Language and development

After so much capital has been invested in the English language in Pakistan, going back to Urdu might look strange

A recent episode in which a woman hurled invectives on a security official at a toll plaza allegedly for addressing her in the Punjabi language has once again highlighted the language issue in Pakistan. While the details of the event, which made the woman flare-up, are not clear, sweeping the language issues in Pakistan under the carpet is not an option.

The language issue has haunted this nation from day one. When Pakistan won freedom from the British Raj in 1947, English was the official language in British India. Pakistan inherited a lot of intractable problems at the time of independence. The question of official language readily became a major issue and deeply divided the body politic.

The Two-Nation Theory was meant to be the binding force between the East and the West Pakistan. The two regions had very little in common, except a religious identity ighlighted Two-Nation Theory. Once independent, the differences between East and West Pakistan began to appear more and more obvious.

The imposition of Urdu as national language further deepened the differences between East and West Pakistan. Following the catastrophic dictatorial rule of Ayub Khan, a sense of political disenfranchisement by East Pakistan reached the breaking point. Pakistan was dismembered. The rest is history.

Though it looked like the issue of the national language was settled once and for all after the separation of Bangladesh, language issues continue to challenge national cohesion in several ways. Even if the dialectic languages do not pose any serious problem in terms of national cohesion, the more urgent issue is the controversy surrounding the relative importance of Urdu and English as a medium of instruction.

Pakistan has had a love-hate relationship with English. Historically, religious leadership has adopted an adversarial relationship with English because English is seen to be the extension of colonial legacy, whereas the mainstream education system has espoused English as an instrument for socioeconomic development.

In the early days of Pakistan, Urdu was implicitly the medium of instruction for the masses, whereas English was reserved for the affluent. This policy was reversed in 1977 under Ziaul Haq, who sought to replace English with Urdu as the medium of instruction.

Ironically, this was also the time when private English-medium schools began to flourish. Though the education policy of 1998 made no reference to language, growth in the private English medium schools received an added impetus. The National Education Policy of 2009 declared that science and mathematics would be taught from 4th grade only in English. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered that English be gradulally replaced with Urdu as an official language. What has changed ever since is hard to say. As of now, the only predictable thing in this debate is unpredictability.

While arguments for promoting mother-tongue are plausible for emotive and sociological reasons, the dynamics in the debate around using English as the medium of instruction is less obvious as it touches many raw nerves, and is deeply controversial and highly contested.

While there is some substance to the arguments of proponents of English and Urdu as the de facto lingua franca, there is no shortage of myths either. One of the most famous myths in Pakistan is that, with the exception of English-speaking countries, the developed world has nothing to do with English. It is sometimes claimed that developed countries, like France and Germany, have no place for English.

A recently published English Proficiency Index effectively debunks this myth and shows that countries like the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium have very high proficiency in English language, whereas countries like Pakistan, Russia, and Japan have less proficiency, and countries like the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Kuwait have very low proficiency.

In a nutshell, a satisfactory understanding of the effect of the English language on economic growth requires an appreciation of how the formation of institutions, stability, and certainty can encourage the accumulation of knowledge.

If the distribution of English proficiency across a wide spectrum of economic development is any measure, the link between proficiency in English language and economic development is only tenuous.

The countries where English is used in citizens’ interactions with government officials make an interesting list. As of now, there are only four countries in the world where English is the national and official language (Australia and New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States) with a combined population of 424 million, which is roughly 6 percent of the world population.

There are 35 countries in the world, where English is not the primary language, but where English is de facto and de jure official language. This group has a total population of 1.76 billion, which is roughly 23 percent of the world population. Out of these 35 countries, 19 are located in Africa, two are located in Asia (India and Pakistan), one in Europe (Malta), and 11 in Oceania.

There are 16 countries in the world where English is not the primary language, but a de facto official language with a total population of 381 million which is roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. Out of these countries, 14 are located in Asia and the Middle East, which include countries such as Bangladesh, Israel, Malaysia, Qatar, and Sri Lanka.

Is English indispensable for our economic development? The arguments abound and are often conflicting. Among the non-English speaking countries, Scandanavian countries are always at the top of English proficiency, with Sweden taking the top spot for the last two years. Given their small size and export-driven economies, the leaders of the Scandanavian nations understand that good English is a critical component of their continued economic success.

In many emerging economies, such as China, Russia, and Brazil, where English is not the official language, good English is considered a critical tool of economic development, and elaborate public policies seek to enhance the proficiency in English. Many people in these countries believe that English will help them tap into new opportunities at home and abroad.

A counter-narrative also exists. It challenges the notion that the English language is a gateway to economic well-being. Some studies show that competence in English is in no manner associated with a higher level of economic development.

It is argued that in developing countries, the use of local languages as a medium of instruction lowers dropout and repetition rates, thereby leading to a higher aggregate stock of human capital, and human capital remains, in the long term, one of the keys of economic development. Data on the school dropouts in Pakistan because of English being the medium of instruction could help policymakers tailor more robust policies.

Some experts argue that language policies developed as a response to the economic globalization, ignoring the local realities, become a source of marginalization along the lines of class, ethnicity, gender, and regions. The students trained in the religious mainstream in Pakistan are often excluded from public sector jobs because of their inadequate English proficiency.

At the global level, as long as English means access to improved economic opportunities, there will be a bias against those whose home language is not English. The dilemma of the young English language learner remains an issue of equity, access, and redress for past injustices.

Given the blurry link between English language and economic development, the pertinent question is if the English language is the only factor behind the development of some non-English speaking countries, or is their development explained by some other extraneous factors.

There is lot of evidence that the link between Egnlish proficiency and economic development is both context-specific, and many institutional dynamics confound this relationship. It is shown that the spectacular growth of Asian countries can be attributed to the heavy investment in the creation of human capital that fosters an English-speaking culture and promotes a climate of the use of English. An increase in English proficiency will directly accelerate the absorptive knowledge capabilities of workers. A similar argument can be applied to European economies, which also enjoy a positive growth rate.

In a nutshell, a satisfactory understanding of the effect of the English language on economic growth requires an appreciation of how the formation of institutions, stability, and certainty can encourage the accumulation of knowledge. After so much capital has been invested in the English language in Pakistan, going back to Urdu may seem strange. Pakistan has to focus on enhancing the quality of English language teaching and improving educational standards in general to tap the opportunities. Replacing English with Urdu at this stage could be counter-productive.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

Replacing English with Urdu can be counter-productive for Pakistan