‘Urdu medium’

Published March 30, 2019

IF you eat at one of Karachi’s upscale restaurants, chances are that the conversations you overhear from nearby tables will be in English.

This is equally true of ice cream parlours and cafés in the high-end Defence and Clifton areas where kids chatter on with varying degrees of fluency in English. Ditto high-rise corporate offices where executives are almost banned from speaking in Urdu by an unwritten edict.

So what’s going on in Pakistan, a country that gained its freedom from British rule 72 years ago? Why this growing use of the language of our erstwhile colonial masters decades after their departure? This trend has marginalised our national and regional languages, and weakened creativity.

Also read: The case for Urdu as Pakistan's official language

When speaking to friends, we unconsciously switch from Urdu to English and back when we don’t find the right word in one language. And let me confess that I am very much part of this syndrome. I recall that years ago, we were fined four annas (or 25 paisa) at St Patrick’s, my missionary school, for speaking in Urdu to our friends during the break.

There is widespread recognition that English is the language of power.

The other day, while picking up some sourdough bread off Karachi’s Zamzama Road, I was accosted by a young boy of around 10, asking me to buy a children’s book. This was hardly unusual. What was unusual, however, was his insistence in speaking to me in good English, although he was clearly from a working-class family, and thus unlikely to be educated in a private school.

Clearly, there is a widespread recognition that English is the language of power. Among the children of well-to-do parents, ‘Urdu medium’ is almost an insult. Kids understand early on that Urdu is the language you use to order servants in, while English is used by their parents to communicate to friends and family.

Take a look: The imperialism of language

Poorer parents also get this message, and sacrifice much of their meagre resources to pay for their children to study in so-called ‘English-medium’ schools. However, there are only a handful of institutions that impart instruction in correct English, and charge very high fees that are way beyond the means of most parents.

But if you are lucky enough to graduate with a relatively sound command of spoken English, many doors are open to you. Intelligence counts for little as it is assumed that if you can speak English fluently, you must not just be bright, but from a well-connected family as well. So you start life with a distinct advantage, looking down on those less fortunate people whose accent identifies them as ‘Urdu medium’.

And if these lesser beings presume to address you in English, chances are that you will respond in Urdu, thus putting them in their place. This kind of linguistic arrogance divides our society in a way not dissimilar to the division in British society. Here, attendance at expensive private boarding schools like Eton and Harrow gives you not just the right accent, but a certain attitude that immediately identifies you as the product of an elite school. To pay for this privilege, parents will mortgage their homes to ensure their kids have an edge.

Despite the clear advantages fluency in English endows, there is much confusion and hypocrisy surrounding its teaching and use. Our policymakers and public representatives extol the use of Urdu and pay lip service to its propagation. But guess where their children are educated? Even our senior clerics have been known to send their kids to America for higher education, forgetting the anti-America slogans they chant so fervently.

Admission to schools like Lahore’s Aitchison College and Karachi’s Grammar School is like gold dust. There are scores of applicants for each place, and tiny five-year olds are examined for suitability, though what such a young child is expected to know is beyond me. But just to make sure his or her parents are the ‘right’ sort, they are summoned for an interview as well.

Once admitted, the child’s path in life is more or less charted. Graduation is often followed by a university in America; then comes a job in a sound corporation — preferably a multinational — or daddy’s company; marriage to somebody with a similar background is next; and then comes the struggle to ensure admission for the children in an elite school.

But in the midst of this programmed life cycle of a tiny elite is the huge loss we suffer due to the exclusion of many gifted children born without the privileges our elites take for granted. These marginalised individuals remain stuck in the grooves etched by our adherence to English.

Thus, we have not only excluded women and minorities from important positions, but have shrunk our talent pool by focusing almost exclusively on English. This has led to a situation where most kids today leave school without a sound grasp of either English or Urdu. And inevitably, we lose an important part of our cultural heritage.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2019

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