Can Pakistanis not speak in fluent Urdu anymore?

Published: July 18, 2015
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I appreciate the Pakistan government’s decision to push Urdu to the forefront again.

I am not proud of my inability to read and write Urdu well. Growing up overseas, I did not have the opportunity to study the tongue, and English became my first language. As a result, it takes me far longer to read Urdu words than it should. This is not a good thing, and when I speak in Urdu, which I do well, I try to use as many Urdu words in my speech as possible, hard as it can be with English having infiltrated the language tongue so heavily.

Surprisingly, when I moved to Pakistan later in my life, I realised that many who had grown up in the country, educated in their own schools, couldn’t speak Urdu without heavily resorting to English words. If you think about it, it is actually very difficult to do. It is also not limited to ‘burger’ classes. Speak with most in the country in Urdu and you’ll notice that 10 per cent of their speech consists of words from the English language, words which have perfectly good replacements in Urdu.

Whenever my uncle visits from overseas, we try a game. As he also enjoys speaking in Urdu, we try to have a conversation purely in the language, without a single use of an English word. It is extremely difficult. I want you, the reader, to give it a try with someone. The same conversations can take significantly longer as you struggle to find the right words in the Urdu vocabulary. Although when it works well, you end up sounding like PTV’s khabarnama.

Urdu’s corruption is an issue with our mind-set. We judge the language, and we judge those who speak it. An example is Saeed Ajmal, whose courageous attempts to speak English were mocked across social media. Then there is Meera, who is consistently set up by Pakistani celebrities to fail in English interviews. The poor actress is regularly targeted by her peers so that they can have a good laugh.

I’ve spoken to these celebrities and perhaps they don’t realise how poor their English is. For some reason, we shame those who can’t speak in a foreign language, yet find it perfectly acceptable to struggle with Urdu.

I still remember listening to Imran Khan’s speech, where he tried to shame Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for being unable to speak English fluently. This was startling, as Imran was addressing the working classes in the crowd, most of who were unlikely to speak English as well either.

When I would visit Pakistan as a child, I clearly remember that there was still some respect for Urdu. Adverts in Urdu were written in Urdu, while adverts in English would be written in English. Today, it is difficult to find a sign or an advertisement written in Urdu at all. And when it is, it is written in English, which is simply shocking.

Yes, it seems the language is dying a slow death when the giant companies in the nation choose to write Urdu in English alphabets.

This is why I appreciate the Pakistan government’s decision to push Urdu to the forefront again. Reportedly, the government plans to deliver speeches at home and overseas in Urdu, and to publish official documents and the like in Urdu as well.

There are so many nations which pay respect to their national language across the world, even on international platforms, so I don’t see why Pakistan cannot either.

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

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

  • Sami

    Urdu was developed by borrowing words at the shameless level from foreign languages. Now the irony is that people are stating to make it pure. Kindly remember that every language evolves overtime. If some so called intellectuals will try to make some language pure then people will not wait and will abandon that language for some other progressive language.
    The so called Urdu intellectuals have simply banned the entry of words from Pushto, Sindhi, Punjabi ( and its dialects ), Balochi and Balti languages into Urdu and i am telling you that with this stubborn attitude of Non Acceptance the Urdu will definitely die and will be replaced with some other language.
    English is far more beneficial than Urdu in every other manner. We can learn Science, Technology and Innovation through English while in Urdu we have just right-wing material and exaggerated poetry to deviate and isolate ourself from the rest of the world.Recommend

  • Urdu

    All languages borrow from each other throughout history, there’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ language – that is only a concept held by fascists.

    Urdu is a beautiful language, you do not need to denigrate it just to respect other languages. All languages of Pakistan need to be preserved.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Well said and from an academic and ‘ feel good ‘ point of view I’ll agree with you…but why cant a nation have two languages ?…. one the National language and the other the Internationally accepted language of business , commerce and much else ( English ).
    Yes for speeches by the head of State, I agree, Urdu is a must……and it gets harder and harder for Bilawal.
    Eid mubarak to all.Recommend

  • Pasha

    I think we speak it well enough, it’s only evolving and getting more naturalized/localized, though we could def do without Indian-Madrasi/Bhojpuri/Bumbay slang, don’t want the next gen of Pakistanis to sound like Salman KhanRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Does author know how to speak any of the native languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto etc? Urdu means Turki Army Tent. Turki rulers are long gone. Original Turki, Mughal ie Mongolians speak more Sanskritized language, Most of the Sanskrit loan words in Mongolian were taken mainly from Khotanese and Sogdian forms through Uighur writing: http://www.mongolianculture.com/ProfBira-Lect.htm
    Arabs have stopped using dirty words like Aurat, because it denotes unmentionable female genital. But we enslaved ones give up our native roots, language and culture, just because we identify ourselves by our alien faith.Recommend

  • Gohar

    Pushing Urdu upward would generate multiple times greater reaction in return and push the nation into bleaker corners. The nation shouldn’t be emotional about rather be pragmatic. Urdu is good for nothing and even if English is bad it pays you off well in the end.Recommend

  • Sara khan

    You say that because you probably had an English medium education. Don’t judge the language before you use it. Recommend

  • Asif K. Sharif

    The why are you writing this article in English if you care for the Urdu language so much. It’s akin to putting your finger in your ear and wiggling it when your tummy’s hurtingRecommend

  • George

    My Goodness this is so sad. There are definitely some funny moments in this article and it does provoke one to think about these ‘Angrez ka Aulat’. But the entire principle of this Article is defenceless because Urdu itself has supplanted all the native launguages of Pakistan. The latest move by Pakistan to conduct all govt business in urdu has been the final deathblow to the growth of other regional languages such as Sindhi,Punjabi,Balochi etc. The issue of languages is an emotional issue which the author understands well by ridiculing the English aristocracy. But this absurd conclusion that Urdu is a dying language is hard to swallow. Good luck convincing people on this issue. I dont even live in Pakistan and i find this far fetched. Rest of the article is very well written of course!Recommend

  • thriftysmurf

    I have to agree with Sami’s comment above, both Urdu and Hindi are new languages and literally no one in Pakistan or India can claim them as their native language. Urdu and Hindi were developed by Mughals so their troops could communicate. The foreign invaders tried to stiffle the native languages and we are doing the same.
    Why do Punjabi, Hindko, Saraiki, Pashto, Darri etc get the step mother treatment?
    Honestly, its much easier to express yourself in English than Urdu, which is an imperfect language.Recommend

  • Cheebz

    I am not sure if you are aware that ask the material English has, it was originally in Arabic… And before that in greek… They say that “if you want to kill a nation, kill their language”… I am not sure if you are aware but all Indian films are in urdu, many people who study in madrassas in south Africa must learn urdu also, many talks given about islam are also in urdu… So I don’t think urdu is going anywhere .. There is no such thing as progressive language, only progressive minds… And progressive minds try to learn as many languages as possible… If urdu fades, then a big chunk of history will be destroyed, I.E iqbal, faiz, ghalib and so on on… Be proud of who you are Recommend

  • Rohan

    Most Pakistanis are illiterate anywaysRecommend

  • mimi sur

    @Mr.Ansari,
    What was that period when Pakistanis were speaking fluent urdu ? For speaking fluent language, that language should be the mother-tongue in most of the cases . And Urdu was never mother-tongue for any Pakistani province.Recommend

  • Commemtator

    Since the era of Urdu medium and English medium schools, we feel proud to justify ourselves as a perfect gora with our tooti phooti English fluency. No harm in learning English but do give respect to those who love to communicate in Urdu. We feel so derogatory while saying a word or sentence in Urdu?Recommend

  • Jehangir Khan Mescanzai.

    Trust a Right Winger from Punjabistan who hates Muhajjirs hates Pathans
    hates Sindhis hates Balochs hates anyone anything that is not Khawariji
    Sunni from fGujranwala to be waxing poetic in disjointed, convoluted
    backward, frozen mind, diatribe. Repeated again and again and again.
    Like a broken down Khawariji Mantra of a people who are all descended
    from Arabs and just happen to drag their sad sorry selves to Punjabistan from
    Inner Arabia, from right around Hejaz,….next to Medina. Never mind that
    they don’t speak Arabic. Just Punjabi spoken. Recommend

  • Mumbai

    I don’t agree, as an Indian i think Pakistanis speak very good Urdu compared to us Indians, you guys also have much nicer accents and sound sweeter.

    Here in India we generally see Urdu as an invader language brought by non-Indians, so that explains why we’re quick to mix our Hindi with English a lot and some other local languages., but I like the chaste Urdu I hear from a lot of Pakistanis.Recommend

  • Manjit

    Most Pakistani Panjabis speak Urdu like they speak their (now dying Panjabi) mother tongue. Their pronunciation is far from the nawabs of Lucknow. I grew up in Indian Panjab where Urdu was not taught in schools but I learnt to read it myself. However, when I watch Pakistani news channels, the moving news lines at the bottom contain so many English words that one wonders if the ‘royalness’ of Urdu has died or is it simply what the author says. On the other hand, it is equally true of Panjabi, Gujrati or any language in the subcontinent. English is proliferating everywhere.Recommend

  • Annie

    I agree with you. I think integrating science with Urdu will make research easier as well. I think there should even be scientific journals in Urdu, so people who can’t express themselves in English can do so and publish their findings in Urdu. Bilingualism is power. Learn both languages. Just don’t try to make one superior to the other.Recommend

  • observer

    Why should Pakistanis speak Urdu? Pakistanis are Arabs and thus their native language is Arabic. Arabic should be made the sole language of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Mohsin Shahbaz

    DO write a book or Novel in Urdu and then In English…One book in English will Change your Life,Socially and Economically both but In Urdu it will be same.Meet a Professor Of English And then Professor Of Urdu both would be Highly Qualified but there would be a huge difference in there thinking,speaking and living.The Reality is that Our Urdu speaking Elders have failed to Impress our youth So English Filled the Gap.In fact English Newspapers are far more classy and Knowledgeable then Urdu Newspapers.Urdu Newspapers are just Selling Emotions.
    There Is a Federal Urdu University Educating People in Urdu and there is an IBA or LUMS Educating people in English just visit them Both and you will find the reason of the fall of Urdu.Recommend

  • Rifat Siddiqi

    It is not the case of a Dying Language, rather a language that is increasing it’s vocabulary, long as Urdu is able to remain medium of exchange between people, it is going to be all right.Recommend

  • Gullu

    No, they were very proficient in Sanskrit. And Hindi. And Gujrati. And Marathi.
    And Bombaylingish, plus whatever else they speak in Dravidian Hindustan.Recommend

  • Jehangir Khan Mescanzai

    What English medium education? What education? Where?
    They don’t have English Medium education in Punjabistan.
    Nope, does not seems like it. Man can barely string together
    two sentences, before he is overwhelmed by his love for Gujranwala…?
    Chakwal? Kharian..? Hevellian? Sharifistan? Raiwindabad?
    Nawazistan..? Multan nagar?Recommend

  • nishantsirohi123

    Ouch…. Burn

    Btw it is really cringeworthy for a Delhi Lucknow wala to watch a Lahori speaking arabised Urdu in an inconsistent punjabi accent.

    I wonder why Punjabis in Pakistan find it difficult to speak their own language , I’ve seen tv shows from Pakistan where anyone who speaks punjabi is shown as either drunk, or angry or a servant Recommend

  • nishantsirohi123

    Nice try
    Btw Urdu is language of Delhi awadh area and Urdu ghazals and shayari artists are given great respect
    Sad to see someone who has no information despite an active internet connectionRecommend

  • nishantsirohi123

    Deliberately misspelt indian names

    That’s cuteRecommend

  • All

    Nonsense..we should be able to speak in any language we want….but.. Command on English should be must as its the international language.
    Recommend

  • Nero

    I am not sure why:

    1. All Pakistanis must speak “pure” urdu? Urdu is just one of the languages, infact pretty foreign to the current geography of Pakistan.
    2. What exactly is a “pure” language anyway? All languages have and do borrow from others. English is a prime example. I recently met an English person at workplace who seriously thought “thug” and “cardamom” were “English” words.
    3. Pakistanis predominantly insist on ignoring the world and understanding that national states are ultimately geographically situated/constructed. The quest for national “language / culture / religion etc. etc” directly contradicts the plural realities of the geography of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Sane

    Probably that’s the reason they couldn’t elect a murderer their PM as ‘literate’ Indians did.Recommend

  • SamSal

    Pakistanis are Arabs? How exactly?

    Aren’t we Indians, so to speak?Recommend

  • Rohan

    Pakistanis don’t need to even elect murderers like yahya Khan as they stage coupsRecommend

  • Arshad Khan

    I appreciate the author of the above article and commend it fully.
    The introduction of English language replacing the Persian language was very advantageous for the British and absolutely devastating for the subcontinent. English is a foreign language and we can never really imbibe it as ours. The English could carry out their official tasks in their language in our country, while we had to learn their language in our country, to make ourselves understandable to them. It is a strange thing that most of the Pakistanis and Indians use English to emphasize a point as if Urdu is deficient in words that command respect. Listening to conversations of educated Pakistanis or Indians , one realizes that they speak an odd language which contains both English and Urdu words, a hybrid language. Many female and male anchors on Pakistan TV speak English to introduce their programs, Mrs Meher Bukhari being the most prominent in this respect.. By introducing English, the English have certainly destroyed our cultural heritage to a large degree. Even after staying in the sub-continent for more than two hundred years, not a single English author of prominence arose who could write Urdu prose, fiction or non-fiction and speak without an accent.Recommend

  • Khalid

    One who does not know how Urdu evolved and developed over the centuries can say such utterly ignominious words for this great language. If you really want to know about it, you must go through: Ram Babu Saxena (Author of A History of Urdu Literature).Maybe you believe that the Japanese, Swedish, Germans, French, Chinese, Iranians, Arabs all first study English before they study sciences. Recommend

  • Mogh Baba

    I am an Iranian who lived in Pakistan,
    mostly Islam Abad during the years 1986 to 1988. I tried and learned
    a little Urdu and I tried to use the language as much as possible in
    order to have some progress. I had my posts at the poste restante, so
    I had to go to the post office to check if I had some mail. One day
    which was a religious holy day and i was not sure if the post office
    was open or not, I got into the street and asked a Pakistani
    gentleman in Urdu if he knew that post office was open or not. His
    reply: “Pardon me”. I tried three times and I got the same
    reply. I, then asked the same question in English and he immediately
    answered me. I was amazed. Later that day I discussed the case with a
    Pakistani friend. He suggested that the gentleman I spoke to did not
    like me to speak with him in Urdu because it somehow implied that I
    did not recognize him to be able to speak in English!Recommend

  • Truth

    most of the words are Sanskrit / Hindi nature far from Urdu language, culture is also being invaded by other cultures, dress, living style, etc there should be measures to standardize the language, culture, in education at higher level along with science and medicine , technology, economics. China , Japan, Germany, France , Russia all are well developed in terms of science, technology, medicine, agriculture in their own languages why did Arabic and Urdu language struggling, because no preference by own locals and support from concerned governments. if anyone wants to study or work in Germany he has to pass their exam conducted but in Arab countries there is such are all welcome.Recommend