U.S. English Foundation Research



Language Research

6. Language in everyday life: The use of language in everyday life, e.g. education, broadcasting, and other

In the early 1990’s, there were over 1,500 newspapers and journals in the country, including publications in Urdu, English, and in regional languages as well. The major national daily newspapers in Urdu are “Jang”, “Nawa-i-Waqt”, “Jasarat”, “Masawat”, “Mashriq”, and “Hurriyat”. The major national daily newspapers in English are “Dawn”, “Pakistan Times”, “Muslim”, “Morning News”, “Nation”, “Frontier Post”, and “News”. “Herald” is an important English-language magazine.

In Pakistan, the Punjabi language is mainly spoken rather than written and it is used in predominantly rural rather than urban areas. Urdu, rather than Punjabi, is the first language taught in schools in Punjab, so that every educated Punjabi reads and writes Urdu. Instructions in the best schools continued to be in English until the early 1980’s. To speak English was highly desirable because it facilitated admission to good universities in England, the USA and Australia. Later Urdu was promoted to be the language of instruction in government schools.

Updated (September 2002)

Language is a very important issue in modern Pakistan. It is a key to the distribution of power between the ethnic groups, the socio-economic classes and individuals inhabiting the country.


English is inevitable as far as the modern, employment-based domains of power are concerned. Without speaking English one cannot get the most lucrative jobs, both in the state apparatus and the private sector in Pakistan. There are no reliable figures on the number of English speakers; however, the 1961 Census informed that 2.7 percent of the population could speak the language. This percentage should have increased because the middle class (salariat) has amplified and the good jobs always require some competence in English.

If those, who have passed their matriculation examination where, English is a compulsory subject, are considered to have literacy in English, then the figure came to 19.56 percent in 1981 (Census 1981). Nevertheless, the majority of matriculates from vernacular-medium schools cannot speak English when they can barely read their textbooks. As such, the number of people with fluency in English drops again to 3-4 percent of the population.


On the contrary, Urdu is more widespread among matriculates when 20 percent of them are quite proficient in it. Students of religious seminaries and madrassas, soldiers, as well as otherwise illiterate working class living in the cities pick it up quickly and use it quite well. Urdu has disseminated so extensively because it is used for inter-provincial communication, entertainment, media, and, above all, lower middle-class jobs all over Pakistan (except in rural Sindh).

Urdu is also an “Islamic” language in the sense that under British rule it was adopted by the Islamic religious scholars, (ulema) and clergymen (maulvis) to disseminate Islam. Urdu is the language of religious tracts and sermons.


Arabic is understood only by a handful of religious people in the madrassas and a few academics and scholars connected with Islam or the Arabic language and literature. Although Muslims learn to read the Koran (according to the 1981 Census 18.37 percent of the population could read it) this reading is not more than recognition of the Arabic letters. They are not taught the meanings of the words nor they can read Arabic words written without the diacritical marks used in the Pakistani versions of the Koran.


Persian too is understood only by a few experts. It is taken as an easy option by students in certain examinations leading to state employment but in general the students never get beyond memorization of several passages.


The indigenous mother tongues are either not taught at all (Punjabi) or are taught inadequately (Pashto, which is a medium of instructions up to class 5 in some schools and an optional subject in higher levels) or only in a certain area (Sindhi, which is taught in Sindh). However, some people study them out of their own interest because books written in them, called chapbooks, are available in all the major cities of Pakistan. An American scholar William Hanaway and his Pakistani co-author Mumtaz Nasir listed 940 chapbooks in Punjabi, Siraiki, Hindko, Khowar, Pashto, Sindhi, Persian and Urdu. Films and songs in these languages, especially in Punjabi and Pashto, are quite popular too.


English, Urdu and Sindhi are media of instruction in schools corresponding to a class-based division of Pakistan society. The elitist English-medium schools, where the teachers really teach in English and the students come from backgrounds with exposure to English, are expensive and thus unavailable for lower-middle and working-class pupils. The Urdu and Sindhi-medium schools, as well as few schools where Pashto is the medium of instruction at the lower levels, are run by the state and are quite affordable for most Pakistanis. Even more affordable are the madrassas, teaching in Urdu and Arabic, because they provide not only free education but also free board and lodging. The madrassas of the Pashto-speaking areas use Pashto as the medium of instruction while those of the Sindhi-speaking parts use Sindhi. In Punjab and Balochistan, although Urdu is a formal medium of instruction, the explanation is often in the local languages.

Data about the number of schools according to their medium of instruction is not available.


People need languages for being employed and thus achieve success in the society. There are many, mostly of the urban population, who at least partly derive their power from their ability to write in English and Urdu. This power is not directly proportional to one’s competence in the languages but without the ability to read, write and speak them one cannot enter the elite cadres of the Pakistani salariat.

Thus language becomes a “coin” and what it buys is power. If one cannot write Urdu and English, he cannot get even a clerical job in Pakistan except in Sindh. If one can write Urdu but not English, he can get lower jobs in all the provinces of Pakistan. Better jobs, however, are reserved for those who can read and write English.

Source: World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona, April 16-20, 2002, “Language Teaching and Power in Pakistan,” by Dr. Tariq Rahman, Professor of Linguistics and South Asian Studies in the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad,


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