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Pakistan: Without a National Language

Economy + Geopolitics, Language Surveys

Pakistan is lacking a national language, and the high illiteracy rate risks undermining the future of the younger generation

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan but only about 7% of the population of Pakistan (15 million people out of a total of 220 million) speak Urdu as their first language.  As a colonial heritage, English still has a significant presence in Pakistan, used as the main language both in official and governmental communications and in private schools which, even if accessible only to the richest part of the population, are the only ones that guarantee a long term academic program, being the public schools characterized by a systemic failure which lead to a high rate of out-of-school children. Anyway, Urdu and English are just 2 of the 70 and more languages spoken in Pakistan. 

Out of the 7% who speak Urdu, the other 93% speak either English or Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi or other regional languages as their first language. However, Urdu is mostly understood and spoken throughout Pakistan as a second or third language. 

The reason why Urdu is not the most common first language is that the education system teaches its students the country’s national language as poorly as if it were a foreign language. That’s why Urdu, which should be the first language, is a second language for most of the population, who continue to speak mainly regional languages. 

Around one third of students attend private schools where English is the first language, while the other two thirds attend government-funded public schools, which mainly teach in Urdu. The problem is that the quality of education varies greatly between private and public schools. Those who attend private schools receive a better education and undoubtedly have more opportunities; for those who attend public school, there is a high probability that they will not learn the skills required to read and understand a text. In a country where 35% of the population is aged from 0 to 14 years old, 75% of children cannot read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. In addition to this disparity, there is also a gender issue: the students are mainly male, particularly in higher years.

The concept of identity is closely connected to how people understand their relationship to the world, including their understanding of their future prospects. Without being able to read by age 10, a child will not be able to learn much of the information, will not be able to access government services, and will not even be considered for most formal jobs. 

That said, the main problem is that well-spoken English still defines a person’s status. There is still a deep-rooted belief that students who follow the Cambridge International Examination programme have elite status. This idea has its roots in colonialism, when education was offered exclusively in English and was accessible only to those who supported British dominance. The whole situation seems stuck in the past.

It is true that today English is seen as the language of modernisation – a way to keep up with the world rather than a tie to the past – but in Pakistan it is something more. English – spoken as a first or second language by 49% of the population – seems to be part of the Pakistani identity, even if it was never a part of the Pakistani culture. Anything indigenous is considered inferior, and anything colonial superior. This language distinction has led to a social and cultural distinction, resulting in a class divide. The elite is defined by the use of English, and this social division could easily lead to sociocultural decline. 

English is also the main language in official and governmental communications, but the need has been expressed for the government to at least provide basic services, laws, signage, and education in a language familiar to the majority of its population, for the sake of administration and human development. In 2015, the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made it mandatory for government officials to deliver speeches in Urdu, whether in Pakistan or abroad, but despite this formal attempt, the education sector still has a long way to go. 

In a country as poorly governed as Pakistan, with a high illiteracy rate*, it is an extreme burden to expect individuals to somehow communicate in an unfamiliar language. To reach the whole population rather than just the elite, it is important to communicate in Urdu, just as it is important to ensure that Urdu is used as the primary language in the education system, which in turn must be improved. 

*The literacy rate ranges from 82% in Islamabad to 23% in the Torghar District. Literacy rates vary by gender and region. In tribal areas female literacy is 9.5%, while Azad Kashmir has a literacy rate of 74%. 

The illiteracy rate and the loss of linguistic capital  

In Pakistan, there are 25 million out-of-school children. But we rarely mention the 17 million children in school who are struggling and failing to read and write in any language – both languages that are familiar to them, and those that are unfamiliar. When these children decide to no longer pursue their education, we say they “dropped out”. But the truth of the matter is that, in many instances, these children are pushed out due to a systemic failure, forced into this choice by the weaknesses and shortcomings of the school education system.

Who can read (class wise % of children)
Schooling access, rural vs urban sample
Access% of out of school children (age 6-16)% of enrolled children (age 6-16)% of government school% of private school
National rural17%83%77%23%
National urban6%94%38%62%
Enrollment by gender and type of school (%), urban sample


75% of children in Pakistan cannot read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. 

The concept of identity is closely connected to how people understand their relationship to the world, including their understanding of their future prospects. Without being able to read by age 10, a child will not be able to learn much of the information, will not be able to access government services, and will not even be considered for most formal jobs. 

Learning levels, urban samples vs rural samples
Learning levelsUrdu/Sindhi/PashtoEnglishArithmetic
National rural59%55%57%
National urban70%67%66%

Norton, a distinguished professor and scholar in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia (Canada), asserts that “every time language learners speak, they are not only exchanging information with their interlocutors; they are also constantly organising and reorganising a sense of who they are and how they relate to the social world. They are, in other words, engaged in identity construction and negotiation.” 

These identities can also be seen as being influenced by what Bourdieu (1991) calls linguistic capital, referring to the linguistic assets possessed by individuals and passed on through informal and formal networks that determine the progress they can make in life. 

Linguistic capital can be seen as a crucial aspect of the identities of learners in educational institutions, especially in the context of Pakistan, where the English and Urdu-medium divide extends from families and informal interaction into more formal learning systems. 

The identities of learners are thus constructed differently based on the unequal accumulation of linguistic capital during their school years and subsequently in higher education institutions, leading to the growth of some students while putting others in a disadvantaged position.

In order to strengthen the Urdu cultural identity of this country, a first step would be to popularise the use of English as a tool which can facilitate connections with other countries, rather than as the medium of instruction and the main language of communication.

To reach Pakistan, to understand Pakistan and Pakistan’s culture, people, cultural heritage and human heritage, to reach the entire population without distinction and to help eliminate the social divisions created by the English elite, it is necessary to speak Urdu and to promote its importance in the education system, recognising the language as fundamental in preserving and enriching the country’s cultural identity.

No English Please, We’re Pakistani.

The English/Urdu-Medium Divide in Pakistan.

Teaching World Englishes in Pakistan – A Global Criterion

In Pakistan, Language is a Status Symbol – Anmol Irfan, Are We Europe no. 9, The Issue of Colonialism

Why Pakistani schools must shift their focus from English to regional languages