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

Country has failed to invest sufficiently in teaching the language.

Humayon Dar February 10, 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


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.


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

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Awais Naveed | 8 years ago | Reply

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.

p r sharma | 8 years ago | Reply

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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