English is the language of the elite, the desire of the middle class and an alien concept for the poor in Pakistan. Yet, regardless of the status in society, the obsession of the countrymen for learning and using the language has consistently grown over the years. On one hand, the increased desire to gain fluency in English is tied to our colonial heritage. But, on the other hand, a closer look at the fixation of the public with English reveals that it is majorly derived from the disproportionate access to opportunities for English and non-English speakers in the country.

A little over 160 years after the revolt of 1857, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan rightly pointed out that the cause of poor condition of the generation of Muslims in British-India was due to their reluctance and incapability of learning the English language. This deprived them of holding key positions in the government offices, and ultimately limited their influence over their new masters, the British. Though relevant at the time; Pakistan is now an independent country. The focus on the same lines of gaining superiority in English fluency is not a necessity of the time anymore. Rather, it has proved to be detrimental for building a nation of independent thinkers in the country.

Unfortunately, the poor intellectual condition of the country since independence has not changed much. Pakistan still has the second-highest number of out of school children in the world, the country still promulgates an outdated curriculum, and has not spent more than 3.02 percent of the GDP on education in any year since 1971. However, Pakistan has a strong commitment to the sustainable development goal number 4, ‘Quality Education’, which advocates education for all. The pressing question is to identify what language will education be imparted in, and for whom. Are we striving to develop the thinking abilities of the youth or is the effort focused on making the masses skilled in a foreign language?

In the operational framework of the country, Pakistan proudly claims in her constitution, Article 251, that Urdu is the official language of the country and that all necessary steps be taken to adopt the language. However, at the same time, it gives room for interpretation in the second part of the clause by stating that English may be used as an official language till arrangements have been made for its replacement by Urdu.

The lack of urgency on the matter and misplaced priorities of the past governments towards adoption of Urdu as the mainstream medium of communication in official and educational settings remains an unrealistic reality. There is yet to be significant progress on adoption of Article 251 in true letter and spirit. Therefore, English still dominates the political and social setup of the country.

Likewise, state guidelines on curriculum design requires inclusion of English language as an important and mandatory subject to be taught at the primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutes across the country.

This system of education, that is majorly focused on foreign language, has an inherent problem embedded in it. To gain critical understanding of academic concepts a strong grasp of the language is necessary. But, to get a stronger grasp of the language, a strong vocabulary base is required. This divide erodes the ability of students to become independent thinkers by bringing a lag between their ability to think about academic concepts critically and developing sizable vocabulary to translate that into an understandable language.

History has much to say in this sphere. Nations that don’t learn from their past lose their ability to call themselves a nation. Muslims of the 7th century translated the works of their predecessors, The Greek and Romans and made the knowledge readily available for consumption of their nation, ultimately giving birth to great scholars like Ibn-e-Sina, Ibn Al-Baitar and many alike. This resulted in Muslims leading the intellectual debate around the globe. Later, during the renaissance period starting in the 1300s, the European nations adopted the same method of translating the works of great Muslim scholars to benefit from their wisdom. Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi became Algaurizin and Ibn Rushd became Averroes for Europeans. Multiple other works were translated into understandable language and made available for the European population.

Presently, if we look around the world, we find that countries like China, Japan and Russia use their own language as a medium of communication and instruction in official and educational settings. Their economic progress is surely a testament to the fact that by adopting local language these countries were not left behind on the ladder of progress. Rather, they produced exceptional results in economic, social, technological and cultural spheres. However, it would be unwise to pinpoint the success of these countries in their effort to develop curriculum in only local languages. Rather, they established a strong focus on establishing and funding translation bodies in the country to complement the curriculum design. These translation bodies, governmental and non-governmental, then worked on making available latest research and publications from around the world to the general public.

Now, the question is, can we replicate the same model in Pakistan? The answer to this question is not as straight forward. A quick survey of the landscape of languages used in the country reveals that there are around 74 languages that are spoken across the country. Punjabi, with her different dialects and variation remains the most widely spoken language in the country, followed by Pushto with 18 percent, Sindhi by 15 percent and Baluchi by 3 percent of the population. So, what language should Pakistan adopt?

Urdu is read and understood by the 58 percent of the population of the country that is considered literate. Though, these estimates can vary significantly if the data is calculated for Urdu language proficiency for each province individually. Nonetheless, compared to English, Urdu still has a much higher proportion of penetration in the country. Therefore, designing a curriculum focused on critical enquiry in the local language would benefit the students across Pakistan.

Having said that, the success of the system, however, rests on having strong translation bodies that actively translates works of significant value and provides access to the literature to the general public. Why should a child from a village in Pakistan be deprived of works of the greats like Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking? The availability of literature in local or at least national language will stimulate the curiosity of the young minds and force them to observe, understand and build critical enquiry on the subject.

Currently, the National Language Promotion Department is the closest to a translation board we can find in the country. It promotes the Urdu language, but the activities remain limited to only cultural aspects of the language. There is little to no focus on promoting work that is fundamental for creation of independent thinkers in the country. For instance, having readily available books on STEM subjects in Urdu would help teachers and students alike to develop intellectual capabilities early in their careers. This ability can then be harnessed by the secondary and tertiary educational institute to produce a nation of independent thinkers.

The government in this regard needs to have a clear vision on the nation building effort it is going to indulge in. Is the focus going to be on uplifting the cultural heritage only, or is it going to focus on uplifting the intellectual framework of the nation? Are we going to stay divided into regions, and strata or are we going to stand together as a nation of resilient and thoughtful people? Shah Wali Ullah translated the Quran into Persian to help bring knowledge to the masses of the Subcontinent. It’s about time that we develop the necessary infrastructure required to integrate meaningful and productive knowledge to the masses of Pakistan. At the same time, effort needs to be put in developing a strong sense of urgency in the public to attain intellectual curiosity and promote the use of Urdu in the educational spheres of the country. By doing that we will be able to bring about wholesome development in the country and come out as a nation of progressive and positive people.