I’ll be the first to say it: my Urdu is not the best. It’s a fact I’m not super proud of, but it is, ultimately, a fact. It’s also a fact that used to hurt me less when I was younger and more oblivious to the pitfalls of cultural aloofness, but now I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been robbed off the chance to gain that really crucial bit of understanding that comes from understanding your culture. I accept my share of the responsibility, but I really must question an education system that places more emphasis on English than it does on any of the regional languages. And to be honest, it’s not difficult to see where that emphasis comes from. In a country where your self-worth is tied to your understanding of the colonizer’s language, your economic and social prospects increase tenfold if you have a stronger command over it.
The story doesn’t begin with the education system, really. It begins at home, with the way your parents talk to you, and the media you consume as a child. Parents don’t want their children watching anything other than a steady stream of Cartoon Network, and no, never the one dubbed in Urdu. They make sure to speak to you in English when at home, and if you say a sentence in anything but that, they reprimand you and ask you to repeat it in English. Look into your heart and be honest with yourself: do you know at least one DHA-kitty-party-LV-bag-gigantic-sunglasses aunty who always talks in English even when it’s highly unnecessary? The answer is probably a horrific yes. Shazia’s ‘dottuh’, anyone?
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At school, this English superiority complex gets egged on even further and teachers make a big fuss about any student who has a greater grasp over English than others. They get chosen for the assemblies, and the plays and the accolades. If you can speak fluently in English, that’s good. If you read English storybooks, even better. If someone mispronounces a word, you cringe internally if you’re kind, and mock them out loud if you’re like everyone else. In the 6th grade, we were asked to do translations at school, and one poor unassuming kid translated everything literally, much to the amusement of the entire class. I think about that sometimes and wonder what lesson he must have left with that day at school.
Outside of school, we carry this simultaneous shame and pride. Shame in not knowing English as well as the next person, pride at knowing it better than the one before. We are taught to incorporate it into our hiring practices and our partnerships and our friendships. It’s become a question of status and good upbringing: if you speak good English, you are thought to come from a good, strong family. I’m aware that all of this thus far pertains to a very specific class, but that is the point, for owing to the class structure in Pakistan, it is this very class that has the privilege of making decisions based on these societal ideas of respect and worth which end up affecting the lives of all the rest of the classes.
When you get to the heart of the matter, of course it all leads to colonial era policies and how the effects of colonialism are extend further than just economic and political losses. Perhaps the hardest hitting effects are the psychological ones. While obtaining knowledge of the local vernacular of India, the British simultaneously put their own language on a pedestal, valuing Indians who were able to converse fluently in English more than the majority who couldn’t. So this push to learn their language (think Sir Syed), might have been a survival tactic, but it also had psychological externalities.
But to blame everything on the British is too convenient, although well deserved. The response of the State in the years after 1947 must be examined too. Subjugating local regional languages isn’t going to solve the problem, nor will cutting off English entirely. While Turkey is often looked to as a great example of upholding their national language, one must acknowledge that a complete inability to speak even basic levels of English isn’t entirely helpful either.
So what is the way forward? A change in attitude, for one. A reckoning with yourself that results in the realisation that honestly, English is just another language, and it shouldn’t be given the power to dictate how much respect someone deserves. Post-colonial angst is hard to get over, I know, but the work needs to start somewhere. On the part of the State, perhaps we could have more inclusive syllabi, that are less outdated than what we currently teach students. There is such dread and fear associated with Urdu class in school, what if we attempted to change that? Introduced material more kids could relate to? Maybe save the shustah Urdu for 7th grade instead of 3rd grade? At the very least, we can stop pretending that knowing the English language is a sign of some sort of moral and intellectual superiority. It’s 2022, I think it’s time to grow up.