English or No English?

By Feroz Ansari

In the Pakistani Intermediate Curriculum there is a chapter on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, which praises his achievements as a Muslim reformer. One of Sir Syed’s teachings includes the appeal to learn the English language in order to gain knowledge that is unavailable in one’s own mother tongue. If most of the knowledge of the world that exists in writing is in English then the Muslims of the sub-continent should learn English in order to have access to modern scientific knowledge.

Today, hardly anyone would oppose Sir Syed’s idea. All non-English speaking countries, whether developing or developed, greatly emphasize the learning and teaching of English as it enjoys the status of Lingua Franca in the world. A language that connects the world more than any other language. English is the world’s second most spoken language (after Mandrin or Chinese). However, the interesting fact that makes it much more powerful than Chinese is that English has more (much more than double) non-native speakers over 603 million than native i.e. 360 million, making it the most spoken and learned foreign language across the world.

People who favour the idea that all education should be provided in one’s mother tongue gives the following judgements:

  • One is best able to understand and communicate in one’s mother tongue. This provides better access to foreign concepts.
  • The mother tongue is a matter of pride to its people. It provides one with an identity.
  • The mother tongue encapsulates certain values of the society.

All these reasons to a certain degree make sense, but they do not justify the act of completely doing away with English. The fact of the matter stands that in the global village of today’s world English language does reign supreme.

Most of the groundbreaking research in the west is done in English or is immediately translated into English from other Western languages like German or French. The amount of research done in a language dictates its importance in the world.

The reason that some languages are on their way towards becoming passé is because no new or original work is being done in them. Valuing one’s mother tongue does not dictate that you need to condemn the learning and proliferation of other languages. No matter how much you love your mother tongue, the question is simple: Is every (or most of the) piece of knowledge out there exists in let’s say in Urdu?

English language, knowledge and the influence of popular culture

The role of English is significant in our society. A large majority of Pakistanis have been heavily influenced from popular culture or pop culture. Let’s discuss briefly how English rules over us and its impacts on our lives.

Pakistan, has had for a long time now, a classic case of the envy of the colonizer, or what I would call the “English fever” – the collective desire to not only learn but also to become, more and more “English”. Is it a coincidence that one of the slangs for praising something is “English”, as in “these shoes are so English!”

An English linguist David Crystal clarifies, “A language becomes a world language for one reason only -the power of the people who speak it,” The history of colonization depicts that Pakistan was under the influence of British for centuries but now it is still under the influence of its language. English has become an indicator of power and success in our society.

Unfortunately, English fever is not simply a desire to learn the English language for the sake of gaining knowledge available in English. Rather, it is a desire to learn English in order to be part of popular culture. Like Pakistan, English is the language of elite in many countries, and so there are some problems that are associated with income levels and social status. Those who can afford elite private schools consider themselves more superior to the ones who do not have sufficient opportunities to learn English. This gives rise to the class divisions in the society.

Ironically, Sir Syed’s dream of Muslims learning the English language does come true, but not for the purposes he wanted. The English language is no longer used to gain access to knowledge, but to up one’s social status and social acceptability in the society. But this is not the worst part.

The more serious issue is the inference that, if:

-English is directly proportional to social status,

-and no gain of knowledge through language,

-then it can be logically concluded that knowledge has no relation to the social status.

In other words, our society prioritizes social acceptability over knowledge; fluency over intelligence; and class over skills. This implies that the problem is not with the languages but with the mindset that people possess. English is just a language and not a scale to measure intelligence. English is just a language not knowledge. Thus, it is the mindset that we need to adopt while learning English or any other language, i.e. the pursuit of knowledge. In a nutshell, the reason Sir Syed wanted us to learn English is far from what we have morphed English language learning into.