The importance of education: Economics of the English language in Pakistan

Published: February 11, 2013

Among those in Pakistan who claim to be proficient in English, only one in 10 is actually good in written and spoken English, remaining 90% cannot speak more than a sentence or two of correct English. CREATIVE COMMONS

LONDON: 

It might come as a complete surprise to many that Pakistan is one of the least accomplished countries amongst those who proclaim to be ‘English-speaking’ countries.

Among those in Pakistan who claim to be proficient in English, only one in 10 is actually good in written and spoken English, the remaining 90% cannot speak more than a sentence or two of correct English. When it comes to writing English, they are slightly better but writing more than one page would be considered a challenge.

The lack of English language proficiency is costing the country dearly. Most of our politicians who claim to be proficient in English (but actually are not) fail to present the country effectively on the international stage. Similarly, our bureaucrats arrogantly claim to be proficient in English, but in fact lack, in most cases, the vocabulary and expression one would consider adequate and appropriate for diplomatic discussions.

As a result, they fail to negotiate favourable terms for us when representing the country vis-à-vis other countries.

When it comes to sports, our stars fail to utter more than a couple of sentences in correct English. Consequently, while they may bring medals and pride to the country through their achievements, they miserably fail to develop an erudite image of the country.

Quite the contrary. After winning a tournament or championship, we still end up leaving the impression to the wider world of being a crude and unsophisticated nation.

Why does the country remain poor in English despite its people taking pride in the English language, culture and heritage? There is a simple explanation. The country has failed to invest in teaching the English language sufficiently.

English tutelage starts at schools. While public schools have almost no qualified English language teachers, a vast majority of private schools have an inadequate and largely unqualified teaching staff for English. Admittedly in large cities, English language proficiency is better, but one must emphasise that it is only marginally better.

Edbiz Consulting, an international advisory firm with offices in London and Islamabad, estimates that there are approximately 50,000 families in Pakistan that are sufficiently consummate in English: only a fraction of the total number of households (estimated to be about 30 million) in the country. Interestingly, less than 1% of families considered to be linguistically proficient are involved in teaching English.

Yet there is an overwhelming desire to learn English as it provides a significant commercial opportunity in the field of teaching English. The global market of English language training is worth billions of dollars, although there are no reliable estimates for the size of the market.

In Pakistan, the government spearheaded the National Institute of Modern Languages in 1970, which was upgraded to a university and renamed as the National University of Modern Languages in 2000. While this was a worthwhile initiative, the government has not been able to develop similar projects since.

Given the enervated state of public sector institutions, it will never be possible to provide high-quality instruction of the English language on a national level. This allows the private sector to develop a viable business model to grab this huge opportunity. There are already a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are undertaking commendable work, most notably the recently concluded English Access Microscholarship Programme, jointly developed by the US Embassy and the Society for International Education.

This kind of work has existed in Pakistan through different organisations and is expected to continue as part of the development agenda of various governments and NGOs, but there is a lacuna that the private sector has a real opportunity in filling.

English language instruction must be offered as part of a commercial enterprise focusing on development of soft skills (eg effective communication, people management, team work, writing personal curriculum vitae, etc). Although one may find all kinds of advertisements of English language schools and academies in big cities like Karachi and Lahore, these are predominately small places set up by an individual or a group of friends (in some cases as a transitory job). In Islamabad, the House of Knowledge has been the only private English language institution with some limited value and repute since 1980.

No private sector institution has taken a systematic and commercial approach to teaching English in the country, thereby missing a multi-billion opportunity. This needs to change sooner rather than later.

THE WRITER IS AN ECONOMIST AND A PHD FROM CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • jawad R
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:15AM

    Does it important that people speak and write english better what the writter describing or there understanding to know english is better?? What does the writter research about Chinese – do Chinese know english?? What about German or French?? The most important thing for Pakistan is content development in local language to educate people rather to focus on englishism ….. I think if the writter spend his energies on other research wrok which can benefit Pakistan and Pakistanis would be important then writting on useless subject. I believe that I also made many mistakes in this comment but it would be commuincate what i am writting – which matter a lot then …………….

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  • Asad Shairani
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:19AM

    Surprised to read such an ignorant article by someone (apparently) so educated. While I do agree with some of the points in the second part of the article – which emphasizes on the commercial (but exaggerated) importance of English, I strongly disagree with the writer’s comments reg our sportsmen and politicians/diplomats. It is not our inefficiency in English which is harming us, it is our incompetence in strategic affairs. It is not our cricketers’ bad English which is damaging our image , it is our continuous ignorance of our domestic problems.

    In a time where there is increasing demand for education in ones native language – I find it amusing to read an article which emphasizes, without any reasoning or evidence, the learning of a language as a tool to improve a nation’s standing in the world.

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  • S
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:20AM

    Why do we take pride in speaking English or why do we have to take pride? Invest I education not English, there r many countries who don’t educate their children in English and r very successful not talking about Chinese (they r very good example) but also Germans, French and more!

    Please let’s not forget out own culture. We need to make our own history and our own legacy which we can never do if we keep on following some one else

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  • Ahad Khan
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:44AM

    You raised a good point, but English of ours is, I believe, sufficient for international cooperation. So even though you are right you are skewed to the wrong. Our culture specially the English-Urdu pattern allows us to assimilate with the western nations. For instance look at China and Russia, both nations are very inwards(culturally), despite their even greater capability to mingle with the western economies. This article will wonderfully fit the Russians, Chinese, Koreans etc., but not fruitfully with Pakistan.Pakistan needs to focus on other things. This is not an issue.

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  • A
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:53AM

    Dear Sir,

    Whilst understanding the purpose of your article, I do not understand the ‘ghulami’ we face with regards to the English Language? With all due respect, your article would have made much more sense had you been emphasising on the lack of attention given to Urdu in our society, and how much value it should be given.

    Why must we be shunned from society if we cannot speak English in an accent? Why must we be ‘oh-so-articulate’ in this foreign language and not know about the wonderful literature available to us in our native language(s)?

    Judging from your distinguished education, one may expect more quality in writing, rather than cynical bashing of Pakistani people. I am very sorry to say.

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  • Feb 11, 2013 - 5:27AM

    It stems from the culture of trying to appear good at something that we’re not. Young and Old pakistanis will regularly write up their CVs with tall claims of skills of which they have little knowledge. We need to instill a culture of humility, self evaluation and integrity in our society , and yes, it will come with better education.

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  • Arsallan
    Feb 11, 2013 - 8:40AM

    Such an article can only be written by an arrogant writer because it rather emphasizing English as Universal Language. It has shown teaching it a profitable business and if u can play well in sports there is no reason why u should be proficient in English. We arent British colony. We have culture and heritage. We should be proficient in Urdu and English is no more than a language. Our country is not progressing because of corruption which is mostly done by literate people and often by the ones who love America and UK.

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  • Ali
    Feb 11, 2013 - 9:18AM

    yes i speek engrish

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  • Hina
    Feb 11, 2013 - 9:38AM

    More than surprised to read that people as knowledgeable as an ECONOMIST AND A PHD from Cambridge could be sooo obsessed with the language. Are we ever going to stop criticizing and looking down upon people who are not as articulate and proficient in the ENGLISH LANGUAGE as the writer or for that matter any other ENGLISH obsessed person is? Education and wisdom has absolutely nothing to do with language. It was never language dependent nor it can ever be. So, i guess we need to educate our people in the language and form which is understandable by a wider section of them be it Urdu or any local language for that matter, instead of loathing them for not being proficient in the MUCH ADMIRED ENGLISH language.

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  • Naqvi
    Feb 11, 2013 - 10:02AM

    I think this article has been written for the Marketing of English language centers of Pakistan.

    English has played NO role in the progess and development of BRAZIL,GERMANY,CHINA,FRANCE,KOREA.

    We have done Enough Slavery of Engliah language, Now pls concentrate on Knowledge and Technical Expertise.

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  • BlackJack
    Feb 11, 2013 - 11:21AM

    .. there are approximately 50,000 families in Pakistan that are sufficiently consummate in English.
    For an article on English, ironical that the choice of words is rather substandard. Consummate is generally used as a synonym for perfect or extremely high quality – sufficiently does not make sense in that context. It is like saying sufficiently spectacular or sufficiently brilliant.

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  • sattar rind
    Feb 11, 2013 - 11:38AM

    true

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  • mute_
    Feb 11, 2013 - 11:53AM

    Speaking good english can be a requirement for a learned person, but sports-stars are NOT supposed to be good in english. An example is european/latin american footballers. Some of them can’t speak even basic english despite having spent multiple years in England. But nobody judge them based on their english.

    It’s only a myth that our sports stars are judged based on their english.

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  • Faisal
    Feb 11, 2013 - 12:46PM

    ALL of the countries which have shown remarkable progress in the past century have done it in their own language. Some of them are as follows: USA, UK, whole of Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand etc. Give the example of a single country which progressed by learning another nation’s language. It is high time that we gave up English and concentrate on Urdu, which is understandable to 90% of the population.

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  • Ayesha
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:07PM

    The writer is entitled to their opinion but you should not forget the other side of the story and then weigh what is more important. First of all, politicians (even if the official language is English) should refrain to speak English publicly if they are not proficient and should have translators like many other countries of the world. More importantly they ” fail to negotiate favourable terms” due to vested interests(more likely, I believe) than their poor English.
    “they miserably fail to develop an erudite image of the country” for the sports personalities, Sir speaking a few sentences will not make the World realize we are good or educated our actions will more likely determine that. I have travelled and yes many countries are so possessive about their language like mentioned above the European and Far Eastern countries. France uses the French keyboard not the QWERTY one, would you say they are less capable.
    This country does not take pride we just like to show off that we know English…European countries take pride in knowing more than one language but they never leave their mother tongue. I know many foreigners working outside and they know enough English to communicate or just get their work done and a lot of their tenses are wrong as well surprisingly it didn’t matter . Once I tried to correct my friend from France and he said “AAHH it’s English its not my language it doesn’t matter as long as you get it” now did it leave an “impression to the wider world of being a crude and unsophisticated nation” maybe not because actions will speak louder than words for us.

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  • Feb 11, 2013 - 1:38PM

    Learning English is a good thing, because without English one can’t able to communicate and work in foreign. As for as proficiency, I think, It is depend on interests of people that how much they have passion of English, but Government should work and invest in Technological and Science related departments. Without having Technology, you can’t defend or survive in any untoward event.

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  • Pk
    Feb 11, 2013 - 2:34PM

    The writer would be surprised to know how many countries in the world function without English. Barely anyone in China, save for the few major cities, speak or study in English. This article overemphasizes the importance of English. Every country has its own culture and language, you cannot expect its citizens to become complete masters of English language. It is commendable even if they are able to speak and write a few sentences of English. As far as cricketers are concerned, then the Pakistanis are not the only ones who speak in such an accent of English, every country’s cricket team have their own way of speaking English. So if none of them are ashamed of speaking in their own accent, why should we? The writer would also be surprised to know that many Chinese students who go to top American and British institutions for higher education do not know English at all, and have to learn from scratch. If compared to China, Pakistan has made much more progress in English, which might be attributed to its close linkages with Britain and America. The world demographics are under transition and in a few decades, English would cease to hold the value that it holds today. Maybe a writer would be writing this same article promoting Chinese language instead someday. Lastly, I would like to point out to the writer that just because someone doesn’t have a good grasp over English, doesn’t mean he/she is illiterate.

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  • Salman
    Feb 11, 2013 - 3:02PM

    @Faisal: what about India?

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  • Vinayak
    Feb 11, 2013 - 3:06PM

    When it comes to sports, our stars fail to utter more than a couple of sentences in correct English. Consequently, while they may bring medals and pride to the country through their achievements, they miserably fail to develop an erudite image of the country.

    Is not the primary requirement of a sportsman, to be good in his/her sport. If his/her English is not up to the mark, then he/she should not try to speak in English. In fact it would look great if they speak proudly in their own language.

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  • raj786
    Feb 11, 2013 - 3:25PM

    I do not agree with author.

    Knowing English is not big deal. Some time person do understand English very well but he cant speak.

    They need to improve presentation skills n build self confidence and the knowlade of the subject

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  • akbar
    Feb 11, 2013 - 4:10PM

    The writer has given childish arguments that cricketers let us down when after a brilliant performence on the field they are unable to communicate during the presentation ceremonies .A cricketer is hired for his cricketing talents , not his presentation skiills Sir !!

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  • Haroon
    Feb 11, 2013 - 7:28PM

    Good Article. This is one of the bitter pills our young generation is forced to swallow because we dont have a structure in place to teach english. People are awestruck in Pakistan when someone is speaking English and this is quite sad. After all, its just a language but it is the international mode of communicaiton and it must be taught. Every person that commented here has an obligation to contribute in some shape or form to the development and prosperity of their motherland, not just enjoy and bask in the glory of their inherited land. I remind myself before anyone else

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  • Walid
    Feb 12, 2013 - 5:05AM

    The Chinese, Koreans, AND Japanese are prime examples of non-English speaking countries who invest HEAVILY in teaching their children English. Even European countries are switching to English language in their colleges. They make an extreme effort in teaching their children English since it is vital to keep up with business and academic works which are mostly originating in the US in this day and age. They realize just how important it is to know the language. They even have programs where they import American college graduates to come teach in their countries because it’s just that important of a language to learn.

    The writer is correct in saying that we need to focus on educating our children to speak proper English. We have an advantage too since English is commonly used in Pakistan although not in any proper way. The infrastructure is here, let’s fix it and make use of it.

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  • sajida
    Feb 14, 2013 - 2:35AM

    Language is a tool to communicate. We cannot criticize people if they cannot speak second language. Knowledge is power, not language. If you are good in your field, or you have command on your subject and you are a skilled person then there is no need to learn languages. People who listen or read you they will translate your work for others. English is a language; it is not a principle of assessing others. I must sum-up this by adding one example. If a sportsman/player is not good in his game but good in English then can it be possible that his language skill helps him to win the match.

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  • Akifa
    Feb 14, 2013 - 10:48AM

    Interesting! However I don’t agree with the very first claim by the writer that Pakistan “proclaim to be English-speaking country”. We are a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society with more than 71 languages and dialects along with a foreign language.

    English is taken as a foreign language here. Regardless of the fact that it plays a pivotal role in almost every domain of life– still, English is a foreign language which Pakistanis are struggling to learn. When the writer claims that only 10% can speak/write “good” English, what is meant by “good” here? Are we talking about RP (Received Pronunciation)? Then even in UK less than 2% speak “good” English. What difference does it make if Pakistanis speak in a Pakistani accent and at times follow a Pakistani-English syntax and have introduced Pakistani-English vocabulary?

    Few things in the article are factual, yes in Pakistan we do need to have certain proficiency in English language to pass exams, get good grades, land with good jobs etc but the aristocratic tone of the article makes it a satire on the general proficiency of the nation. And one gets the impression that English language is the only criteria left to judge the productivity of Pakistanis. Pakistanis, especially those who can raise voice and mould the minds, have to come out of this post-colonial mind-set.

    This article gives a feel of being more of an advertisement rather than a solution-provider.

    I hope I didn’t go over-board :-)

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  • Bilal
    Feb 14, 2013 - 1:01PM

    To all the morons underestimating the importance of English: Wake up! You guys are talking about Germans, French and Chinese people without any reference. My job requires me to travel around the world and work in a multicultural environment. I can assure you that the whole world including the aforementioned nations are learning working like crazy to learn English.

    If you want to do business internationally, you have to speak English. But it doesn’t mean that we should forget our own language. Being bilingual is not a sin!

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  • Feb 17, 2013 - 9:30PM

    There is no problem in sticking with the domestic language for higher education . The problem starts when books in the technical subjects ( like Information Technology, science subjects.) are not available for higher education . France, Germany Russia , Japan developed their language suitably for technical aspirations to make it easy for their children to grasp the knowledge fast and think alike for further research and development. same is not the case in Pakistan and also in India . In China a majority of the population is initiating to learn English in a big way to grab the opportunities in the western markets.
    in view of the current scenario learning of English will be better option for career building Why is it that children from Urdu medium schools find it difficult to cope in higher studies.? Learning a language which has universal applicability should not be discouraged for the sake of protection ( from the invasion) of culture. however i do not endorse the author’s view that deficiency in English language hinders the image and pride of the nation including effective negotiation at diplomatic level or in the sports.( it is ultimately the net result which mattesr and not the language) .

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  • Awais Naveed
    Mar 18, 2013 - 11:32PM

    Every one gives the examples of China, Japan , Germany, France etc. but we must remember that even these countries are now giving importance to English language and people of these countries feel pride in speaking English to impress others. English is being taught in China as a compulsory subject. It is a fact that English is an international language and world at large communicate in English we can’t deny this fact. It is pertinent to mention that aforementioned countries citizens don’t work in large quantities in other countries where English is being spoken e.g. USA , UK and other European countries for their livelihood, therefore, they can afford to not to have the English proficiency but it is not the case with Pakistan. Second important thing is that almost all the reservoir of knowledge is in English which we can’t utilize without knowing the English.
    It doesn’t mean that we should not learn in our native language , we should but we must give importance to learning English language as a second language and the govt. must provide qualified teachers who can taught pupils proper English instead of just traditional tenses.

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