Language Imperialism

Language Imperialism

The Curious Case of Pakistan

Pakistan is a multilingual state; having six major and a spate of minor languages spoken far and wide. Urdu has been adopted constitutionally as the National Language while English, like during the lordship of the British lords, assumes the official character. The former is the mother tongue of nearly eight percent of the population; it, however, is in wide use, especially across the urban areas, throughout the country. The discriminatory treatment to different languages in Pakistan unfolds something of a curious paradox.  Least to say, the populace seems to be up to neck in a byzantine pyramid of languages ordered along different lines. The country presents a curious case of language imperialism.


The triangle of English, Arabic and Urdu has with it a token of prestige and vantage – something decried as having driven the indigenous languages into limbo. Pakistani society runs all along the gamut from pursuit of power and prestige through English to be the paragon of virtue, through Arabic and to the burning aspiration of getting rated as an avatar of refinement through Urdu.

The discourse on the language imperialism has always centred on English. Its protagonists and antagonists react quite differently to its proliferation as the common means of communication across the globe; from dubbing it “predatory” or “an imperialist” or “an enslaving device” contrived to subjugate the nations in a neo-imperialist approach of the Western powers to acclaiming it a “benefactor” to have facilitated with its cosmopolitanism the eradication of linguistic barriers. To the latter, thanks to English, people have now been able to communicate freely. Some have gone to anathematize it as a nefarious ambush to stamp out linguistic diversity, and foist “mono-cultural” domination. The pace with which English is fast making inroads in every nook and cranny of the globe can been gauged from the David Graddol’s assertion that by 2015 English was to be learnt by a whole world population, not without enormous political consequences.

The Theory of Linguistic Imperialism

The imperialism of language(s) is defined as the foisting of one language on the speakers of other languages against their will, or otherwise. It is widely associated with the proliferation of English worldwide. It is also known as “Linguistic Nationalism” or “Linguistic Dominance”. The term linguistic imperialism was coined sometime in the 1930s as part of the critique of English. However, it received serious attention in the mainstream academia when Robert Phillipson, a renowned linguist, reintroduced it in his monograph “Linguistic Imperialism”. Phillipson put forward a working definition of the phenomenon by maintaining: “It is the dominance asserted and maintained through the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages.” He termed it a “sub-type of Linguicism”.

Manzoni, the noted Italian author of “I Promess Sposi” (The Betrothed) observed that language was much more than that we see it as; it was tied to the culture, and worldviews. The adoption, or imposition, and use of any foreign language bring simultaneously the beliefs and value system, as well as the question of lowliness and superiority of speakers’ identities.

Renowned Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, in his “The Prison,” contends that hegemony is established by means of a political society or civil society. Whilst a political society resorts to secure its ends by coercive measures through army, police and bureaucracy, the civil society tactically uses social institutions in its pursuit of hegemony which is, then, achieved by dint of language, education, culture, literature, etc. Thus, it naturally goes that a political society adopts a coercion-oriented approach, contrary to which a discursive approach focusing more on discourse than other means to secure its ends, is one of the most important, if not the only, tool of a civil society to manipulate others’ mentality and thought processes. Within the discursive approach, language constitutes a most potent source for transposing one’s belief and value system to others. Literature comes in handy to that effect.

The imperialists extol their own culture to create an effect that only they are the inheritors of a supreme civilization. In the same fashion, upon their arrival, the British foisted on the Indian natives English as the only superiorly-cultured language having troves of wisdom and loftier values that “must be exported to humanize the uncouth barbarians”. The disdainful eye with which the imperialists saw the natives – and the importance they gave to their own language – is evident from Macaulay’s education scheme. He noted with crude contempt: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect.” With a criminal haughtiness, he went on to speak very low of the local languages: “A single bookshelf in a European library is far superior to whole native literature in India.”

Anglicization in Pakistan

Anglicization started in this part of the world way before the inception of Pakistan. In fact, what followed the creation of the new Muslim state was the keeping of the imperialist ball rolling; the British legacy continued. A class of persons, Pakistani in blood and colour, but English in language, in taste and in lifestyle, was already formed, and formed successfully.

Zubeida Mustafa, a veteran journalist and a renowned educationist builds an argument that through language the dominant nations exploit the weak ones in order to fortify their control over the world. Language was a strong cultural expression with a profound emotional value seated deep in it for nations, which was the case the Bengalis pleaded against Pakistan’s decision of declaring Urdu as the country’s national language, Education, especially in elite schools, has been buttressing the supremacy of English. It is pertinent to note here that in the very first Education Conference fixed up after Pakistan’s birth, the suggestion of educating children in schools only in their mother tongues was advanced by the then Education Minister Fazlur Rahman. Then, in 1969, the Noor Khan Commission highlighted the growing influence of English in Pakistan, and suggested to contain it through nationalization of all the English-medium elite schools in the country.

Noted French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a thesis, indentifies language with power. Power is central to language(s) allowing speakers of a dominant language certain leverage denied to speakers of other languages. Dr Tariq Rehman holds that power deriving from a language provides different forms of gratifications. Those may be tangible in the form of big houses, cars, extravagant foods, etc., or intangible such as pleasures, ego and self-esteem. The language of domains of power, that is, government, media and corporate sector, and education is English; and second, Urdu over here. The state policies have tilted toward these two, the result being that English has assumed the symbol of prestige, power and sophistication. The disastrous effect on the regional languages, which are much richer than English, is that they have turned out to be markers of shame and lowliness.

Imperialism of Arabic

Arabization refers to the importation of or coming under the sway of the Arabic values, culture and, more rightly, Arab identity. It is the adoption of the Arabic language. The popular opinion, as Rafia Zakaria asserts, has been that learning English makes rich, whereas the learning of Arabic makes one holy. While English has been the royal road to be accepted in the mainstream as sophisticated and modern, Arabic is identified with holiness. Once learned in Arabic, one may be able to earn virtues manifold. To learn Arabic may help in dispelling many a misconception about Islam arising out of translations. Further, it is a source to earn Allah’s pleasure.

The Arabization in Pakistan started more precisely in the years following the debacle of East Pakistan. A deliberate attempt was made to dislodge any linkage with the Hindus and the Persians. It instead sought to bond the lineage with the Arabs – a notion that is in stark contrast to the teachings of the Holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH) who discouraged any sense of superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, and vice versa.

Regional Languages

No language is superior or inferior, rich or poor and strong or weak; the only yardstick to gauge the influence is political status of speakers of a certain language. Pakistan has language vitality with many languages, besides Urdu, having history spread over centuries, and richness of literature and folklore. These languages represent their respective civilizations. Compared to Sindhi and Pashto, both of which are identity-markers, Punjabi has unfortunately seen an increasing “culture of shame”. Speaking it in public earns its speakers a stigma, an effect created and solidified as a corollary of indiscriminate importation of modernization. Even in most of the elitist English-medium education institutions, students are not allowed to speak Punjabi. As the certain state policies have done a disservice to the very survival of the regional languages, a survey report reveals that many local languages are dying a slow, silent death.


The forces of globalization, which are being blindly transported by our Westernized elites, are detrimental to the linguistic and cultural diversity of Pakistan as they add fuel to the fire of ethno-class conflicts. The perpetuation of the colonial language policies has thwarted the development of the local languages, the consequence being that they are on the peripheral edge. There is a need to draw up policies favourable to the promotion of indigenous languages. All the languages spoken in Pakistan – Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, and all others, are an invaluable asset for the country as well as the nation.

We need to adopt a policy based on an additive bilingualism rather than a subtractive bilingualism. For this, the education system should be thoroughly reviewed. And the same should operate on the lines of pluralism of languages.

Market conditions marginalize native languages in terms of employment or otherwise and they must be conclusively disposed of. They make it more and more difficult for a speaker to get to the higher rung of power or gain prestige and wealth in any language other than English.

While there should be a realization among the people that English is an international language – something to have grown as a necessity – the regional languages should, in no way, be sacrificed on the altar of its hegemony. Both should be accommodated with each other.

Institutional mechanisms for propagating and promoting the indigenous languages through all mediums, especially electronic and print media, and a broad national language policy is what we most pressingly need at present.

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