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Tormented by ghosts of a colonial past

When will really do for Urdu what other nations have done for their national language?

By Sirajuddin Aziz |
PUBLISHED March 12, 2023

To God, I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French and to my horse German, is a remark attributed to Lord Chesterfield and Charles V. The potential of language is that it can also transcend beyond geographical limits, cultures and societies. Bonding through language creates friendship, leading to economic and social benefits.

As a keen student of history, I have wondered in what language would the representative of King James I, Sir Thomas Roe along with his delegates have conversed in when they visited the Mughal emperor Jehangir, ostensibly to buy spices/chillies (time has proved that this purpose was a great historical smoke screen), because this visit laid the foundations for the occupation of the subcontinent to become British India or the grave-digging of the Mughal empire. As Urdu was considered the language of the lowly, did they converse in English or Persian? Did anyone amongst the visiting British possess the ability to speak Persian or was there some courtier who knew English? History is silent. Regardless of the language they would have chosen to communicate, the power of the cannon ball was ultimately used as a language to disintegrate the Mughal kingdom. The subcontinent officially became the colony of the British in 1857.

People of the subcontinent were subdued and subjugated. In Mughal India, the royalty and the nobles spoke Persian, because it was the official language of the royal court. Those who possessed Persian language skills progressed faster in their career/pursuits/life compared to those who did not. In the words of Ezra Pound, “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”

In the Theory of Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen writes, “English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the cannons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous and ineffective; its accusation consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy for detection.” Similarly Edmund Spencer said, “English is a gallimaufry or hotchpotch of all other speeches.”

The Hindu population of the subcontinent latched on faster to learn English, than the Muslims, post the War of Independence (1857). It was then that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the great visionary and educationist passionately implored the Muslims, particularly the youth to acquire modern education and develop skills in English language.

The objective of this approach was to seek economic emancipation and gain for the community. It certainly was not his motive to create an ‘elitist’ class of Muslims, who would later (unfortunately) start to consider themselves superior to those who couldn’t speak English. Sir Syed was dismayed to find the Muslim society, educationally, socially, economically and culturally backward. He found the then education system as inadequate for the future. He initiated a movement to gain intellectual and educational regeneration and founded, the Aligarh Muslim University, presently one of India’s high ranking universities.

The Muslims of India who went to missionary schools and learnt English were more pronouncedly accepted into the British civil services. Knowledge of English, spoken and written, had become a gateway for progress. At the time of independence in 1947, there were several Muslim ICS officers, who opted for Pakistan and helped manage the fledgling nascent state. English was then used officially. Mr Jinnah, a Kutchi native wasn’t fluent in his mother tongue, Gujrati or even Urdu, which was the language of the populous. He was comfortable to speak and write in English and that he did impeccably. When it came to choosing the national language, he preferred Urdu over English, because of its widespread use between Karachi to Khyber, and the consideration was to seek unification of the community.

Language is a sensitive issue in the business and corporate world. On most occasions the preferred use of English as the medium of communication overrides the use of national language. Some corporate cultures define the language that must be spoken at the office. Then the choice of language can be challenging to many staff members. With the enslavement mentality, corporates/businesses in Pakistan get away by demanding its staff to speak in English. Ask any multinational company to do so, say, in France there would be corporate rebellion. The choice of language must be such that it should be understood by all. English is spoken universally, but giving an advantage to a staff member, who speaks fluent English is callous injustice.

We witness day in and day out that individuals resort to speaking English to impress others —— it is bearable when such a person knows the language but comical when those who are not proficient at it, indulge unashamedly, and that too with a heavy accent. I have personally experienced ordinary compatriots even changing their exclamation remarks in conversations to ‘Oh Jesus!’ Or ‘Holy Christ!’ to many more ‘unprintable ones.’ Such veneer on the personality is thinly walled and cracks become visible at the first spoken word.

In Pakistan, English remained the popular route to success during the 50s and 60. The civil service examinations and interviews to this day are held in English. During the more awaami era of the 70s and the mistakenly pursued era of teaching Islam to Muslims by the overzealous, General Zia, Urdu got a real boost, despite the language riots of 1972. Urdu was made to appear to represent our religion.

Since then we have had several governments passing resolutions in the assemblies to adopt Urdu as the means of communication, particularly at the government/administrative level. Such moves never lasted beyond a couple of months. These resolutions died and decayed on the files. The elitist English speaking population continues to rule the roost.

Back to the point of speaking English in the office, it is significant to analyse the following

*Is it necessary to converse in English when we all understand our national language?

*Can one grow professionally without being fluent in English language?

* Is it akin to professionalism to be conversing in English? Or does the native Urdu language not account for enough professionalism?

* Should candidates seeking employment be tested for English language proficiency?

English should be a secondary language in the office, the native language must take precedence and not for emotional reasons, but because the local language is fairly and widely understood. It helps the staffers clearly understand their job descriptions and what is expected of them. Nations that pride themselves in their national language rise to their respective glories. Despite having good proficiency, no two Germans, Japanese, Chinese or French would ever speak to each other in English, but most of us love to and unfortunately this is done to look down upon those who cannot ― the elitist, nay slave, mentality!

Professionalism is not captive to any language per se and anyone can be a great professional without the knowledge of English as long as the necessary skill set is present. I have interviewed many candidates who could speak impeccable English but offered zero substance. Their speech had a lot of gibberish and little relevance. So what use is such knowledge of English?

Since there is no likelihood that the newly-hired would be making speeches or interacting with an audience, none should be rejected for reasons of English language inadequacy. Hire if they are proficient in their skills, because English helps but shouldn’t be a criterion for induction or rejection.

We often lose talent because of English language inadequacies, as we don’t expect those who speak the national language to have sound transactional exposure. I have come across many talented information technology experts who spoke and wrote horrible English but were extremely proficient in their trade and had the required expertise. If hiring is not for making speeches in English or even in Urdu, then test the candidate in the skills required for the assignment. I have seen the human resources department ask a candidate whose specialises in air conditioning operations to write an essay on Biden-Xi Jin Ping-summit … what? Is the candidate being sent to the UN?

There is no harm in learning English as a universally acceptable language. It has significant advantage, because it cuts through geographic, cultural, social and economic boundaries. Ideas require language. Since medical, engineering or management books are not available in Urdu, our students are compelled to read them in English. Like India, English has become the second state language in our country too. Common language leads towards social solidarity.

Our schools and madressahs operate in different orbits; the latter in the lower sphere and the former in the outer sphere of the society. Since what is learnt in the cradle lasts till the tomb, it is better to be untaught than be illtaught ― a reality often ignored.

Teachers in any society are expected to convert delinquents into responsible citizens. It is their job to awaken the spirit to acquire knowledge and then experience the joy of making it an expression through action.

Everybody who speaks English is not a good school master. This was amply proven very recently in Karachi. It is said that only a standard man can speak a standard language. Teachers have to be better than two books.

All youngsters must opt to learn English for its universal usage. Languages ought to be learned, not for acquisition of elitist status but for seeking diverse knowledge.

Recently, at a private school in Karachi, one that I believe specialises in imparting English education, a young lad of maybe seven years of age was punished for speaking in Urdu, in the presence of a teacher. The teacher suffering from poverty of intellect caused irrevocable damage to the boy by painting black ink on his innocent face and making him a laughing stock for having dared to speak in the national language. Absolute rigidity by the teacher must be met with a brisk spirit of insubordination on part of the students. There was furore on the social media, the government duly reacted by forming a ‘committee’ to probe and only tap the knuckles on the management of the school by imposing a hundred thousand rupee fine.

So USD 370 is the price of the pride of our national language. Distasteful. To expect that the committee would do anything is to expect the sun to rise from the west. The guns of the social media as is customary of this medium fell into silence after less than 48 hours of the incident. In the ‘breaking news’ culture that we live, the woeful story of a young lad’s insult that would remain with him for a lifetime, had a very small shelf life. All will be forgotten.

I’m against English language in Pakistan’s context, if its inadequacy in a person puts him/her at a disadvantage in any manner. Lack of fluency or knowledge of any language should not be a tool for injustice, just as much as the ability to speak English should not give an unfair, biased, partiality-laced advantage to anybody.

Sirajuddin Aziz is a senior banker and freelance writer. All information and facts are the sole responsibility of the writer