As I ended the phone call with my girlfriend, the friend I was having coffee with in Helsinki, Finland gave me a surprised look. “Is she Pakistani?”, she asked. I said yes. “Does she speak Urdu?”, she asked. I said yes. “Why was most of your conversation in English then?” I gave her the usual explanation: English has been an official language since the British colonised the Indian sub-continent, and still remains the primary medium of instruction at private schools. However, the answer feels less satisfying with every passing year.
Much debate on the issue of language in Pakistan has revolved around a misguided sense of nationalism (imposing Urdu as a national lingua franca) and globalism (defending the prevalence of English and looming extinction of regional languages as an inevitability). Both these perspectives ignore ground realities and lead to impractical solutions such as the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 calling for Urdu to replace English as the official language . Furthermore, the issue is seldom viewed from the perspective of information technology and the digital divide.
Due to linguistic elitism, most Pakistanis cannot participate in policy making, cannot recognise registration plates/road signs/commercial signboards, face limited upward mobility, and harbour a “deep sense of inferiority” . Upward mobility is only possible at the cost of a person’s mother tongue and with every lost language goes its literature, folklore, wisdom and connectedness . Even Punjabi, the language of revered poet Bulley Shah, has not a single newspaper or magazine despite being spoken by more than 60 million people . It is also the language of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ironically in power when the last known Punjabi newspapers were economically strangled out of existence seemingly for criticising the government . This issue matters not because of some romantic sense of nostalgia or superiority of our mother tongues, but because it is the key to enlightenment.
The extent of the problem can be gauged by the fact that In the English Proficiency Index prepared by Education First, Pakistan ranks #48, much worse than China at #39 and India at #22 where local languages are given much more importance . Communication, information and thus knowledge is not accessible to at least a hundred million people today because they do not speak English. Can this status quo be maintained in a world where even Harvard Business School offers online courses?
As early as 1759, the Berlin Academy of Sciences organised a competition and sought responses to the question: What is the reciprocal influence of the opinions of people on language, and of language on opinions? The winner of that prize, Johann David Michaelis, offered a view of language “as a sort of archive that encodes the history of a nation’s opinions (both true and false), which are accessible using etymology”. He attacked the “linguistic barbarisms of scholars and scientists” who wanted to craft a universal language and instead championed the use of vernacular, the language or dialect spoken by ordinary people . The history of language in Pakistan has certainly had elements of such “linguistic barbarism” but despite our past folly, we are extremely fortunate to be living in an age where developments in information technology are making the impossible possible.
Last year, Google Translate switched to a system based on artificial intelligence. Built over nine months, the new system showed overnight improvements equal to improvements the previous version accrued since its introduction many years before. The artificial intelligence, left to its own device, created its own language to aid in translation . The bottom line is that conventional notions of what it takes to achieve a certain objective have been invalidated by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
While access to information and communication has improved rapidly due to technological developments, if such access is limited to the English-speaking elite for all practical purposes, the gulf between them and the rest of the country would only widen. At the same time, if there was a will to do so, it has never been easier to narrow the gap. The case of smartphones, tablets and powerful computers combined with high speed internet is a much more modern version of the printing press, which spurred economic growth in 16th Century Europe . European cities where printing presses were established in the 1400s grew by 60% more than their counterparts between 1500 and 1600.
Anything a printing press could do, the internet can do better, faster, cheaper, easier today. In fact, investments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing, and mobilisation of the public and private sectors together can create an innovation ecosystem facilitating ordinary citizens, creating high paying jobs, and steering a more enlightened national narrative.
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|||Education First, “English Proficiency Index – Pakistan vs. China,” 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.ef.com/epi/compare/regions/pk/cn/. [Accessed 20 April 2017].|
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|||J. Dittmar, “Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 126, no. 3, pp. 1133-1172, 1 August 2011.|