The case of shamed language Why Urdu continues to be problematic
AS if our country’s economic woes weren’t giving us enough restless nights already, it seems Pakistan’s language-shaming culture has taken the spotlight yet again. This time the victim was a student who was heartbreakingly ridiculed by the very person who was supposed to nurture him. An English-medium private school in Karachi’s North Nazimabad has come under scrutiny where a young male student was subjected to heart-breaking humiliation for speaking Urdu. His ordeal was made viral by his father whose plea to look into the incident of having his son mocked with black ink smeared on his face was met with a lukewarm response of a resignation by the teacher in question. However, that is pretty much what you will get from a country that has for decades sidelined its multilingual framework of communication, only to lay emphasis on the English language as being the very symbol of elite and distinction.
For a nation that has well over forty languages spoken in its four provinces, you would think our sheer strength would lie in our ability to converse in so many ways. And yet, the small languages of Pakistan actually pose a threat to our urgency to lead in the race of superiority and class. For it is English that would lead us out of the dark ages; it will allow us to commune with the world over our distressful situation of economic, political, and cultural downfall. But, hey, at least we shall do so with a fine way of expression. That is the kind of vision with which we have allowed Urdu- a language of poetic stances; a language that defines aesthetic tones in works of art, to take a backseat.
Looking at where it all began, it is pretty much evident that the ripple effects of colonialism continue to ring through. The British establishment of English schools and teaching mechanisms in hopes of modernizing its colonies in the 19th century has led to an identity crisis in most former colonies till today and Pakistan is no exception. Our very education system is based on two concrete divisions- the English Medium and the Urdu Medium. For parents aspiring to see their children get fancy college degrees from abroad or jobs at multinational companies, the UK-based qualification system of O and A-levels are the way to go.
Whereas those with a lack of educational drive, financial limitations, and that notable segmentation of girls who need a certificate just before being married off, the Urdu-based Matriculation and FA/FSC degree would do just fine. Our very own educational system is driven by Urdu shaming. Yes, there is no other way to phrase it. With the advancement of technology, teaching methodologies have definitely gotten an upgrade with interactive and creative tools to garner better interest from students. And yet, when we look at the outdated Urdu syllabus, the antediluvian books, and the rather mundane vision of teaching and applying it in practical life, the whole system is a failure. Institutions and educators have been following the same old musty style which lacks a spark of eagerness to inspire.
Not much different from what children experience at home with parents voicing their discontent as they flip through their kids’ Urdu books and openly wage a war against the national language with words like: “It’s just too hard, even for us”. The fact is, we have for the longest time considered English as being the language of education. In our bid to actually move forth toward a globalized society, schools have been casually slipping the need to communicate in English. Because it is not just ‘cool’ but it shall allow you to be noticed and with such harrowing incidents where a teacher herself leads to the shaming of her student, having to speak Urdu is becoming a proverbial insult. Parents too are unknowingly part of the bandwagon as they find pride, slipping in a few words or sentences in English to their regular conversations. For it has for long become the dire stature of growth and acceptance- that too on just the national level.
Who can blame the next generation for being demotivated if this is our representation of the national language of Pakistan? The suggested transition to a National Curriculum aimed at bringing on equality of educational opportunities by enforcing certain subjects to be taught in Urdu seemed too much too fast. This further solidified the barrier of indifference. The first thing we need to emphasize is our willingness to embrace Urdu as an asset to our identity. In a bid towards the globalization trend, we may be neglecting the very thing to our core existence. Can we really afford to alienate ourselves from it when there isn’t much else to root our cultural stature? Only when we accept our national language as our pride, will we bring on an accepting ambiance where students, athletes, restaurant managers, and anyone who has ever been humiliated for speaking their mother tongue is compensated for the mockery for speaking in a language that was never wrong, never problematic in any way.
—The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.