The People of Pakistan, Languages
linguistic identity, Saraiki, Pakistan Movement, British common law, official language of Pakistan
Urdu is the official language of Pakistan. It is the first language of only a small percentage of the population, but it cuts across linguistic and provincial boundaries as the national language. More than 75 percent of Pakistanis can speak and understand Urdu. In urban areas about 95 percent of the people communicate in Urdu. Urdu replaced English as the official language in 1978.
Most Pakistanis speak at least two languages. A large segment of the population is trilingual, speaking English, Urdu, and an ethnic-based regional language. Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Baluchi, and Brahui are the major regional languages. These languages have many regional dialects, including Saraiki, a widely spoken dialect of Punjabi. Regional languages are recognized as a potent force because language and ethnic identity are closely interrelated; even the national census categorizes groups according to their language, rather than their ethnicity. However, there is growing awareness among Pakistanis that for social mobility, national cohesion, and individual success, it is imperative to be fluent in Urdu and proficient in English.
Several factors contributed to the establishment of Urdu as the lingua franca of Pakistan. It was the language of the educated Muslims in northern India, who spearheaded the Pakistan Movement. Urdu helped foster a linguistic identity among Muslims in the region. Although similar to Hindi as a spoken language, Urdu uses a Persian-derived script and incorporates many Arabic words. Choosing Urdu as the national language provided a linguistic basis for the formation of a Muslim national identity. It also provided the country with a “neutral” language because Urdu does not have ethnic or tribal associations. Since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, state-controlled electronic and print media have promoted Urdu. In the public schools of the country, Urdu is the principal language of instruction.
For all practical purposes, however, English is the de facto official language. Pakistan’s legal system is based on British common law, and judicial and government documents are mostly written in English. Pakistanis of all social strata strive to learn English, which has a certain elite status. Although the quality of instruction in English has declined, English continues to be the language of the educated and those who want to move ahead in life.
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