Why Pakistan is changing its official language from English to Urdu

Pakistan is poised to ensure key government documents and official speeches prioritize Urdu over English.

Anjum Naveed/AP
A Pakistani boy looks a mural of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk that is painted on the wall of a school in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Monday, July 6, 2015. Writing in Urdu reads, "when I grow up, I will become a truck."

The switch in Pakistan’s official language from English to Urdu, a popular language in the Indian subcontinent, has legal and cultural roots.

The Pakistani Constitution, passed in 1973, includes a clause that specified the government must make Urdu the national language by 1988.

More than two and a half decades after the deadline, Pakistan is finally ready to make the change.  

Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's Minister of Planning, National Reforms, and Development told Time, “Urdu will be a second medium of language and all official business will be bilingual.” The country will not abandon English, which will still be taught alongside Urdu in schools, he said.

So what will change with Urdu as the national language?

A range of government documents – including passports, utility bills, and websites – will be published in the language, Al Jazeera English reports.

The Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper, notes the President and Prime Minister will only deliver speeches in Urdu, even on foreign trips.

The Tribune also reports the government will change signs and names of public places to reflect Urdu translations.

However, critics are wary these latest developments may undermine Pakistan’s regional languages.

The CIA Factbook finds nearly half of Pakistanis speak Punjabi but only 8 percent speak Urdu. Sindhi, Saraiki and Pashto are all more popular than Urdu.

Asif Ezdi, a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service, wrote in a blog post about the importance of federal initiatives to preserve regional languages, which “must go hand in hand with the promotion of Urdu.”

Mr. Iqbal maintains the changes will help make Pakistan more democratic since it will “help provide greater participation to people who don’t know English, hence making the government more inclusive,” Time reported.

In an interview with the United Nations Development Fund, Iqbal spoke about how such accessibility is relevant in education.

“Children thinking in Urdu may face difficulties in expressing themselves in English if their classroom learning is restricted to just English. A poor command over expression translates into poorly and insufficiently expressed thoughts – early stage learning and conceptualization require free expression in both languages, and a free internalization of knowledge.”

Osama Sajid, an undergraduate student in Pakistan, wrote that most high school students in Pakistan were “unable to read even the most basic headlines from Urdu newspapers” and most chose to take Urdu, a compulsory subject, as a second language.

“The unfortunate dilemma is that we find it ‘cool’ or trendy to dissociate ourselves from it,” Sajid said. “Unless we start to take some pride in our national language, and derive a sense of belonging and unity from it, we will always be a confused nation on the brink of success, but never really there.”

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