Urdu, English, and our collective inferiority complex

Published: July 13, 2011

You do not need to be physically captured to be a slave.Why is it that in Pakistan, Urdu has no value? DESIGN: NABEEL SAMAD

When I was eight years old, my family returned to Pakistan from the United States and a lot of things in the world suddenly changed for me.  

I remember (and my relatives won’t ever let me forget) that one of my very first statements was:

“Why is everything broken?”

I’m pretty sure I was referring to the buildings and streets at the time but today, I believe many other things are broken too.

I remember thinking about the prospects of going to Pakistan; a place my parents taught me was home. I remember being worried about whether I was going to be easily accepted. One thing I knew was that I had been raised, till now, in a very different environment than the one I was going to.

One thing that really troubled me was that I wouldn’t be able to speak the local language. English was all I knew. I wondered how I’d manage in Pakistan, as I was sure to have problems in interacting with people. I imagined myself struggling to utter words in broken Urdu and people thinking I was dumb.

But, in reality, society was adjusting to me instead of the other way round. Instead of me struggling to speak to others, I saw people trying to speak to me. I also got the whiff of the ‘show-off’ factor in people.

People desperately tried to speak in English. And I could see by their faces the difficulty many were going through. Personally, I felt embarrassed seeing everybody put all their efforts in trying to speak in such a broken way. And after each exhausting attempt at it, it was as though they asked through their facial expressions and body language:

“How was I?”

Some may not think this was awkward but for an eight-year-old, it was. And it should be ten times more so for a seventy-year-old. Just imagine yourself going to the US from Pakistan and seeing everyone around you work their tails off just to speak to you in Urdu. And not only this; you also notice that people are competing with each other to prove who is the better speaker of ‘your’ language.

I was taught to have pride for my country and was disturbed to see people looking down upon their own language. Soon I reacted by refusing to reply in English. Instead, I tried my best to answer in whatever broken Urdu I knew.

People were shocked at my behaviour. I think they found it equally awkward. My aunts often said that I was lucky that I was fluent in English as people looked up to those who were. I would always get the what-do-you-mean-isn’t-it-obvious look whenever I tried to know the reason behind it.

Why are people looked up to just because they know English? The reason is that knowing this language is considered a sign of superiority. It’s as if just knowing it makes us more smart and knowledgeable. We can suddenly speak with more authority. When we want to make a point, or an impression, we throw a sentence or two in English. As if doing so would make the content matter more than it would otherwise be.

It is because of this attitude that a particular class dominates our society. The reason: they could afford an English language education. And if you were to analyse more closely you would realise that this has caused chaos in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis.

And so my question is:

Why is there a dearth of opportunities for people who can’t speak a particular language which is not even native to them?

Why is it that in your own country, your own language has no value?

In my opinion it’s all because of our mental slavery. By admitting the West’s superiority, we give up our identity, our pride and our humanity.

In 1948 the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of the British emperor, came to Pakistan, and the British envoy requested the Quaid-e-Azam to receive him. Jinnah replied:

“If I do so then the British head of state (King) would have to reciprocate when my brother would visit London.”

Today our president feels no shame in carrying out a press conference with a third level US representative like Holbrooke. Today, our most senior ministers goes thorough body scans when entering US airports, whereas, US citizens are given visas with zero scrutiny.

Just recently, Senator and acting president of the ANP, Haji Adeel, was not allowed to enter the US embassy despite an official invitation. He was told by a guard that he needed a specific sticker on his car to get in or he could park outside.

You do not need to be physically captured to be a slave.

Was our land occupied when our authorities handed over our people to the US?

Were we not independent when Dr Aafia Siddiqui was taken to trial in the US?

No, we were a sovereign entity!

Or were we?

Saad Lakhani

Saad Lakhani

A motivated young writer and a student of Social Sciences from Karachi.

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

  • http://www.usamakhilji.wordpress.com Usama Khilji

    I understand why the arguments relating to language and the perceived superiority of English in particular were made, and that is relevant. However, the politicisation of the phenomena was uncalled for.
    Technically, it makes sense for those from the West to act mighty, like the author pointed out, in Pakistan considering the West-worshiping mindset, which was also pointed out by you. Recommend

  • http://codingstreet.com Mustafa Hanif

    awesome article … and 1st .. lolRecommend

  • Amjad

    I think you have your own axe to grind. The whole world wants to learn English, not only Pakistanis. It’s great to have self respect and dignity but tying this to speaking Urdu / Hindi is stretching the argument because people like me don’t consider Urdu our native language anyway. People like to communicate in English because it is the most useful language in the modern world. After having spent so much time and effort learning English- even broken English- who wouldn’t want to practice it when the opportunity comes up? It doesn’t mean someone is feeling inferior! As for Urdu, it really isn’t our culture and language- at least not for the millions of native Pakistanis who have learned it as a second language. Sure it’s useful if you want to listen and understand some Indian movie but otherwise there is no need to know Urdu as most people have learned a little basic Urdu to get by with people from different provinces. I think you are trying to shame people into not speaking English but ask yourself why every nation in the world is rushing to lear English. It’s the one advantage that we Pakistanis have over many other 3rd world people who can’t get jobs in the West because of bad communication skills.Recommend

  • http://digitaljesus.wordpress.com Anthony Permal

    “By admitting the West’s superiority, we give up our identity, our pride and our humanity.”

    Forgive my bluntness, but I don’t agree. We don’t need to admit to any superiority from the west for these things. We gave up our identity, pride & humanity in the 70s when ethnicity became more important for us than national identity. The hundreds of thousands of people who have died in the last 30 years from ethnic and religious hatred have nothing to do with Western ideology.

    When we ape the West, we do so because we HAVE no identity left.Recommend

  • Tanoli.

    our burgers feel shame to speak so called urdu its a fact only MQM peoples speak our
    national language our PM sahab why try so hard to speak english why dont juust speak
    urdu like many other peoples turkish and so many other countries leader dont even care
    to speak english in india and pakistan its like chicken start doing like ducks how they gonna look like same with sub contienent peoples other peoples make so much jokes.Recommend

  • Rehan

    English is the international language of business. I live in France, but I still speak English. Everyday when I interact with clients and colleagues in different countries of the world, I am only able to do so because all of us know at least a little bit of English. Urdu is great, but if one wants to expand their horizons and career opportunities, learning the global language – English – is a must. Also, I don’t understand why you must demonize a particular language. Last year, when hiring new Analysts for my company, I was particularly impressed with a fellow who could speak Mandarin (Chinese), English, and French. I hired him because of how USEFUL his language skills would be to the company I work for, NOT because I admire English, or Mandarin or French.
    We Pakistanis always politicize everything. Also, how is the Afia Siddiqui issue even related to language?!
    P.S: You do know that she was convicted in an open and independent court, right?

  • Milestogo

    In Pakistani context, Urdu is a foreign language. Sindhi, punjabi, Balochi and pasto are major native languages.Recommend

  • Tanoli.

    @ Rehan janab what is writer saying try to understand please in america peoples live from
    around the world but english is official language and if u working like gas stations or any
    public dealing jobs u can not talk other lang because peoples will leave and not shop from
    you and please dont tell how french are most racist in the world u can learn as many lang
    u want no body mind that but every county has some language for comunication but in pak
    istan urdu is just achouth language. and there are free court hahahahahahahahahahahah. for you.Recommend

  • Grace

    Whether we like it or not, English is here to stay so better to deal with it than making up stuff to say anyone who speaks it is ashamed!Recommend

  • Tanoli.

    Geace bibi soon u gonna learn mandrin chinese god willing.Recommend

  • Raj

    Pakistanis claim to be the descendants of Arabs and China their all weather friend. Considering this, Arabic should be national language and Chinese be the second language of Pakistan.Recommend

  • AF

    @Rehan : you nailed it! When you go outside Pakistan to live or work in the ‘global’ economy, that is when you realize how lucky you are that you know good English. Knowledge of good English is a must! Even the Chinese are now doing it.

    “Afia Siddiqui ” – your are right on this one too. We need to let go of this. She was tried in a public court. Their justice system is better than hours. I will risk a court case there than take my chances at a Karachi lock up.Recommend

  • http://bleedinghumanity.wordpress.com/ Ahmed Aziz

    I have said it before and will say it again. As a social scientist I would like to raise some points and disagree with you. Firstly, Urdu itself was developed as a foreign language in South Asia. The original language of the Mughals was Chagatai, which has Turkish roots and through time they adopted Persian but still there was a need to communicate with the locals which led to the composition of languages derived from Sanskrit but still retaining the Turkish Arabic Script and through time it came to be known as Urdu. So, Urdu itself is a combination of foreign derived local language. If you want to go even deeper, our original language is Sanskrit, that is the reason why URDU and HINDI sound so very similar. You would also notice that Indians and Pakistanis have the same problem, a lot of our language contains English words, its not a Pakistan specific problem. Reason being, we were ruled by the British for 400 years, our laws are written in English, all processes are in English. Higher education is in English. Even in primary schools in rural areas, English is taught in some way or the other may be not to the extent to the cities.

    My point is language is a form of social communication. A nationalistic stamp, does not mean that if we speak Urdu with an English influence we have an inferiority complex. Pakistan is just a little more than 63 years old we are still developing our literary identity. Countries like Greece and China have developed their societal dynamics over thousands of years. And this phenomenon is not with Pakistan (Urdu and English) only. Morrocans, Tunisians speak Arabic and French, and the Arabic they speak is very much influenced by french some of them converse in French. Brazilians speak Portuguese completely now, and so many of the South American countries speak Spanish although its not the indigenous language. Many of the African countries speak french. Does that mean that they have an inferiority complex?NO!

    It is a social phenomenon, and with time people’s languages change, due to several factors, and it is not because their lack of pride for the language. Pinning it down on lack of pride is unfair. If I like to communicate in Greek, I should, whatever makes communication easier for me I should do it. It is a natural social dynamic, so you should not be guilty about speaking in whatever tongue you are talking in. Pride has nothing to do with it. Speaking of human developments in nationalistic contexts is not fair and it does not work in that way.

    If the inferiority complex exists then what is wrong we that, do you mean to say we are superior? Pakistan and generally the whole of the middle east, Africa, Eastern Europe, Pacific Islands all are inferior in many many aspects as compared to the developed world. So we should buck up and compete rather then point fingers at inferiority complexes because if we have one there is nothing wrong with that. Recommend

  • My Name is Khan

    @ Author – this is a silly article. First of all, Urdu is not the “native” language for most of us. Not even a majority of Pakistanis consider Urdu to be their language.

    Second, let’s be real. English is the language of business and the world. It’s like saying “well I won’t use email because Pakistanis didn’t invent it, we should have pride in our own methods of technology-enabled communication!”

    We aren’t saying the West is better than us if we use English. If we want people speaking Urdu, then we should become a strong and powerful economy. Pakistan will be the world’s 5th biggest country soon. Students in the US and Canada and UK line up to learn French in school because of the massive amount of literature and prestige value. One day, Urdu could be similar if Pakistan can move out of the Dark Ages it is currently stuck in.

    Also, you lost all credibility when you brought up Aafia Siddiqui – she was convicted with evidence in hand. She is a terrorist. Get over it. Stop making Pakistanis look like foolish terrorist sympathizers. We are all not as soft on terrorists as you and Imran Khan are.Recommend

  • Frank

    Urdu isn’t ‘our own language’. If you’re proud of Pakistan then learn Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Shina or Baltistani. These and their various dialects are the major Pakistani languages and they should be given the status of national languages. As far as English vs Urdu is concerned. English has utility in science, technology and business. Urdu has utility only if you’re planning a trip to Lucknow.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    I really used to take pride in Urdu language but not any more. Because of insistence on Urdu we lost half of the country already because our leaders wanted Urdu to be our language when Bengali was the majority language and punjabi second most spoken language of the region. Now I think Urdu has served no useful purpose except divide us further. It is about we treat urdu the way it is treated elsewhere an extinct language. we should speak regional language as south india does and make English as our official as south India does. It is about time that we stop creating an inferior class that is being created by teaching them a very divisive and extinct language.
    I don’t see any reason to learn urdu it offers nothing of value. I think this is the only way this country would progress forward and at least we should take advantage of only redeeming thing left that is still in tact by the British. Now majority of the country learns urdu while the children elite learns Urdu. English is already official language in Karachi where urdu speakers are in majority.Recommend

  • Frank


    I really used to take pride in Urdu
    language but not any more. Because of
    insistence on Urdu we lost half of the
    country already because our leaders
    wanted Urdu to be our language

    It isn’t only the language, it’s also the culture associated with this language. It has created an urban class in Punjab but especially Lahore that is totally disconnected and alienated from the common Pakistani and holds him and everything about him in contempt. These same people are in the decision making positions of the country . What can we expect them to do for people they despise? The result is before you in all its glory.Recommend

  • Zahid Qureshi

    **Thanks for writing such an excellent article….do write more I am already your fan**Recommend

  • Kafka

    I love you for writing this article!!! You hit the bull’s eye. Why is this damned nation condemned to speak a language that does not belong here? Two reasons. The people who matter don’t care, and secondly they want to keep a discernible difference between the rulers and the ruled…… the difference of language.Recommend

  • J

    When it comes to working; speaking in English is necessary, you can’t argue with that. because every job requires a person with fluent English speaking skills, but when it comes to everyday life,like having a casual conversation with your friends and family, speaking in English is definitely not necessary. i myself have observed this that kids now a days hesitate to talk in Urdu because it affects your social status. There are a bunch of kids in my uni who speak in English at all times despite of the fact that their accent sucks. Apart from that its understandable that some people study in good schools and colleges. you even opt for O and A levels, and they undoubtedly possess good English speaking skills,but they should keep those skills restricted to impressing their teachers and bosses. Have the decency to speak in Urdu while making a casual conversation. Its our mother tongue and we should use it as often as possible.Recommend

  • Lobster

    You live in France and you speak English, either you don’t live in France or you don’t speak English except for within the limited environment of your company.
    We should learn languages but refrain from using them when there is absolutely no need. We should definitely prefer Urdu in our country, and when the person being addressed can understand it.

    well said!Recommend

  • Tanoli.

    IF urdu is forgien language then what about u peoples try to speak so hardely its a native
    hahahahah u guys make me lough english it self is combination of many lang and it is
    also only five to six century old the way indian sub contienent got urdu which is mixer of
    persian and arabic .sunskrit and turkish and also native languages same way english got here with gora arriaval to india and stinky way accoupy india with money. and make u guys
    who allready are ghulam ibn ghulam more ghulam. Recommend

  • Vijay K

    It is probably more sinister than you think. No country has progressed on a foreign language, and there is a scientific reason for that. If you look at the scientifically advanced countries (Germany, Japan, France, Russia, Anglo-Saxons, China etc), they are taught in the language of their birth. Our language of thinking is the language of our birth. “Hard-wiring” of our brains occurs at a very early age (probably in the first 2 years of our life). We may learn several languages later, but we are left with constantly translating ideas, never quite getting the original message across. We have therefore landed up giving our brain power to service the anglo-saxons. A country does not advance on money ( e.g Saudi is essentially a 3rd world country with wealth.. it has no manufacturing base). To advance, a country needs brains and innovation, not wealth alone. Innovation brings wealth. And no marks for guessing whose economies our brains are serving, directly or indirectly. Think a bit more about it, and you’ll understand why the anglo-saxon countries are so keen to propagate english.Recommend

  • Rehan

    I work for a multinational company in Paris. Even the French employees here speak English. However, if we have to do business abroad, we have a few employees and consultants who speak Mandarin (Chinese), Dutch, German, Urdu-Hindi, and other languages. Generally though, English is spoken more regularly than any other language, because nearly everyone in Europe and Asia has a basic grasp of it. However, that does NOT mean I feel inferior. I speak to my wife in Urdu, my daughter in Urdu (although she sometimes forces me to speak my broken French :p), and all my relatives back home also. Urdu is our language, but not learning English in the current global marketplace means that your skills wont be very marketable for international companies, even ones in non-English speaking countries, since English is very much the Global Language.

  • Shahbaz Younis

    Excellent write up! The author forgot to mention about other nations who feel proud to speak their native languages like China, Germany, France …. etc etc. Actually are dominated by western culture, we are confused, depressed, and have inferiority complex. Recommend

  • Lady6

    Such a time waste blogRecommend

  • Yamna Hassan

    Jinnah always spoke in English himself and knew only broken urdu. Hence Jinnah’s example here was sort of irrelevant.. Recommend

  • malay

    @Yamna Hassan

    Jinnah is the father of the nation. If he always spoke in english, it follows the children should do likewise. Period.Recommend

  • mohsin Sayeed

    The world is moving from English to Mandarin, and we are still debating about English-Urdu, west-east superirority…Recommend

  • Waqas

    I’m sorry but
    1. Urdu is a language very few actually speak. Even fewer have had the interest of studying its roots and literature and all. Speaking a foreign language does not mean one is ashamed of his own language.
    2. The MAIN reason why anyone in Pakistan considers English a formidable language is this. Anyone who can speak english properly or has a British/American accent has obviously studied in an expensive school or has been rich enough to visit these countries. That implies your folks are have a powerful background. And in Pakistan, nobody messes with you if you have power. You could be a good english speaker because of any of these reasons! You watch english TV shows because you can afford cable and are open minded enough to watch that kind of stuff. A trait only found in the elite and powerful class. You have foreign friends you communicate with. Obviously you have the means of communicating with them. A computer with internet. And the time and money to spend doing that. Powerful background.

    Why anyone tries speaking english is quite clear now. Wouldn’t YOU want to sound like you’re from that class of Pakistan? People don’t respect or praise the western culture. They respect the implications behind it. If you follow western culture, you’re a big shot! If your president and all these ministers start walking in the streets like normal people (and lets suppose nobody knows them) no one would care when they interact with them. But if a normal average guy speaks english, people would definitely think he has a strong and powerful background, capable of changing lives in Pakistan. Other than that, yes we need to learn english if we hope to compete with others! India is probably our biggest competitor in terms of professionals provider. Every firm in America has their call center/Help line in India BECAUSE they speak good english! If you want to be like China, do want Mao did. Bring the competition to YOUR home ground and make THEM follow you. As long as you’re playing in THEIR playground, you have to adhere to their rules. You need to learn english to get a good job. And if anyone asks me WHY we need their job, quite simply, its because the jobs here are not enough and dont pay enough. In a state of turmoil, no one has the time or the need to think about the greater good. Everyone wants to feed themselves and their families. One can be patriotic and think about the national interest when he has a roof over his head, clothes to cover himself, food to survive. Right now everyone is just trying to make the ends meet! professionals in Pakistan don’t get jobs due to corruption and our “reference” based systems. Why do you expect him to stay and work for you when you denied him of his right? why shouldn’t he pursue jobs in other countries and foreign firms? why should he be the one to work for the country while everyone else just steals from it? Why should he watch his family suffer? Why should he kick his 16 years of studies and work as a clerk or a taxi driver? why not go to a place where his skills are used and hes PAID for it? and unfortunately there are VERY few such firms in Pakistan.

    And everyone else saying Urdu ISN’T our native language, seriously? The very reason Urdu was picked to be the national language was to not do any favors to any particular sect in the country. Punjabi is the most common language of our country yet it was not given the status of national language because it would have been unfair to the other sects. Quaid e Azam knew of this fact and that is why he chose Urdu! a beautiful language. Young but historical. Quaid e Azam didn’t want us dividing ourselves into sects! And here we are 63 years later saying Urdu is not the national language, it should be Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto etc.Recommend

  • Waqas

    @Shahbaz Younis:
    its not an inferiority complex sir. its the truth! we are not capable of establishing a market where others would want to learn the language and join. so we have to join theirs. The countries you mentioned are advanced enough that they HAVE a standing in the world. if they decide to stop playing by their rules, the market is gonna have some serious issues. these countries have the luxury of bending others to their will. We don’t cuz we could never really excelled in the market to show them our importance. everyday, we’re trying to compete with others but fail because of corruption and all, and this just in, CommunicationRecommend

  • Atif Ali

    Shocking how this article is written without a single mention of the other ‘native languages’ of Pakistan,. A word of advise for the ignorant author would be to try to understand and appreciate the diversity in Pakistan. It would only be a great disservice to our rich and complex culture if we were to pit a language against other languages or advocate one or the other when there is clearly no language which is inherently native to the entire population.

    Also, may I also inquire what Afia Siddique has to do with the language issue. Few, if any, would dispute the superiority of American courts in terms of their ability and willingness to deliver justice in an impartial fashion when compared to the decrepit institutions vulnerable to politics and bullying in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Hina

    How can you talk about Pakistan when you are not a Pakistani yourself? And why do you have to be so unappreciative? Mr. we have not lost our identities and humanity just because we can speak more than one languages. And Hey! your relatives were trying to talk to you in English because you didn’t understand Urdu then. If they only had, your article would be different now. You must have written about “Why don’t Pakistanis try and learn English. Its the language of the world”. People like you who are raised in Western world look for mere excuses to hate Pakistanis.

    Would you now come back to Pakistan, live here and get your kids admission in an Urdu medium school? Will you do that? if you would then you can write a million articles like that BUT IN URDU… Recommend