A few moments ago, I came across a video where two women who own a café in Islamabad are seen speaking to their manager in English. The discourteous behaviour of these women, who are seen taunting their Urdu-speaking manager for not having learnt English, is being widely criticised on social media.
However, this kind of attitude is not limited to these two women. Rather, it is widespread among the elite classes, who feel proud at holding a conversation in English and avoid conversing in their mother tongue. The elite class is to be blamed for such thinking because the moment they are enrolled in English medium schools, a certain superiority starts taking root within them.
I realised this when I moved from my village’s Urdu medium school to an English medium school in town after having finished the sixth grade and barely knowing how to write the English alphabet. I failed the entry examination for the school in town. The principal of the school said that he couldn’t grant me admission because I couldn’t speak English. I was heartbroken.
However, the principal also happened to be a friend of one of our acquaintances, who persuaded him to give me a three-month probation period during which I had to show improvement in English or else I would be sent to another school.
For me, those three months were very challenging. In a short space of time, I had to learn to read, write and comprehend English, while also enduring the mockery of my classmates who considered me ignorant just because I didn’t know English. Most of them thought that I would fail and leave, but I was fortunate enough to have a good teacher and a supportive cousin.
With their help, I not only passed the test but also would place top in my class in English until the tenth grade. I built a solid foundation that allowed me to read and study in English at college and university. However, despite all of this, I still feel most at ease talking to family, relatives and friends in Punjabi.
There is no doubt that English is an international language and a necessity of the time, but if it gives one a kind of superiority complex that leads to ridiculing others, that’s not right.
In the same way, it is wrong to feel inferior if you don’t speak English. Even though the British have left, our sense of inferiority about English remains and is reflected in our education system. While in many countries, primary school pupils are educated in their mother tongue; in our country, English has been made the basic medium of learning. This situation is most evident in Punjab, because in the other three provinces, children are at least taught their mother tongue at primary level.
This points to the extent of the inferiority complex we have with regards to our mother tongue. Our way of thinking needs to change. We need to free ourselves from the assumption that if someone can write and speak good English, he or she is very learned. A person’s competence should be judged by their work and not by their ability to speak any particular language.
At the same time, we must learn to respect our mother tongues. Until we do so, we will keep on seeing more of what we saw happen in that Islamabad café.
Reviewed and proofread by Taimur Rehman, Tooba Ali & Celine Assaf