Education, Development, and Change
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Language Policy

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui
DAWN Monday, 19 July, 2010
LANGUAGE plays a central role in the process of learning and the achievement of educational pursuits. Besides being an instrument of communication and of access to education, language is also the marker of identity at the personal and societal levels.

This role of language was quite evident during the Pakistan movement when different languages were used as distinguishing identity markers for the various populations of united India. Urdu was associated with Muslims while Hindi and Punjabi were tagged with Hindus and Sikhs respectively. After partition Pakistan, with its colonial past, had the choice of either adopting the language of its erstwhile masters; English, as its state language or the language of the majority, Bangla. The choice made, however, was Urdu because of an emotional association with it as well as for other reasons.

This declaration of Urdu as the state language disappointed the majority of the population, the citizens of East Pakistan whose mother tongue was Bangla. They overwhelmingly demanded that Bangla be declared the state language in addition to Urdu. The Bengali language movement was accompanied by violent protests resulting in Bangla being finally declared the second language of the state. The movement underlines the significance of language as a symbol of identity.

The other local languages spoken in the provinces, including Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto and Balochi, were unfortunately either ignored or relegated to an inferior status. This attitude was manifested in the lack of institutional support offered to these languages. A case in point is Punjabi: it is the mother tongue of about 50 per cent of the citizens of Pakistan but is not taught as a subject at school level. Thus the children of Punjabi families cannot read or write in their mother tongue and are literally cut off from the rich literary heritage of their language. To a lesser extent this is true of other Pakistani languages as well.

Interestingly, the declaration of Urdu as the state language had no adverse impact on the English language, which continued to be the most powerful language in offices, courts and the corridors of power, including the bureaucracy, army and the judiciary. The major role played by English as the language of power had multiple effects on Pakistan’s educational domain. A number of the country’s leaders — Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haq — issued political statements in favour of Urdu but did not take the concrete step of introducing it within the domains of power.

With this meaningless lip service to Urdu, we saw the emergence of some scholars who vehemently opposed the English language and English-medium schools in Pakistan. Although this opposition could be based on good intentions, it ignored the global role played by English in terms of jobs, higher studies, trade, etc. Since 1947, we have witnessed tension between adherence to the national linguistic heritage and a compelling desire to reach out.

The two competing schools of thought tend to totally reject the other in Pakistan. The school of thought that is in favour of Urdu or the local languages does not see any role for English. The other school of thought, which favours English, considers native languages insignificant. Since the latter is in power, local languages are either ignored or their potential underestimated. No institutional support is provided to them and they are being subjected to a slow death. The painful fact is that many students who are being educated in English-medium schools find it difficult to read a book written in their mother tongue. Many do not know how to count in Urdu or in their mother tongue. The reason is obvious: they are exposed to English primers before any other reading material. They start learning the English alphabet before any other.

As stated before, English is an important contemporary language and to oppose it would amount to depriving the people of a passport to enhanced opportunities for success in life. Pakistanis must learn English but not at the cost of rejecting local languages. In fact, we should be striving for a balance between English and the local languages. Such a balance can only be achieved if our local languages are given respect and validation through institutional support. This would mean introducing them in primary classes as a subject.

The significance of exposing students to their native languages lies not just in providing them with additional linguistic tools for communication but also in helping them associate with their cultural roots, of which language is an important manifestation.

We have seen a number of educational policies instituted by different governments but never has there been a comprehensive document on language policy. Excerpts from different documents refer to certain claimed objectives but they were not bolstered by institutional support. There is a serious need to carve out a policy that is realistic in nature and that makes the attempt to preserve local languages and cultures.

The writer is a professor & director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.


  1. Thank you, Dr Siddiqui, for this thought-provoking piece, and for the blog in general. I have just reacted to it on my blog on language and education, Bolii.

    That Punjabi is not even taught as a subject is strange. Have there not been moves in the last few decades to introduce other languages into the school system?

    I have also added your blog to my bloglist.

    Thank you, once again

    Giri RAO
    Hyderabad, India

  2. Thanks Giri jee, Nice to to see you comment. Please stay in touch.

  3. Dear Dr. Saddique
    I read your article and find it interesting because you have highlighted interesting things regarding the language.I am using some of your words for my presentation on language policy in Pakistan. I am a graduate student at Aga khan University Institute for Educational development Karachi. I have two days to go for my presentation in TESOL Course. I am optimistic to do justice with your work.

    hoping that you will allow me. you may intimate me through
    Many thanks