Switch to Urdu from English as official language a hurdle for Pakistan
ISLAMABAD — Eight percent of Pakistan's population speak the language as its native tongue.
Only one word of it — “ka,” meaning “of” — is in the country's three-stanza, 56-word national anthem.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in August ordered the government to replace English with Urdu as its official language. English has been the country's recognized language since its independence 68 years ago.
Citing Article 251, the court noted that the 1973 constitution declared Urdu the official language of Pakistan and the government was to arrange for its use for official and other purposes within 15 years of the constitution's adoption, or by 1988.
The constitution allowed that “the English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu.” The government never really made the switch, however, so the court ordered the central and provincial governments to translate all laws into Urdu and to conduct entry tests for civil service jobs in that language.
The court asked that Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and public officials deliver speeches in Urdu. Sharif is considering speaking with President Obama in Urdu at their Thursday meeting at the White House.
The court ruling has triggered debate in Pakistan between those who believe promotion of a national language is essential to the country's identity and those who fear the change will impede development.
“It does not seem like a good move for the country to take,” said Brian D. Joseph, professor of linguistics at Ohio State University.
Joseph said that, speaking in practical terms, “it is a fact of our modern world that English, and access to English, makes a difference for access to higher education and jobs.”
Faiz Rehman, a Pakistani native who heads Voice of America Urdu in Washington, said even though Urdu is not the native language of the majority of Pakistan, it is universally used and understood across the country more than any other language.
“A nation needs one single language. Urdu has been the language of the Muslims in the subcontinent and has become the main language of Pakistan because of its history and richness,” Rehman said.
The Pakistani government spent billions of rupees to train teachers and design the curriculum so students who hear Urdu at home are taught to speak English in class to give them greater opportunities in global markets. The impact on schools is uncertain, just as technology experts are concerned the court-ordered language switch could reverse ongoing software, automation and security system improvements.
Raza Baloch, an analyst who comments on social issues and current affairs on Pakistani TV talk shows and writes for English newspapers in Balochistan province, said translating government laws, research, office records and other documents to Urdu will consume decades and a lot of money. He said Pakistan has numerous challenges, including terrorism, extremism, poverty, illiteracy, an energy crisis, water issues and bad governance.
Farrukh Khan Pitafi, an Islamabad-based TV journalist, agreed, calling adoption of Urdu “impractical.” Urdu is a short language lacking substitute words for many routinely used in daily life, such as university, Internet, website, mobile phone and computer.
“When you want to use a language in universities, colleges, hospitals, laboratories and management, you need a treasure trove of vocabulary,” Pitafi said. “Sadly, that kind of (Urdu) vocabulary hasn't been developed yet.”
Joseph and others interviewed said languages are flexible and evolving, and Urdu vocabulary could expand by adopting words from other languages. How easily that might be accomplished, they said, is uncertain.
The Muttahida Quami Movement, a political party with a majority of Urdu speakers, and other supporters of the court order note that English — the “lingua franca” of most government ministries and the elite — is spoken by a small percentage of the population.
Forty-eight percent of Pakistanis speak Punjabi; 12 percent, Sindhi; 10 percent, Saraiki; 8 percent each, Pashto and Urdu; 3 percent, Balochi; 2 percent, Hindko; and 1 percent, Brahui.
Urdu supporters cite a UNESCO study suggesting nations have bilingual and multilingual education systems with a basic focus on the language understandable to the majority.
Some Pakistani government agencies have started introducing Urdu versions of their websites, including the nation's central bank. The State Department, under outgoing Ambassador Richard Olson, started an Urdu language website for missions in the country. Recently, Mobilink, the largest cellular firm in Pakistan, introduced an Urdu version of Whatsapp.
But Urdu supporters complain the government is dragging its feet. The National Language Promotion Department, established to promote the national language, is overwhelmed by the gigantic task of translating millions of official documents such as laws, government rules, court rulings, land titles and other records into Urdu.
Room for compromise?
Aamer Hussein, a London-based Pakistani author whose books include “Another Gulmohar Tree” (2009) and “The Cloud Messenger” (2011), said in a talk at the Institute of Business Administration that he supports maintaining English as the second language in Pakistan, as it is in South Korea, China, Tunisia and other countries.
Rehman agreed that Urdu's position as the official language should not come at the expense of other languages in Pakistan.
Some argue that Pakistan's imposition of Urdu on Bengali-speaking citizens led to the 1971 breakaway formation of Bangladesh. Though no Bangladesh-like disintegration of Pakistan is imminent, there is resentment in Punjab, the most populous and wealthiest province, and in other, smaller provinces over the Urdu designation.
Fateh Muhammad Malik, former head of the National Language Promotion Department, dispelled any notion that Urdu is being imposed as the only language choice for non-Urdu speaking communities during an interview with the Tribune-Review. He said Urdu was chosen as the official national language because it is widely understood and used.
Ishtiaq Ahmed, an Islamabad-based reporter, was one of two Pakistani journalists the Tribune-Review hosted for a month last year in a professional partnership program through the International Center for Journalists.