Language Policy and Planning in Pakistan

As a kind of follow up to the code-switching work, I have written this brief piece on Language Policy and Planning in Pakistan.

When Mohammed Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan and its first Governor-General) declared Urdu as the national language of Pakistan, only 7.5% of the people in the West of the country, and a mere 0.5% of those in the East, knew it as a first language (Weinstein, 1983; as cited by Powell, 2002: 241). Nevertheless Urdu, already the usual medium of instruction in Panjab, North West Frontier, Balochistan and Kashmir, was decreed a compulsory subject in all government schools.

The diglossic situation in Pakistan consisted of disparate language communities each of which preferred its vernacular. These varieties included Sindhi, which had played a significant official role since the province was annexed by the British in the 1850s; and Saraiki, which is spoken around the southern Panjab region. Altogether there are 58 of these communities in Pakistan (Rahman, 2004: 1). Each of these communities challenged (and since have challenged) the official language planning policy since Pakstan’s conception resulting in so-called “language riots” in January 1971 and July 1972 (Ahmed, 1992; as cited by Rahman, 2004: 4). The greatest opposition, however, came from East Pakistan, present day Bangldesh. Due to independence the Bengalis seemed to support Urdu as a symbol of Muslim nationalism, but afterwards found themselves geographically isolated from the government (which was based in the western half of the country), and culturally marginalised despite comprising 54% of the population (Rahman, 1999; as cited by Powell, 2002: 241). Rahman (1999) describes the policy of language planning in Pakistan as one which used Urdu to contain regionalism and English to check Islamisation (ibid: 242).

Powell (2002: 242) writes: “A 1958 National Education Commission under Ayub Khan’s military regime (1958-69) urged the promotion of unity through Urdu, but since the civil and military bureaucracies were English-educated and in favour of social modernisation, they sent out mixed messages.”

Eventually, under Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), the National Education Policy of 1979 phased out English-medium instruction everywhere, only to be replaced entirely by Urdu-medium or vernacular-medium. This was offset by the policies of the later Bhutto government which supported more English. Hence, the socioeconomic hierarchy of language remained; with English at the top, Urdu next, and the regional languages below these. According to Rahman (2005: 1), Muslims in South Asia (including Pakistanis) have responded to English in three ways: (a) rejection and resistance, (b) acceptance and assimilation, and (c) pragmatic utilisation.

This has since been the case in Pakistan and, indeed, in South Asia as whole. English is the expensive product to which the elite have access, and as such plays a major role in the construction of pro-Western secular identities; its snob value makes it a class marker and symbol of polarisation of a society. Rahman (1998; as cited by Powell 242) describes the ‘double-speak’ of Pakistani elites who would utilise English for their own benefit while promoting Urdu for the nation; and bureaucrats and politicians who speak up for Urdu in public but make sure in private that their children learn English (even General Zia, according to anecdote).

Consequently, Urdu state education has such low esteem that there has been a huge expansion in private education, nearly all of it English-medium. This provides a way for some to join the existing elite, leaving the poorly educated without sufficient proficiency in the language most highly valued by both the civilian and the military bureaucracies. In short, English has remained a language for the elite in order to perpetuate their hegemony.


Ahmed, F. (1992), ‘The Language Question in Sindh’ in Zaidi, [page unkown]

Rahman, T. (2005), The Muslim Response to English in South Asia: With Special Reference to Inequality, Intolerance, and Militancy in Pakistan, Journal of Language Identity & Education, 4:2, 119-135.

Powell, R. (2002), Language planning and the British empire: Comparing Pakistan,
Malaysia and Kenya, Current Issues in Language Planning, 3:3, 205–79.

Rahman, T. (1999), Language and Culture in Education, Karachi: OUP

Rahman, T. (2004), Language Policy and Localization in Pakistan: Proposal for a Paradigmatic Shift, Crossing the Digital Divide, SCALLA Conference on Computational Linguistics, 5:7, January. [Available online

Weinstein, B. (1983), The Civil Tongue: The Political Consequences of Language Choices, New York: Longman.

Zaidi, S.A (1992), Regional Imbalances and the National Question in Pakistan, Lahore: Vanguard Books.

Categories: Language, Policy

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