Education and Language: A Functional Perspective with Special Reference to Urdu

Education requires a medium and that medium is language

It is an exceedingly harmful notion to think that the social playing field in Pakistan can be levelled by raising the English competency of the majority to that of the social elite


It would be best to state at the outset the premises on which this perspective is based:

  1. Education requires a medium and that medium is language.
  2. Education has a number of functions and a different language may be best suited to each one of them.
  3. The only languages that matter for education in Pakistan are the local languages (of which there are many), regional languages (of which there are a handful), Urdu and English.
  4. It is not advisable to impose any language on anyone as that only fosters resistance.

Education for Learning How to Learn

The primary and most essential function of education, one that starts in childhood, is to equip an individual to be able to understand and learn. Without a child’s acquiring the ability to learn, all attempts to teach him or her particular subjects of value would be less than fully effective.

The only tool in this process is language and every child enters school with an intimate familiarity with the language/languages spoken at home and in the immediate environment. These languages give him or her the vocabulary with which to enter into the two-way communication that is needed for the learning process.

The learning process begins naturally by associating visual images to the words with which the child is familiar, by listening to, constructing, and articulating narratives with the help of this vocabulary, and later by writing, reading and understanding the combination of words whose individual meanings are already known to him or her.

It is true that English is the language of upward mobility in Pakistan but this in no way implies that English is the best language with which to begin the process of learning

There is now so much research confirming the claim that the home language is the most effective in facilitating the understanding and learning process in early childhood that there is no need to repeat it here. The alternative is to give up the tool that the child is most familiar with and substitute for it one that is unfamiliar and linguistically not cognate with any of the local or regional languages. Common sense suggests that the outcome from doing so can never be as good although the human mind is so incredibly resilient that even such maltreatment cannot entirely stop the learning process.

Policymakers and parents who insist on early childhood education beginning with a language other than the home language, most often English, are drawing an incorrect inference from a correct observation. It is true that English is the language of upward mobility in Pakistan but this in no way implies that English is the best language with which to begin the process of learning. Such a determination is the domain of cognitive research in pedagogy which, as mentioned earlier, has repeatedly confirmed the superior effectiveness of the home language as the foundation for the learning process. The absurdity of such an inference would be obvious immediately were someone to suggest that all children in Pakistan should be taught from class one in Chinese because that is going to be the language of the future. The correct inference should be that Chinese, like English, could be offered as an optional language at an appropriate stage for those who wish to learn it.

Learning English and learning in English are two very different propositions that are not adequately differentiated in the minds of policymakers and parents.

Learning English and learning in English are two very different propositions that are not adequately differentiated in the minds of policymakers and parents. All they need to do is reflect on the experience of countries like Japan, South Korea and China, all of which have made very rapid progress while retaining their own languages for early childhood education and teaching English at a later stage based on the needs of particular students. By contrast, former British colonies that have given precedence to English at the expense of the home languages in early childhood education are vastly less developed. This comparative evidence should be enough to convince anyone that English alone does not guarantee success if the foundation of learning is impaired in the process.

It would not matter all that much if the emphasis on English in early childhood were costless. It is seemingly so for children in whose homes English is spoken on a regular basis although the effect on their creativity remains unmeasured. But for everyone else the cost is clearly high and parents are damaging their children intellectually by insisting on learning via a language that is unfamiliar to the latter. This can be illustrated through some simple analogies. Everyone agrees that for a child to learn to walk is very important as an end goal. Yet, that does not mean that one should start forcing a child to walk from the day he or she is born. There is a natural physical process of development in which the child has to learn to crawl first before his or her muscles acquire the strength to be able to walk unaided.

Similarly, it is considered important as an end goal for everyone to know how to ride a bicycle or drive a car. Once again, this does not imply that a newborn should be forced to ride a bicycle from birth. Rather, there is a physical process in which the child learns to walk by crawling, learns to maintain his or her balance often with the aid of a tricycle, before being introduced to a bicycle. These analogies are intended to drive home a simple point: Any attempt to force children to walk or ride a bicycle before they have learnt to crawl and maintain balance will result in physical damage. In a very similar manner, attempts to teach in a foreign language before a child has acquired the ability to learn will result in cognitive damage. Parents realize the former but not the latter because physical damage is observable while cognitive damage is not. It exists, all the same, with deleterious lifelong consequences.

Urdu has no special place or claim in early childhood education. It is at par with all the other local languages of Pakistan and should be the medium of instruction only for those children whose home language is Urdu.

Education for the Purposes of Functional Interactions

The functions of daily life today entail interactions of almost every individual with external agents be they related to the formal bureaucracy or to the private sector. Thus, everyone has to fill forms for obtaining identity cards or bank accounts, to read bills received from utilities, to read instructions on products, often hazardous like crop sprays, or to follow critical operating procedures on the job floor. Productivity is greatly enhanced by a functional literacy and numeracy that facilitates such interactions and ensures compliance.

The overly large size of provinces in Pakistan does pose an issue in this regard. Thus, Hindko can claim to be a prominent regional language in KPK along with Pashto while Saraiki can do the same in Punjab along with the Punjabi of Central Punjab

Given the number of languages in Pakistan, it is not possible for such documents or instructions to be issued in all of them. But given the localized nature of the interactions, it is certainly possible to do so in the dominant provincial languages. For this reason, there is a strong case for the teaching of the provincial language following early childhood education in the home language. The general practice in Europe, which has a similar mix of home and regional languages, is to introduce the regional language in secondary school.

The overly large size of provinces in Pakistan does pose an issue in this regard. Thus, Hindko can claim to be a prominent regional language in KPK along with Pashto while Saraiki can do the same in Punjab along with the Punjabi of Central Punjab. In this regard, the policy in India of carving out smaller states along linguistic lines offers food for thought.

Education for the Job Market and Advanced Training

It is quite true that knowledge of English yields advantage in the job market and is also a globally dominant language for advanced education in the sciences as well as of the transmission of information via the Internet. For this reason, there is a demand and a strong case for English to be offered as a language. The only question is at what stage of a child’s education, should he or she. begin learning English as an additional language. There are varying opinions on this but given the number of languages that need to be learnt in Pakistan, the optimal time might be in high school.

For those who desire to pursue professional education, the medium of instruction can shift to English when the student enters college. He or she would have a sufficient platform to follow the limited technical vocabulary required for training in the professional disciplines. The study of English as a language can continue to proceed simultaneously for those desirous of pursuing it.

Education for Upward Social Mobility

The desire for upward social mobility is an understandable aspiration but the notion that it can be achieved by acquiring English is problematic. While it may be sufficient in some individual cases there is no historical evidence of such a phenomenon on a mass scale. Social status is largely inherited or acquired by the rapid accumulation of wealth that is legitimized over a span of two to three generations. The proposition that everyone or anyone can be taught English to the level that they can breach the social elite, the Eliza Doolittle phenomenon, is unrealistic in the extreme and well-lampooned by George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion.

If the aim is to level the social playing field, a much more realistic approach is to increase the salience of regional languages by requiring competency in them. This can be achieved for example by having sections of college entrance examinations and employment tests in these languages. The signal would transmit itself rapidly to parents and educational institutions that competency in these languages has become essential for competitive reasons. Many more positions of social importance would become accessible to those who are intellectually competent but not sufficiently well-versed in English. The Russian example illustrates this well: the elite was French-speaking at one time but is now educated in Russian like the rest of the population.

Education for Active Citizenship

Active citizenship, a necessity in the era of representative governance, requires two types of inter-group communications. First, the ability of citizens of a country to communicate with each other, and second, the ability of the ruled to communicate with their representatives. There is no getting away from the fact that this requires a link language, a choice that has acquired problematic dimensions in many postcolonial countries (including the pre-1971 Pakistan) comprised of groups speaking different languages.

The case for Urdu rests on the fact that while it can be considered a local but not a regional language of Pakistan, it has by virtue of path dependence already become the de facto link language.

This potentially contentious subject calls for a pragmatic, level-headed and unemotional, approach. It should be obvious that just by virtue of being local and regional, these languages cannot serve the purpose of being a link language. The real choice in the post-1971 Pakistan is between Urdu and English.

The case for Urdu rests on the fact that while it can be considered a local but not a regional language of Pakistan, it has by virtue of path dependence already become the de facto link language. Thus, when people speaking different local languages in the Northern Areas get together, they inevitable communicate with each other in Urdu, no matter how broken. This process is likely to continue on its own and Urdu will increasingly serve as the link language for the ordinary people in the country. Not much additional benefit would be obtained in this regard by any official anointing of Urdu for the purpose. In fact, the results are likely to be counter-productive. It is best to consider Urdu as one amongst the local languages that, for reasons of our tortured history, has emerged as the de facto link language.

The case for English rests on the perverse argument that Urdu, being just one of the local languages, should not be privileged in any way over the others. It is better to avoid any notion of bias by adopting a completely alien language, ironically one that was the language of the hated colonial masters. To avoid this semblance of bias in unduly favoring one local language over others, the proponents are willing to pay the price of entrenching the existing social privilege and hierarchy since it is neither necessary nor possible to raise everyone’s English to the level of the fluency of the social elite. It is socially much more progressive to increase competence in a language that is already serving as the link language instead of importing a colonial language for that purpose. The advocacy of English as the link language is a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Education as the Repository of Wisdom

An under-appreciated but potentially most important function of education is to connect an individual with the repository of wisdom that is contained primarily in literature and to thereby enable the abstract and critical thinking that comes with encountering issues without categorical answers. It is for this reason that the study of literature is considered an essential part of a full education. Over the years, this dimension has suffered a great decline in Pakistan manifested in the concomitant rise of intolerance and rigid thinking.

The choice of which literature to study requires considerable thought because it is not a neutral either/or choice. The literature in English is very rich but requires background knowledge of history and culture that is beyond the competence of even most teachers of English literature in Pakistan. For example, Milton is full of Biblical allusions and Joyce replete with references to Greek epics that require extensive familiarity before the narratives can be fully appreciated.

In this regard, the obvious conclusion to stress Urdu literature in Pakistan must be subjected to critical reflection. The written literature in the language is fairly recent. Some of it was produced, as at Fort Williams College starting in 1800, to further colonial imperatives. Quite a significant amount came into being in the aftermath of the defeat of 1857 and espoused instrumentalist revivalist objectives through a return to religion and piety, prescribing social norms to be followed by women, and fostering nationalism of various varieties. This caution relates much more to prose than to poetry. The instrumental prose texts found their way over the years into most syllabi intended for the study of Urdu literature. It is revealing to read from the preface of Hafiz Mahmud Sherani’s, Sarmaya-e-Urdu, which was the standard text for matriculation students till not very long ago, that an explicit objective of the author’s selections was to promote nationalism among the readers.

The ability to express and communicate ideas well requires fluency in, and familiarity with, the literature of at least one language.

Given the above, selections from Urdu literature, especially prose, must be subjected to conscious critical review. It would be advisable to stress the much older literary traditions of the regional languages that are much less compromised in this regard. In addition, for those pursuing a literary education seriously, an exposure to Persian would be beneficial as its stock of wisdom is the equal of any other language and serves as key to understanding much of the cultural history of Islamicate South and Central Asia.

Knowledge of a classical language has many other benefits as well including embedding foreign ideas in a familiar framework to make them relevant in new contexts. In this regard, a comment by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is very suggestive of this phenomenon:

I decided that I had to combine some understandings generated by Marxian analysis with other political and intellectual lines of reasoning. I was very strongly influenced by Adam Smith—his economics as well as his philosophy. And John Stuart Mill. I had to combine all that along with my own interests. Sanskrit was, along with mathematics, my favorite subject. And I knew the Sanskrit classics, including the Lokayata, which is of the materialist school. So I was influenced by a number of things. In many ways, the old Sanskrit studies that I had, along with, for the want of a better word, left or progressive European thought, combined well with me.

Education for Expression

Another under-appreciated dimension of education pertains to its role in facilitating effective expression. It is not sufficient to have excellent ideas if one is unable to articulate them and communicate them to others. Some researchers have gone so far as to claim that it is not possible to think clearly without first having a vocabulary with which to articulate the thoughts. Even if such a claim is discounted, the acquisition of an extensive vocabulary is important because without one abstract ideas cannot be translated into the words required for good communication. An extensive vocabulary can only be acquired through the practice of frequent and continuous reading, a practice that has been progressively marginalized in schools in Pakistan.

The ability to express and communicate ideas well requires fluency in, and familiarity with, the literature of at least one language. This language can be a matter of individual choice though pragmatism would tend to favor either Urdu or English because of their more universal usage in Pakistan. Since the fundamental competency of effective communication is transferable, the rewards from a wide reading in Urdu would exceed that of investing the same effort in English simply because Urdu is a more familiar language cognate with most local and regional languages.


The bottom line of this analysis is that education has different functions and languages are variously suited to each. Early childhood education should be in the home language to facilitate learning followed by the introduction of the regional language in secondary school for functional literacy and English in high school as a window to the world of higher education. English can be the medium of instruction for those pursuing professional education in college.

For everyday functionality, the regional languages offer the best choice. For access to the repository of wisdom, the regional languages also have much to recommend them. The corpus of Urdu literature, especially prose, requires a degree of critical analysis before its adoption for reasons of its association with colonial imperatives and instrumentalist ethos following the trauma of 1857. For serious students of literature and those interested in Islamicate history, Persian is highly recommended at an advanced level.

The vital function of serving as a link language in Pakistan is increasingly being performed by Urdu without any formal push in that direction. In this regard, Urdu is a better choice than English but that does not require it being officially anointed for the purpose which would only serve to stir controversy that cannot be resolved on the basis of reason alone. It should be left to the provinces to decide if they wish to include Urdu in the school curriculum or progress from the home language to English via the regional language alone. Urdu should be considered at par with the other local languages to be utilized as desired by the provincial governments.

Along with learning a language for its instrumental advantages, it should not be overlooked that effective expression and communication requires extensive reading in at least one language to acquire the vocabulary required to translate ideas into words in a convincing and aesthetically pleasing manner. The choice of language for this purpose can be left to the individual although, for pragmatic reasons in a mobile world, it would come down to one between Urdu and English.

Finally, it is an exceedingly harmful notion to think that the social playing field in Pakistan can be levelled by raising the English competency of the majority to that of the social elite. It would be much more desirable and doable to raise the profile of the regional languages for competitive purposes so that the social elite has to compete on a wicket for which the non-elite could realistically be better prepared.

The recommendations advanced in this perspective are intended to serve as a vision for the future whose achievement would undoubtedly involve much toil. The difficulties that would be faced in implementation are not insignificant but they should not be allowed to serve as an excuse for a continuation of the status quo. Not doing anything would be an immense disservice to the vast majority of the coming generations.


Dr. Anjum Altaf earned his PhD from Stanford University. He was Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He is the author of Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction and What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan, both published by Folio Books, Lahore, in 2022.

Courtesy: Dr. Anjum Altaf/ The South Asian Idea (Received on March 6, 2023)

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