Government schools: What’s lost in translation

Published: November 2, 2010

Even if a certain class in society has grown used to thinking in English, the majority isn’t familiar with it at all.

Working for a newspaper has definitely brushed up my Urdu reading and comprehension skills, especially when it comes to words like mulzzim (suspect), purisraar (suspicious) and muzzamat (condemn).

However, a few days ago when my maid’s 11-year-old daughter brought her social studies book – which is in Urdu – I was left dumbfounded. I had grown accustomed to teaching her English, because I understand that it is not the forte of most government school teachers.

Even if a certain class in society has grown used to thinking in English, the majority of the country isn’t familiar with the language at all. I thought the fact that other subjects, including science and math, are taught in Urdu, means that students can comprehend better. However, going through the class VI books, I realised that when the Urdu being used is this difficult, the benefits of teaching in a familiar language are lost.

Why would you use the word ‘gunjaan abad’ when you can see ‘zyaada aabadi’? Countless examples of words we never use in everyday language were used everywhere in the text. “But I have to write it from here to here,” my maid’s daughter often complains when I ask her to just write down how she understands it.

Some government school teachers are simply incompetent and careless, as most of their work consists of giving their students too many diagrams to draw and ‘marking’ their answers. To them, it doesn’t matter if the students don’t understand a word of what they’re writing. Theories about the solar system, glaciers, deserts, minerals, etc, that we were taught in secondary school, unfortunately remain alien concepts for these children.

Our curriculum is in desperate need of change. Five years ago, the education ministers of all four provinces met in Karachi and decided to improve education standards by publishing new textbooks. The deadline decided then was August 2008, but has now been pushed to June 2011.

We need a modern curriculum – simple, clear and using language people are comfortable and familiar with, so that children understand what they’re scribbling down from their books, rather than just copying it word by word.


Aisha Iqbal

The author has recently moved to the UK. She is working part-time at a nonprofit in Nottingham and her new year's resolution is to write more. She blogs at

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

  • Ghausia

    Finally, someone speaks about this! i think a common example for this is the standard textbook for our matric system, I understand that poetry is supposed to be difficult, but prose doesn’t have to be gibberish. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I always preferred English more and was thus weaker at Urdu, but once I got to college and met students from other schools I realized that it is a common problem faced by students everywhere. When our own mother tongue is so difficult to learn obviously we’ll turn to the easier alternative.Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    Unfortunatley our education masters and curriculum setters are more concerned about what shape or form the chapter on Jihad should be, and whether the Governors or Chief Ministers message should feature at the start or not. In addition the fact that Urdu is not the mother tongue for a majority of Pakistani’s places them at a disadvantage to begin with. Children should be taught in the language that they are most comfortable with at home, especially at younger ages. This is important so that their parents, whether literate or not, can communicate as much as possible, which shapes a child’s learning. At a latter stage, additionally languages such as English should be introduced. Our education system remains a relic of 50 years ago, which the nations masters use as more of a propaganda tool than anything else. Unfortunately until a politicians, bureaucrats, generals or industrialists child have to face these challenges their is little incentive to bring about any positive changes. Recommend

  • Ali Sina

    The Brits left behind the gift of English. We should have used it as a tool for Pakistan’s progress. Sadly, our far right movements made us increasingly move backwards by promoting education in local languages, let aside what’s lost in translation. Most of the world’s knowledge exists in the English language. As a liberal scholar, I strongly support English education. We’ll have a bright future.Recommend

  • Mubasher

    Urdu is our national language, however, at the early stages local languages should be used as a medium of study and then gradually Urdu, English and Arabic, may be compulsory or elective.

    The main problem in our education system is who will bring the changes according to changing circumstances. Politicians are themselves in need of education !

    I think Urdu or English or Local languages are not the problem. The problem is how and who will teach them. We don’t have trained and most importantly able and honest teachers. If the history of Muslim education is viewed from historical perspective, Arabic was the medium of study then Europeans translated Arabic works into their own languages. in my personal view Urdu should be the medium of study and English, Arabic or other languages should be taught as international languages later in high schools.

    Its a puzzle, not easy but not impossible. Recommend

  • Liaquat Ali

    A learned mind asks questions.

    The dual problem of writers showing off their buqratiat, and the elite not caring about who studies what as long as their kids make it into Harvard and Oxford.

    The will to teach the young is just not there. A learned mind asks too many questions. That is just not desired in the land of the pure.Recommend

  • Sana Saleem

    I agree with you. I have used this word “Gunjaan abad” many times but I knew it as “a place where there is very few abadi”; lol. Today I have learnt the meaning of it :)

    The urdu words used in the books are really difficult and even rarely used and known by the people in the practical world. So why should we use it as there is a great focus on learning English. Our language has its Great importance but to cope with the world we have to take up the English vocabulary. These same urdu medium people might have difficulties when they reach to Universities and the entire medium is English.Recommend

  • Fahad

    I think it is a combination of both – upgrading curriculum and producing competent teachers who would help students learn and not merely ratify stuff. Education is vital, and there has been so much discussion on this but we are yet to see any major step in this regard. I remember when I was doing A-Levels in Karachi, we used to teach needy students (society known as the home school) after school for an hour or so. That I think was a good initiative and more of this should be done and I advise the currents students to practice this as well.

    Moreover, we should truely appreciate the efforts of Shahzad Roy in providing education to those needy children working on the streets. Great stuff and steps should be taken in strengthening initiatives such as this one.Recommend

  • SadafFayyaz

    …..its tragic that our Nisaab is wrong and mis leading………There used to be a word Nuskha meaning prescription and i kept pronouncing it as Nukhsa……for many years…….Mulahiza farmiya…….just watch I used to read as Mulakhata farmaiye…….I used to get confused….with the dots……whether it was a dot on Hay….making it sound sharper or a dot on Zoye….making it sound sharper…….The worst blunder i did in a young class while writing an application in urdu………instead of writing “bakhidmat jinab principal Sahib” I wrote “badbakht Jinaab principal sahib”…….The biggest problem came with mohawras and zarb ul Misl……..I know some kids who werent taught Urdu…..they pronounce Paharrh (mountain) as Pahar……..Moar(Turn) as More…….:_(Recommend

  • parvez

    When the debate is about Government schools and why is the system so bad, what comes to mind is something I read some time back which was : what we spend in a year on the upkeep of the Presidency and the Prime Minister is pretty close to what we spend on education in a year. With such priorities what do we expect ?Recommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar

    Agree with the spirit of the article although you might as well change english to get rid of words that are beautiful yet complex, ‘exquisite’, ‘rapturous’ etc…you get the drift…’gunjaan abad’ is so much more evocative and descriptive than the ‘leaden’ and clumsy ‘zyaada abaadi’….its pidgin urdu…the thing is we need to introduce interesting ‘nisaab’ in our urdu curriculum, habib jalib’s poetry, ibne-insha’s travelogues, ibne safis detective stories but then again the barnacle encrusted authorities probably think that the whole exercise will produce ‘dangerously free-thinking’ individuals

    p.s. i find people who cannot speak two languages at the same time (educated privileged people that is) be it english and urdu, english and punjabi or any other combo and excuse themselves with ‘hamaaaeyn ordou naheiey aaTi’ to be abject and pathetic idiots – you live in this country make a semblance of an effort to belong… rant overRecommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    It’s not only with the Urdu text, even the text books at higher secondary level are in too difficult English. I remember that the Physics, Chemistry and Biology texts books for intermediate level are written in tough English. As compared to these books, my O’level books by Prescott, Lam Peng Kwan and D.G. Mackean were written in a far more easier English, which was easily intelligible.
    Language is just a means, making it difficult can certainly not raise the standard and quality of eduction.Recommend

  • http://none.moc BP

    A suspect, or more precisely, someone facing an allegation, is a mulzAm not a mulzIm!Recommend