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Dumb in Any Language

by Newsweek Pakistan
Nicholas Kamm—AFP

Nicholas Kamm—AFP

Expunging English as a colonial relic is not a good idea.

The University of Gujrat has undertaken the praiseworthy task of compiling a comprehensive dictionary of English legal terms rendered in Urdu.

This will surely enrich Urdu and make things easy for someone who doesn’t understand English. But commentators on this undertaking have chosen to wax satirical, lamenting those who “learned English and fled abroad to serve foreign masters” and denigrating English for causing mass failures in state-run school exams. Fun was also made of the “English” contract for this undertaking signed between the university and the Punjab government.

In September last year, the Supreme Court preempted the provinces by directing federal and provincial governments to adopt Urdu as the official language. In a populist mood, the court also added: “In the governance of the federation and the provinces there is hardly any necessity for the use of the colonial language which cannot be understood by the public at large.” Indirectly, the court seemed to excuse illiteracy: beyond the primary school level, all Pakistanis are supposed to learn English compulsorily.

What has been ignored is the fact that English is no longer a colonial imposition creating “slavish minds,” but a global idiom, which helps in getting a job in even Arabic-speaking Dubai. At home, the job market requires the use of a computer to access data in English. In the Muslim past, Arabic was the source of scientific knowledge and was retained by non-Arab Muslims as an idiom of knowledge.

The common man, presumed ignorant, would prefer saying “high court” and “parliament” in English rather than adopt the pompous Urdu version produced in a new “converter” lexicon. India is not hurt by retaining English as official medium; Pakistan too will not be hurt. Urdu in Pakistan has grown more as a language of prose in its 69 years than in the past centuries, its richness touching new heights.

But the national language can be an instrument of intellectual tyranny and civilizational immaturity. In an ideological state, language becomes the vehicle of indoctrination, and indoctrination ultimately attacks the concept of freedom of expression, which lies at the heart of the project of education. Converting the official medium to Urdu may arouse opposition in interior Sindh where Sindhi is the official medium in many departments; it will affect the efficiency of the bureaucracy currently using English as medium of communication.

In Pakistan, while Urdu grows apace, our state-run Urdu-medium schools teach English as a compulsory subject, thus enabling students to tackle higher studies in science where textbooks simply can’t be in Urdu. Removing English from official use will prove to be the slippery slope, reducing Pakistan in the coming days to an inward-looking state damaging itself through the adoption of isolationist policies.

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