as anything. That's what progress is....keeping up with the present times.

khalilsharif Jul 01, 2013 04:37am

We being a nation do not recognize our self as a nation among the modern time nation in the world. We are still very low profile people in this modern world. We have example of Japan & China who use their identity as a nation and feel comfort to use their own language, instead of the foreign one. It is interesting to know that the Japanese as well as Chinese languages having alphabets more than our Urdu national language. No doubt English has its own importance in its new scientific values but why we feel shame to speak our national language at home? We must realize that if we want to become a modern nation then we have to equip our selves with starting point to translate the modern books into Urdu as well as the teaching of IT information to introduce at early stage in schools, the children must aware of it in their national language.Preschool as well as post school education up to 5th class will be in their mother language and from class 6th to own-wards arrangements should be made for study in English with the help of national language.

Ghalib Jul 02, 2013 09:57am

Both languages are foreign to poor Pakistanis, why not stick with English, at least rest of the world understands it.

gopal Jul 03, 2013 03:08am

It can be both,sorry,it must be three. One local,second national,third English. Follow the Indian system even though you hate the Indians.