Let them speak English

Pakistan Today | 3 Oct 2014

Imaduddin Ahmed

The professional elite of Pakistan have a monopoly on English medium-schools and therefore on global competitiveness

“And where in India are you from?” asked the hostess of an upscale restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda.

“I’m Pakistani,” I replied.

“Pakistani?!” she exclaimed, “But you’re so polished!”

Shocked as I was, I took the half-mad Indian restauratrice’s response in my stride and laughed it off with colleagues at the table.

Months later, I saw her point. At a reception for Kigali-based Pakistanis with the regional ambassador, I observed how ill-mannered blokes snaked their way to the front of the free buffet, stuffing their plates with meat that they would not finish, their rotund bellies notwithstanding. One University of Karachi social sciences graduate told me how he would not listen to music because of all the bad things associated with it. “What about Beethoven?” I asked. He gave me a blank stare. “Beat who?” These were not Pakistan’s most presentable sons.

In Ghana, an Anglophone African country, the failings of our nation became even more apparent as I encountered an unpleasant squatter from Faisalabad. He spoke down to the maid because that was the way in which one is meant to talk to such people, never mind that she spoke better English than him, never mind that this was not the general local attitude towards domestic help. In fact, almost every taxi driver, guard and waiter I encountered in Ghana spoke better English than eighty per cent of the Pakistanis I have met in Africa. That goes a long way in explaining why this squatter remained unemployed. Perhaps he should have applied to be the maid’s assistant.

Like Pakistan, Ghana is a multi-lingual state. Unlike Pakistan’s founders, Ghana’s elected English as the national language, the effect of which was to integrate the nascent nation into the global community, and not just unto itself

Like Pakistan, Ghana is a multi-lingual state. Unlike Pakistan’s founders, Ghana’s elected English as the national language, the effect of which was to integrate the nascent nation into the global community, and not just unto itself: Ghana’s high-school drop-outs are better equipped to communicate with people of different nations than many of Pakistan’s university and MBA graduates. Turning a language of exploitation into one of access, Ghana attracts the foreign exchange of investors, NGOs and tourists from around the world. The country’s GDP per capita leap-frogged Pakistan’s in 2006, before Ghana’s discovery of oil and prior to Pakistan’s descent into chaos. I got no sense that the country, in spite of its lack of an indigenous national language, was on the verge of balkanisation. The democracy with a standing of 21 years is unified by its desire for peace. It seemed to have a strong national identity, with all backing the inequitably talented Black Stars football team, and many parading the national flag in their cars.

Amongst the men at the hotel in Rwanda was my barber. To learn English, he brought with him from Lahore Azhar’s English Speaking Course, replete with idiomatic, grammatical and spelling mistakes, and definitions such as “Blonde – very beautiful woman”. The barber is making progress “slow, slow”.

With apologies to my great grandfather Maulana Salahuddin Ahmed, advocate of Urdu as a national language for Pakistan, the best thing that the government can do to develop useful human capital that will attract money into the country and also make Pakistan a more equitable society is to give every child access to English-medium education.

With a move from a regional amalgam of a language will come a change in curricula and a route to the global upper middle class that will bring with it a change in biases, behaviour and values to, generally, more worldly outlooks and less regressive values

And if we’re honest about it, Urdu has not carried the day. As one ventures into the provinces or into the mountains, one will struggle to communicate with farmers and paharis relying on Urdu. Watch the Urdu weather forecast. How much of it, primarily meant for the benefit of Punjabi-speaking farmers, is in English? Switch languages on your Android to Urdu and, instead of Urdu, you’ll read English words written in Arabic script, if switched from Latin script at all. Few Pakistanis, villagers or urbanites, understand our Persianised national anthem. You’re reading this Pakistani English paper. Urdu is dying even before it fully established itself as the national language.

With a move from a regional amalgam of a language will come a change in curricula and a route to the global upper middle class that will bring with it a change in biases, behaviour and values to, generally, more worldly outlooks, and less regressive values.

It is an inevitability that those trained in Urdu-medium schools will remain at a disadvantage in reaching the higher echelons of their professions (excepting for the army and judiciary) than those trained at English-medium schools who sit for A-levels recognised the world over and who access financial aid and attend the world’s most prestigious universities. And that’s just in Pakistan. If Pakistanis are to compete for opportunities abroad, our university graduates should not be lagging Ghanaian primary school graduates in the global language of business.

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