What language do you speak?

Published: August 10, 2010

Many of us who have studied in private schools have been inculcated this sense of shame about Urdu.

Our identity is not something many of us have been nurtured to accept, let alone be proud of. In this fight against ourselves, one of the greatest losses has been that of language, which lies hidden under the inherent shame of who we are and covered by the pretence of who we are not.

Many of us who have studied in private schools have been inculcated this sense of shame about Urdu. Back in school, it was embarrassing not being able to express oneself in English, despite the fact that it was not a language most of us were used to at home. Urdu grades never really mattered and Urdu teachers were always old and boring. Or maybe that’s just how we saw them because all we thought they really knew was…Urdu.

Like many other things, this systematised sense of embarrassment has had a ripple effect. Conscious efforts seem to have been made on many fronts to change the spoken language. Each time I came back to Pakistan from university I felt this resolve had further strengthened.

Over the years, the language at coffee shops and restaurants has changed. Now you will hardly find a place where you are not greeted and spoken to in English – although it’s fairly obvious that it is not a language the waiter is comfortable speaking. But together, we will pretend that he is.

The media “revolution” has also added to this game of pretence. There are few TV or radio shows now where a host speaks one language fluently, which has possibly increased the sense of deprivation for at least some people in society.

In this deliberate effort to distance ourselves from our identity, there is more than one loser. After all, since when is lack of knowledge something to be proud of?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2010.


Zehra Abid

Peshawar desk in charge at The Express Tribune. She is fluent in Urdu, English and Turkish. She studied at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sarah B. Haider

    I totally agree, and glad that you came up with the topic. If anyone is speaking wrong English, they are considered uneducated in Pakistan. And Urdu is looked down upon. We are often seen making fun of our cricketers and actors, those who fail to speak in English before the camera, whereas people from countries like Germany, Spain, France etc feel ashamed of speaking in English because of the love they hold for their own language. I have seen people talking to gatekeepers in English, housewives talking to the shopkeepers in English. I was recruited as a teacher in a renowned school merely on the basis of my A level just because I underwent an English test at the time of the interview, and I qualified to teach the 5th standard. Later on I resigned because I felt teaching requires a lot of skills and not just good English. It’s a matter of ‘Identity Crisis’in the true sense of the word, the colonials went away decades back, but stripped us off our true cultural values. Keep up the good work!Recommend

  • Ghausia

    One thing which really gets to me is how people say, “Oh, I’m not that good at speaking Urdu, meri samajh nahi aati” which is just ridiculous. I feel that its mainly because the language of our textbooks is pretty difficult, but then, so is the English in literature courses. Obviously, reading Iqbal and Sir Syed would be a challenge, but it doesn’t mean you can’t speak your own tongue. I liked this, it was clear, short, and concise.Recommend

  • Ali

    good article. though the same holds true for the way urdu has been used, in the name of pakistani nationalism, to suppress regional languages. sorn!Recommend

  • Yusaf Khan

    Sadly I would have to agree with Ms. Zehra Abid regarding the increased use of English in the elites and wannabe elite circles. My sister who used to teach English in one of the schools was asked by some parents to teach their kids how to speak with an American accent. The Pakistani TV dramas further glorify this behaviour by depicting the elites and the rich people comfortably conversing in English.

    This wasn’t the case when I was growing up in Peshawar. We only spoke Pushto at home and a combination of Pushto and Urdu at school. Anyone trying to excessively express themselves in English was called a ‘tommy’ (pronounced with a heavy Pushtun accent which sounded a bit like “taamie”). That tended to put the brakes on anyone bringing the gora sahab out of their system.Recommend

  • Hamid Ahmed Khan.

    Very true.Recommend

  • Tariq Masood

    What point you want to prove my dear writer? do you want to say that we must stop learning English language which has a global and historical importance for us. And this theory has gone past when culture was considered to be pre dominated by religion and language only. Keep in mind that isolation from the world is not the policy of any country in the world nowadays. English is evolving as the Lingua Franca of the globe. Even countries like China and France, which showcased earlier hostility to English, has adopted this language for higher learning and research. As we were under the British rule for over a century, English is quite natural for us as a second language. Pakistani find a place in the international job market for their English skills and earn a very valuable foreign exchange. So English is the language of rising middle class of Pakistan. Its not foreign language neither its alien in anyway. Advancement in science and technology would never be possible without adopting English as medium of instructions. Finally let me put a blame on the writer like Zehra Abid who don’t want other people (specially of deprived class) to acquire knowledge of global value. Writer is just pretending to show what she (and a few elitist) has the only exclusive rights to get quality education and than rest of life she would make fun of others who don’t have access to education and employment. We must understand that knowledge of English is a must for employable skills and should not the deceived by pseudo intellectual of Zehra type. The language which has such an importance for our existence, I don’t find any problem to adopt it in our daily life. Recommend

  • http://cervet.blogspot.com Cervet Cahn

    For Mr. Masood above, I don’t think the write wrote anywhere that she is AGAINST the learning of English but merely pointing out that how we are on the verge of extinction of our own national language! Its true that majority of us feel shame in speaking Urdu and would like to speak in English to every second Pakistani. Learning and excelling in the foreign language is one thing and no one is denying that, but feeling shame for your own language and completely giving it up is another thing.

    I totally agree with the writer, good article.Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    The writer’s point if that English shouldn’t be given preference over one’s national language or mother tongue. It is indeed rude that if someone is unable to communicate in the language, you would still talk to them in the LINGUA FRANCA in order to show off that you have a complete command over a foreign language. Language is just a means to so it is no big deal to be well-versed in any specific language but people still show it off and consider other languages to be inferior.Recommend

  • Voiceless

    and I see that lady with a twisted face, trying to speak English and pretend that her Urdu is poor. She’s hosting a talk show. I was wondering, what the heck she wants to display? And who, the idiot, employed her if she doesn’t know how to speak.
    Learning and speaking in English or any foreign language is an incredible art but trying to make it status emblem is a shame.

    Your write-up is appealing, Zehra.Recommend

  • Naimat


    i really liked the following sentences… “Urdu grades never really mattered and Urdu teachers were always old and boring. Or maybe that’s just how we saw them because all we thought they really knew was…Urdu.”Recommend

  • Tasneem Chowdhrey

    Though quite a few people discuss the idea presented in your article, one expects it least to be raised by a sub-editor of english newspaper – BRAVO!!!!!

    One can only learn any other language once they have command over thier native laguage – no wonder we can’t speak any language continously for ten minutes. For communicating our thoughts we are constantly switching between, Urdu and English, at times even conversation on local language channels are adultrated with English. As far as education and reserach is concerned I feel no, that is NO country in the world has reached devloped status so far where they have not translated knowledge in thier own language. Its a pitty how many brilliant minds are waisted just because they are not good at English!!!!!!Recommend

  • Schazad

    Ironically, everyone is reading English newspaper and writing English and discussing that we should do everything in Urdu. We are just pathetic whiners. I totally agree with Tariq Masood.

    @Yousaf Lala, I am sure you are outside the country eating apples and almonds and you just want to follow the same old nonsensical stuff that our university had followed for years, at the same time, you are speaking and writing in English and I am sure you want your kids to learn Pukhto and English first then Urdu or maybe not even learn Urdu at all. Its height of hypocrisy. How could one survive dealing with outside world by not learning English. Example is our own neighbour, India, which has excelled in the language and making in roads in world’s economy since many people understand the language and multinationals wants to put money in their economy. So lets get out of this shell and explore the world rather than closing our eyes to what ever is happening in the world.

    But at the same time, I would like to see Urdu language developed as well and put this sense in our generation to not feel embarrassed by speaking in Urdu. But stopping the language and calling it with bad names is just plain stupid.Recommend

  • Rida Salman

    Agreed upon. Brilliant. Recommend

  • Tasneem Chowdhrey

    @Schazad-couple of comments above hilited that Zehra Abid is not against learning English. It is the use of the language that is being discussed. Its not just us, even Americans feel proud if they are able to use French in social gatherings. Its the mentality behind use of any language – in certain cases it is used just to impress others, to show -off that we are “Educated” or “Modern” or “Cool”. And to look down on others who may not know English, yet be very intelligent is really cruel. Where we have competition – in schools, in corporate world – English has become decisive factor rather then intelligence – mind you intelligence is not dependent on ability to communicate in Foriegn Languages.Recommend

  • Ali Haider

    Absolutely right! All the great nations in the world (without any exception) have reached where they are today by strongly holding on to their own language.

    There was a video circulating on FB the other day where the parliamentarians were “forced” to speak in English for the camera. That video was an attempt to make fun of them. That was not only embarrassing but also wrong. Why can we not speak Urdu and be proud of it? What is wrong with speaking Urdu?

    There is not a single entity that can be blamed for it. It starts from home, the schools come later. Parents want their children to learn English first. Then comes the school where etiquettes mean speaking in English. The biggest problem ahead from that point is lack of books in Urdu. You can hardly find a good science book translated in Urdu. On the contrary, I found that the Chinese students carry with them a Chinese version of every book that they study. This way they not only understand it better, but also promote their own language. They are not ashamed of carrying a electronic dictionary to the exam hall, and they are allowed to keep it with them during the exam. As a result we see that the Chinese student are way ahead of the world when it comes to Mathematics.

    Our problem is not that we learn English, our problem is that, in the process, we forget who we are and that should be the biggest concern.Recommend

  • Sakina

    nicely written and inspiring :) thumps up!Recommend

  • Dr. Asad Sadick, Germany

    The writer has definitely implied that speaking in English is a negative. After having said that, I wonder where will it get you globally without English, and I am not implying that Urdu should be discouraged. As a matter of fact Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Gujrati should be further developed and encouraged. Whether we like it or not the British ruled over us for over 200 years and this has had its influence and in many ways positive. The basic idea is to have a balance and that goes not only for languages but also for religion, culture, diet and what have you. Recommend

  • Yusaf Khan

    Dear Schazad, I definitely am not suggesting that English as a second/third language should not be learnt. It is and should be a required subject in Pakistani schools. In fact if possible we should also do away with our Urdu medium schools and change them into English medium to allow more people from poorer backgrounds to learn English. But I do feel that we should refrain from using English as a divider of our society into classes. There is a very thin line between using a language to further ones learning and using it to create barriers for social and financial progress of those that cannot speak it that well. And btw I think you may have some misconceptions about Pakhtuns not teaching their children Urdu. With such a large percentage of Pakhtuns living in Karachi and Islamabad, many in the younger generation who live outside KP are more fluent in Urdu than in Pashto, which is just fine with me. As I said, I am against using English to solidify class divisions. Recommend

  • http://facebook.com/aadil Aadil Z

    English has become a tool of success not just for the elite but medium class families in Pakistan. In order to thrive in an era of globalisation we really need to adapt ourselves to this global language. Countries like China, France where speaking English was considered taboo only a few decades ago have changed substantially because they see the true value in it.
    Sir Syed emphasised 150 years ago that in order to succeed we cannot afford to isolate ourselves from the language. However, it is to important to draw a line where English is seen as status symbol and not a medium for accomplishment.Recommend

  • Imran Zahid

    really like it!!Recommend

  • Neeraj K. Rajan , India

    The writer implies that somehow English is responsible for the decline & disrespect for Urdu.
    She also gives an impression that the english has created a social rift in the society by making some english speaking people feel superior and rest inferior.
    This English bashing is just not confined to the pakistan obly, it has been present here in India too. The ‘Angreji hatao’ agitation was at its zenith during the fifties and early sixties. However , in the wake of stubborn resistance from the Southern states the agitation petered out.
    The very idea that the English is detrimental to the interests of Urdu/Hindi or to the other vernacular languages has no basis. India can be cited as an example. Since independence English has been flourishing in country but not at the expense of local languages. Today, at least 200 million Indians have good Knowledge of English and that made India the second largest English speaking nation after U.S relegating Britain to the third position. Yet, I don’t see any negative impact of this on the Indian society. Indian culture is as vibrant as it used to be. Yes, Indian youngsters do watch Hollywood movies and listen to pop music and love to talk in English but they are equally fond of Bollywood movies and Hindi music too,if not more.
    In fact, India has reaped immense benefits from its English speaking skills. India owes much of its economical success to the English because backbone of Indian economy is it’s service sector which needs English Knowledge.
    Contrary to India, in Pakistan English seems to be on the decline. Pakistani government and civil society should encourage English. In today’s globalized world, English as a world language gained immense importance. Small irritants like superiority complex etc. deserves to be ignored contemptuously. Recommend

  • http://ykhan.wordpress.com Yasser

    wow wonderful write up and most importantly factual, i don’t understand why most of the commentators are not able to comprehend the post. Guys re-read again :)Recommend

  • Samreen A.Khan

    really liked this! ….. awesome way to discuss an issue which I also wished to let people know this….. this article should be elaborate on!…..Recommend

  • hira jeddy

    zehra, this is one of the decadent aspects of our country. we are not only suffering from identity crisis but will soon be deprived of a language our ancestors had used so proudly. since i teach at those private schools that you’re talking about, the state of Urdu teachers is just as you have described. but i would give a slight amount of blame to them for not devising interesting and new methods to make children more aware and appreciative of their mother tongue. it is a role that parents and teachers together must play for Urdu language to earn the status same as its counterpart.Recommend

  • arif lodhi

    Zehra you are a very good writer off course but the idea of superimposing one language over the language the people want to listen to and and speak would be to jeopardise the basic humanrights. Recommend

  • leena

    i truly agree with the views of Zehra…..the same condition prevails in India….in India those people are looked down upon who cant speak English fluently…….in colleges and universities i have seen girls,who are convent educated, making fun of girls who come from simple schools and not so good at English…….girls who cant speak english, who dont wear western dresses are easily categorised into the ‘behenji’ type…….even they are equated to ‘dumb’……..
    i am not against English but the way we treat our mother tongue and make fun of our traditional values is simply despicable….
    To look ‘hip’ and ‘in thing’ one has to speak fluent English, dress in jeans or skirts….go to pubs and disc……such a sorry state of affairs in countries who were once colonialized…..people are not able to overcome their colonial mindset…..they still feel inferior for doing things which are native and cultural………. Recommend

  • ubi Ali

    I dont know about the other parts of the world but here in Pakistan especially in big cities like, Karachi,Islamabad and Lahore etc, it has become a fashion to speak English just to impress others if you dont or cant speak English you wont be able to find yourself “fit in” very well. i am not against English or any other language but when people pretend as “please aap ye parh kar suna dain gay meri urdu itni achi nahi hay” or ” yar is ko urdu main kiya kehtay hain” or,fine leave it thought i can give many examples. one of our English teacher used to say ” English has become a weapon rather then a tool”. i feel as if its magic speak few sentences in English and prey many in one go,my teacher was right. Recommend

  • U. Khan

    Speaking English is not a crime but not knowing the Urdu alphabet should be. If an educated person does not know this then all that education just went down the drain.

    It’s also disturbing to see the educated classes completely obliterate the usage of some urdu words for example I do not know what to call glass in Urdu when translating glass of water. Anyone? Recommend

  • Maira

    Thanks to Punjabi which has included many slang words in Urdu too by which we can speak ou own tongue to some extent.Recommend