Linguistic Inequalities:
The Urdu-English Medium
Divide in Pakistan
Dr Fauzia Shamim
Professor, Dept of English
University of Karachi, Karachi
 Introduction
& Background
– Role and status of Urdu and English
– Educational context in Pakistan
– What’s the issue?
 The
– Research questions
– Methodology
– Preliminary findings
 Conclusion
Role and Status of Different
Language in Pakistan
1) The National language of Pakistan is Urdu and
arrangements shall be made for its being used for official
and other purposes within fifteen years from the
commencing day.
2) Subject to clause (1) the English language may be used
for official purposes until arrangements are made for its
replacement by Urdu.
3) Without prejudice to the status of the National language,
a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for
the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in
addition to the national language (Constitution of Pakistan,
1973, Article 251).
Role and Status of Urdu & English
Urdu- national language and lingua franca
(MT of only 7%)
English- official language and gatekeeper
for entry into prestigious higher education
institutions, high salaried jobs; also the
language of military and bureaucracy
Regional languages- used mainly in
informal social interactions
‘Truisms’ in Pakistan
 English
is necessary for individual
and national development
– English is a passport to success and
upward social mobility
– English is the key to national progress
Educational Context in Pakistan
School level
Three parallel systems of education
– Urdu-medium schools (mainly state operated)
– English-medium schools (mainly private)
 Elitist
 Non-elitist
(so-called English-medium)
– Madrassahs (mainly Arabic)
(Rahman, 2004)
Two tracks within English-medium
– O/A level
– Matric/intermediate
Educational Context in Pakistan
Higher Education
English is the medium of instruction in all
prestigious private higher education
institutions (HEIs)
 Both English AND Urdu allowed as medium
of instruction in public sector HEIs
 Textbooks and other reading material
mainly available in English, particularly in
Sciences, Business Studies etc.
(see also Mansoor, 2005 & Shamim, 2007)
Higher Education Commission’s
ELT reforms project
“envisages revolutionizing the socio-economic indicators of
Pakistan and will contribute considerably to supplement the
efforts of government to improve the standard of higher
education and scientific learning”.
“will help the graduates of public sector universities and
institutions of higher learning, to compete for good jobs in
What’s the issue?
B ole keh labb aazad hain
B ole keh jaan abb tak teri
T ayyab Z aidi
What’s the issue?
 Linguistic
(and social) inequality
mediated through kinds of
educational institutions, and
educational practices in Pakistan
– TRACKING at secondary and postsecondary level
 Therefore,
need for:
– systematic situation analysis
– debate and dialogue about relative
ROLE(S) and STATUS of Urdu, English
(and regional languages)
– improving quality of teaching-learning
of English in schools and HEIs
(Mansoor, 2005; Rahman, 1996; Shamim & Allen, 2000;
Shamim & Tribble, 2005)
The present study
 Aim
of the study:
To explore learners’ perceptions and
experience of the Urdu-English medium
divide in Pakistan
The present study
 Research
1. How do bi/multilingual learners
experience the Urdu-English medium
divide in the context of a higher
education institution in Pakistan?
2. How do their experiences (and
perceptions) affect their desire to
acquire and manage high and low-value
language assets?
Definition of terms
 Linguistic
Languages are assigned value
according to the context in which
they areused- so the same language
may be considered high value in one
context and low-value in another
Setting: A large public sector university in
Karachi, Pakistan
– Bilingual language policy
– English is the dominant language in Sciences
(and other high profile departments in Social
Sciences such as IR); Urdu is mainly used in
low profile departments
– Bilingual classroom discourse in ALL depts
– Mass Com department- Two separate sections,
i.e., English and Urdu-medium
University of Karachi
Bilingual policy!
Purposive sampling: Three students from
the English and Urdu medium sections of
the mass communications department
with varied linguistic
backgrounds/opportunities for learning
English in school
– English-medium section: 2 students
(Intermediate and A level tracks each)
– Urdu-medium section: 1 student
Narrative Interviewing
Data Analysis
Identity as analytic lens
 Four kinds of identity
– N-identity- a state (developed from forces in nature);
also the kind of household re social status in which a
child is born and brought up
– I-identity-a position (authorized by authorities within
institutional); also the kind of educational institution
(English-Urdu medium) to which you belong
– D-identity-an individual trait (recognized in
discourse/dialogue with “rational” individuals)
– A-identity-experiences (shared in the practice of
(Gee, 2000: 100-107)
During school years
Farina’s I-identity
English medium
“Mera jo school thha wo English medium ke
naam se jana jata he [my school is known
as an English-medium school]”
[However, no focus in school on developing
linguistic skills - learnt English mainly at
home through help & encouragement from
older siblings]
During school years
English: a high value asset in
construction of D-Identity
“I was the ice candy for my teachers, for my
English teachers especially. . . . I was
always raising my hand, answering
questions, writing good character
sketches. There was discrimination. They
[the teachers] used to like me better. Girls
wanted me to read out.”
During school years
“Although I studied in O’ levels till 7th grade, I had other
cousins who were studying in renowned and prestigious
schools like X and Y. They used to judge me ke how much
do you know of English. And I don’t know why but they
always concentrated on this particular language and did not
want to judge me on my Science capabilities, Mathematics
capabilities. They always wanted to know ke how much
English do you know. And basically I’m not a very good
speaker. They used to question me ke what do you call
chowkidar in English? They used to test me. Because their
children were in much advanced schools. . . When I was not
able to answer their questions, I used to feel that I was not
a good person; I was not a good learner. I was an ordinary
child. I don’t know anything. I used to feel like that.”
During school years
 “I
didn’t feel good when they were
questioning my capabilities. It was
like they were questioning my
identity.” [re social class]
N-identity: Family income
& its role in learning English
“I can tell from my childhood experience that a lot
depends on your schooling. If your schooling has
been good you’re definitely going to make it. If
you have had your schooling in the English
language you will definitely thrive. You will
definitely get proficiency in English. And I
acknowledge that there is a lot of difference in
schooling. My friends who don’t know Englishthey didn’t have good schooling. Mine was
relatively better-just relatively better-less that A
level students.” (Translated)
N-identity: Family income
& its role in learning English
“O’ levels A’ levels ki peRhai tu sab ko pata he ke
expensive bhhe hoti he comparatively tu saat
saat hazar, tu wo middle class family jo kamati
das hazar he, wo seven thousand agar apne sirf
ek bache ki fees me~ de raha he, how is it
possible; wo survive kese kere~ ge? So
ultimately status symbol ban gaya. Jo parents ker
sakte he~, wo status wale he~. Tumhare parents
nahi~ he~ bhhaee; tum intermediate ker rahi
(key words spoken in English have been highlighted)
University level: Changing identities
I-identity: English-medium [Matriculation and]
Intermediate track
“They [A levels stream] are entirely different people. I don’t
know for what reason. . . . They consider it as a privilege to
be there; to learn English; to learn Sciences better; to learn
advance Mathematics . . . they consider us ke matriculation
ke students; kia aage in kya future he [they think
matriculation students do not have a bright future] So I
think that is the barrier. . . . My friend has got admission at
IBA but he’s not satisfied with it. For an intermediate
student, it’s a privilege to be an IBA graduate, doing BBA
from there. They think that you know we have
opportunities, bahar jane ki [to go aboard]. We [A levels
stream] are privileged; you [intermediate stream] are not.”
University level: Changing identities
Construction of D- identity in relation to
current and future life chances
 “[i]n the English class, there are very few
students who are proficient in English. They’re
one year older to me because A levels students
are always one year older so they have good
vocabulary because they have gone through SAT
preparations and IELTS as well.”
“They [teachers] always go for people who can
converse better in English rather than my group.”
 Mainly
has friends “who are more
inclined towards Urdu”
 Seems very impressed with A level
 A bridge between English-medium [A
level] and Urdu-medium students in
her dept.
“ . . . many people from the English
section moved to the Urdu section
because it has now become common that
the Urdu media is boosting. So many
students shifted not on the basis of
language but because of the practical
approach. Urdu students are much better
at Mass Communication abilities because
they’re always writing letters to Jang [a
leading newspaper] etc. but we’re still at
the elementary stuff.”
“I think I’m standing somewhere in
between [Urdu and English-medium]. I’m
in the middle. I’m more inclined towards
Urdu because I don’t think I’m qualified
enough, especially after entering Mass
Communication where . . . we have many
A levels’ students. My school teachers
used to encourage me that you’re good at
English, at least you are good at English
but now that I’ve come to the university,
things have changed. I now feel that the
competition is quite tough. My vocabulary
needs to be improved.”
Crossing the Language (Social)
 “I’m
the only one from amongst my
group of friends] who has
connections with the A levels’
students as well. Otherwise, there’s a
lot of space between the A’ levels
students and us [English-medium
Intermediate track and Urdu-medium
Farina’s perception of her English
“Basically whenever I read Anjum Niaz’
articles, I have to keep a dictionary on one
side and then read it. I think that I do not
use the language properly. Somehow,
misuse of tenses happens and the only
reason is my schooling. Had their been a
better approach towards English in my
school, I would’ve written better articles.
When I go through these articles and see
my own writings, I find huge differences.”
Future aspirations
Improving English Language Skills
“My elder brother always wanted me to master
English language and it’s his wish that I enter
Dawn News some day. So I see myself in the
English section, in the English media. My brother
and sister are the only reasons why I’m here
right now. ThhoRi si bhhe jo mujhhe ati he, wo
un ki wajah se ati he. [Whatever little I know is
because of them.] Had I listened to them and
continued to practice, I would have been much
much better. Whenever my brother calls me, he
says “Fatima, please improve your English.” He’s
really good at it. His friends are very impressed
when he converses in English.”
Sense of Loss?
 “I
started concentrating towards
English. Urdu I thought was my
mother language; I’ll learn. I was
wrong enough. I think one should
know, especially a journalist. I’m an
aspiring journalist. So I should be
mastering each and every language.”
Farina’s Linguistic Assets
Urdu: home language, high value asset for
family and social interactions (e.g.
shopping and with friends at KU) English: second language, high value
asset in academic domain and for future
career prospects; also for higher social
status within family
 Wants to improve her English language
skills for improved life chances in future
More generally . . .
 Social
class shapes learners’ access
to different kinds of educational
institutions and, therefore, their
access to English (and Urdu)
 Differences in educational
opportunities lead to linguistic
inequalities, which in turn, affect
learners’ perception of self/others
and their future life chances
Conclusion (tentative)
Different kinds of school types in Pakistan
lead to linguistic inequalities which, in
turn, help perpetuate social inequalities
(cf. Willis, Why do working class kids
become working class?)
However, some ‘discourses of resistance’
can be heard. (see Canagarajah, 1999:2226)
Major Challenge!
How can linguistic inequality based on
parallel systems of education be
addressed, or more important, a
more equitable education system
developed in Pakistan?

Linguistic Inequalities: The Urdu