Book Review: David Allen’s ‘Ready for Anything’
April 5, 2012
Heat, flies, and load-shedding
May 9, 2012

The problems of being bilingual in Pakistan… By Fareeha Qayoom

The problems of being bilingual in Pakistan…

By Fareeha Qayoom



am bilingual. (I might have mentioned that earlier). You might be forgiven for thinking, so what?


Well, I didn’t think it was a big deal either except in academic circles till the other day. (I interviewed with a couple of academic institutions a few years back for marketing management and print media management jobs – it’s a double negative in those circles. You are allowed to know only one language and that’s English! I am not going to name names but these two institutions are big shots in academic circles when it comes to private schools and graduate and post graduate schools in Lahore – both of them are top- of-the- tree places in terms of school fees! Both sets of people insisted on speaking to me in English throughout the interview process, even when I completed a sentence in Urdu here and there in conversation; before that I never realized private schools are terribly pretentious places; even though I studied in a couple of private schools myself! If you can’t speak in “British” English 24/7– you don’t make the grade even if you are not applying to teach English!)

light bulb moment

The problem with my being bilingual is simple – I speak in ‘Urlish’ and it’s automatic.


Meaning I might end up saying ‘Inshallah” meaning “God Willing”  (or “jee” meaning respectfully yes) to my once upon a time American buyers – (I did it a few times when speaking to a VP! Funnily enough, she knew the meaning of the word! And we had a short and witty conversation on the word) or I might end up saying “Yar” meaning ‘friend’ or I might say “Teek hai” or “Acha” meaning ‘fine’ and “yes” or okay respectively to my Sri Lankan counter parts (again, funnily enough, one of the Business unit managers knew the meanings of these words too and we had a short and funny conversation on that as well! She had worked in Middle East and had picked up a smattering of Urdu).


The other day, I called up London to speak to an IT help desk person regarding a problem with the customer portal. I again said “Acha” and “Teek hai” during conversation (it was automatic); the girl actually understood – she in turn dropped a couple of Urdu words here and there and we had a short and humorous conversation on that – she told me she was a Brit with Indian origins and she did understand a little bit of ‘Hindi’ but she didn’t speak Urdu!)


It also means that I might end up saying a few words of English when talking to people who apparently don’t speak English like my gardener or cleaning lady or kitchen maid or office peons or car mechanics or electricians or carpenters or security guards or shop keepers  – funny thing, they understand me perfectly too…we never have a problem communicating with each other.

I didn’t think it was weird till the other day though. A local vendor remarked on this phenomenon. (I was talking to him on the office land line when I received a call on my cell phone from a customer in Sri Lanka; I told him to hold on while I talked to the customer) – He remarked smilingly after I had concluded my conversation (with the customer), “Fareeha, you know you said “acha” when talking to XYZ?”


I said, “So what?”


“Well, he couldn’t have understood you,” he replied.


I replied, “Well, he didn’t stop me to ask the meaning of the word – he must have understood me from the context or the sound of my voice. I was just making okay noises to encourage him to continue…know what I mean…”


“Funny, when you speak to me you converse in perfect idiomatic English,” he said.


I replied, “Nothing funny about it; I am bilingual and I am actually not consciously speaking in Urdu or indeed English – I am just talking you know besides, I constantly switch between the two. You probably don’t even notice since you can speak both languages too!”


This got me thinking though. We are a nation with lots of hang ups.


Communication is not the issue here. It’s a status thing;  (If you can speak fluent idiomatic English 24/7 in a good accent – by extrapolation, you must have gone to a good private school and therefore, you must be rich or at the very least middle class to afford the private school fees!) or maybe it’s a colonial nation mind set – you know a brown sahib thing; we are deeply ashamed if we can’t speak perfect English effortlessly at all times.  On the other hand, if you let the native language creep in (while talking in English), even if it’s a couple of words here and there, you let your side down – ‘oh, you are so Urdu Medium!’ (It’s beside the point that Urdu is not my native language either – it’s supposed to be Punjabi! Funny, I am not fluent in Punjabi –which is by the way, another sign that I am educated or at least literate!)


We hold it against ourselves if we end up saying a few words in our native or local language when communicating with each other in English or with people of other nationalities. Funnily enough, they never do. They find it interesting to learn a few words of our local language and it’s always a good ice-breaker.




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Fareeha Qayoom
Fareeha Qayoom
Publisher and editor-in-chief of and former print editions of The Knit-Xtyle Fashion Review (tkfr), a trade newsletter for the textile and apparel industry of Pakistan. In short, Publisher, editor, and a blogger. In addition, she has served as Managing Editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, print and web editions (2015-16). Total of 7 editions were published under her leadership by ITU, Punjab's first public technology university under the license of MIT Technology Review (USA). She has also managed Value Mag in the same capacity, a real estate and lifestyle magazine for Value TV - 2008-9. Published freelancer for The News on Sunday 1994-96. Fareeha has over 21 years of solid management experience – of managing brands (like Harley Davidson, Munsingwear, Chaps, Chaps Ralph Lauren etc.,), Retailers (like Target, Mervyns, Kohl's, Marks and Spencer etc.,), customers (VPs, Product Managers, Unit Managers, and Buyers), and products (apparel - woven, knits, men's, women's, children's, Print and online publishing units), projects, teams, and processes, information, content, and data, staff, vendors, and time. Versatile and adaptable with international exposure, communication and language skills (oral and written), and a consistent track record of achieving company targets and objectives, plus a MA in Political Science from Punjab University, a MSc in Economics from La Salle University, Louisiana, USA, and a BA in Economics from Kinnaird College for Women.


  1. more reading?

    Multilingual individuals

    A multilingual person, in a broad definition, is one who can communicate in more than one language, be it actively (through speaking, writing, or signing) or passively (through listening, reading, or perceiving). More specifically, the terms bilingual and trilingual are used to describe comparable situations in which two or three languages are involved. A multilingual person is generally referred to as a polyglot. Poly (Greek: πολύς) means “many”, glot (Greek: γλώττα) means “language”.

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  2. The Bilingual Advantage
    Published: May 30, 2011

    Q. How does this work — do you understand it?

    A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them.

    If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.

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    This investigation studies the ‘phenomenon’ of change that Pakistani English (PE) is undergoing at this moment in history as a consequence of its contact with Pakistani Languages (PLs) in general but with Urdu in particular. This involves exploration and interpretation of constantly diverging forms which may not have acquired stability and recognition among its users (Pakistani bilinguals). Since Pakistani English is not any ‘one stable’ system, the process of ‘ongoing’ change is difficult to study. In order to overcome methodological problems, qualitative research methodology has been generally adopted. Hence, ‘text’ is taken as a unit of analysis and data has been collected from Pakistani English Language newspapers and magazines.

    The texts selected for study have been analysed by comparing the divergent forms with standard British English on the one hand and Urdu sentence structures on the other hand. It has generally been discovered that structural influence of Urdu is evident on the grammar of English but a variety of divergent lexical structures owe their existence to ‘code-mixing’ and ‘code-switching’ in Urdu. As a result, PE is not only divergent on the level of grammar and lexis but also ‘wordy’. and ‘verbose’ on account of both literal translation, and ‘code-mixing’.

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  4. Bilinguals Switch Tasks Faster than Monolinguals

    Children who grow up learning to speak two languages are better at switching between tasks than are children who learn to speak only one language, according to a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. However, the study also found that bilinguals are slower to acquire vocabulary than are monolinguals, because bilinguals must divide their time between two languages while monolinguals focus on only one.

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  5. Gray Matter
    Why Bilinguals Are Smarter

    Published: March 17, 2012

    SPEAKING two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.

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  6. Myths about Bilingualism
    Further information about all of these myths can be found in the books listed on the Books and Newsletters page.

    “Learning two languages confuses a child and lowers his intelligence.”
    Old, poorly designed studies done primarily in the United States claimed to show that bilinguals had lower intelligence than monolinguals. Newer research has revealed several flaws in the studies. The most obvious flaw is that the bilingual children were recent immigrants, with poorer knowledge of English and more stressful life situations than their monolingual counterparts. Newer studies with more careful controls have shown that bilinguals are better at some specific tasks, such as language games, but that otherwise the differences between bilinguals and monolinguals are negligible.

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  7. Life as a Bilingual
    The reality of living with two (or more) languages.
    by Francois Grosjean, Ph.D.

    What Did He Say?
    One small advantage of being bilingual
    Published on February 27, 2012 by Francois Grosjean, Ph.D. in Life as a Bilingual

    Jean Dujardin is the first French actor to win the Best Actor award at the Oscars and his thrill at receiving it was a pleasure to see and hear for those who are bilingual in English and French.

    Clearly, Jean Dujardin is not yet bilingual but he did a beautiful job of expressing his happiness, and saying what he had to say (with well-prepared notes) when he came up on stage.

    His English was peppered with French exclamations and body language especially when he was expressing his emotions. Having started with, “Oh, thank you”, he slipped in a very French, “Ouais” (Yeah) before getting the audience on his side (as if they weren’t already) with, “I love your country!” He then got down to reading his notes and rarely tripped up.

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  8. What Is It Like to Be Bilingual?
    Bilinguals talk about their bilingualism
    Published on October 17, 2011 by Francois Grosjean, Ph.D. in Life as a Bilingual

    Practically everyone has an opinion about the advantages and inconveniences of being bilingual – educators, psychologists, linguists, sociologists – even if they are not bilingual themselves. With the aid of two short surveys, and many personal testimonies, I propose we let bilinguals tell us what it is like to be bilingual.

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  9. What should be the language of instruction in Pakistan’s primary schools?

    By Staff Writer

    Should Pakistani children attending elementary school learn in only one language or gain mastery over several languages? This dilemma the parents and teachers of these students face is important given the multi-lingual environment of Pakistan, as well as increased globalization, which has heightened the influence of English.

    Currently, Pakistan’s elementary school classrooms use multi-lingual teaching. Students are taught their provincial language (i.e. Sindhi, Punjabi), the national language (Urdu) and English as an official non-indigenous language. However, many studies reveal that children learn more effectively and time is saved if they are taught only in their first language during the first grades of school.

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  10. Teaching in English may harm your child’s future
    By Samia Saleem
    Published: October 14, 2010

    KARACHI: If children, in the first years of their education, are not taught in a language they are familiar with, they may drop out of school later.

    University of Leeds UK Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Hywel Coleman, explained that teaching in an unfamiliar language can also cause alienation between home and school, poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages, such as English, ethnic marginalisation and long-term decline of indigenous languages.

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  11. Language policy, multilingualism and language vitality in Pakistan
    Tariq Rahman
    Quaid-i-Azam University
    Islamabad, Pakistan

    Pakistan is a multilingual country with six major and over fifty-nine small languages. However, the languages of the domains of power—government, corporate sector, media, education, etc.— are English and Urdu. The state’s policies have favored these two languages at the expense of others. This has resulted in the expression of ethnic identity through languages other than Urdu.It has also resulted in English having become a symbol of the upper class, sophistication and power. The less powerful indigenous languages of Pakistan are becoming markers of lower status and culture shame. Some small languages are also on the verge of extinction. It is only by promoting additive multilingualism that Pakistani languages will gain vitality and survive as cultural capital rather than cultural stigma.

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  12. Multilingualism, language policy and culture
    From the Newspaper | 17th May, 2011

    THIS is apropos of the letter ‘Bilingualism’ by Asadullah Naqvi (May 8). He considers bilingualism as a major problem of Pakistan. We have to be very clear and straightforward about this fact that we (Pakistanis) are not bilinguals: we are in fact multilinguals.

    It has been argued, in fact, that there is no such thing as totally monolingual country. Even in countries that have a single language used by the majority of the population (e.g Britain, the US, France, Germany, Japan), there exists sizable groups that use other languages.

    In the US about 10 per cent of the population regularly speaks a language other than English. In Britain 100 per cent minority languages are in routine use. In Japan, one of the most monolingual countries, there are substantial groups of Chinese and Korean speakers.

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  13. Code-switching
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    In linguistics, code-switching is the concurrent use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation. Multilinguals—people who speak more than one language—sometimes use elements of multiple languages in conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the use of more than one linguistic variety in a manner consistent with the syntax and phonology of each variety.

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  14. Code-switching as a Communication Device in Conversation

    Kamisah Ariffin
    Universiti Teknologi MARA Malaysia

    Shameem Rafik-Galea
    Universiti Putra Malaysia


    Like in other multilingual contexts, code-switching has gained a foothold as a verbal mode of communication among Malaysian bilingual speakers. It occurs in both formal and informal contexts of communication. Empirical research has shown that the practice of alternating or mixing languages is not only common, but serves important communication strategies (Heller, 1992; Myers-Scotton, 1992). This study examines the purposes of code-switching and how it is used to achieve the speakers’ communicative intents in Bahasa Melayu (BM)-English bilingual conversations Data were collected through audio-recording of speakers’ speech during organizational training sessions. The data were analyzed according to the situations that triggered the code-switching. The findings show that speakers employed code-switching to organize, enhance and enrich their speech.

    Code-switching, which may be defined as the alternation between two or more languages in a speaker’s speech, occurs naturally in the scheme of bilinguality. Studies have reported that code-switching often happened subconsciously; ‘people may not be aware that they have switched, or be able to report, following a conversation, which code they used for a particular topic’ (Wardaugh, 1998, p. 103).

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  15. Mohammad khalid Ch. says:

    I have a very simple concern that learning/speaking other languages is not bad at all but one must have command on mother language to keep it alive.

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  16. The triumph of English
    From the Newspaper | Gwynne Dyer | 10 hours ago

    THE second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one”.

    It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age”. It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one per cent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’s prediction doing now?

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  17. Educating the Educators
    From the Newspaper | Zubeida Mustafa | 1 day ago

    THE commodification of education is going full steam ahead. Not only is education being recognised as a good to be sold, its sales strategies are also being discussed. Any good sells better if it has a brand name that has a popular appeal, we are told. Forget what Naomi Klein writes in No Logo There.

    Faisal Bari’s article in these pages ‘Expanding school systems’ (April 27, 2012) came as an eye-opener. In the article, the writer appears to have written off the public school system altogether. Undoubtedly it has reached the lowest ebb and can sink no further. But does that justify an approach that apparently consigns the common man to the bottom of the heap and absolves the government of all responsibility in the matter of educating Pakistani children, Article 25-A of the constitution notwithstanding?

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  18. Here’s a recent example: Enjoy!

    Beaconhouse clarifies stance over its ‘misinterpreted’ circular

    ISLAMABAD: The Beaconhouse School System (BSS) desires to further clarify its position on the recent misunderstanding regarding its purported views on the Punjabi language.

    “The above confusion stems from a circular issued in August – on the letterhead of Beaconhouse’s Sahiwal branch- which stated, “Foul language is ‘NOT ALLOWED’ within and outside the school premises, in the morning, during the school hours and after home time. Foul language includes taunts, abuses, Punjabi [curses] and the hate speech.” The functioning word in brackets – ‘curses’ – was unfortunately missed in the circular”, said a press release issued.

    Beaconhouse is deeply embarrassed by this omission and cannot emphasise enough that it was a simple miscommunication caused by a lapse in language. Our headmaster in Sahiwal – Jamil Ahmed – was attempting to advise students to refrain from using foul language in Punjabi, it said.

    “He wrote ‘Punjabi’ instead of writing ‘Punjabi curses’ or ‘foul language in Punjabi’. Contrary to some media reports, Ahmed did not say that the circular or its contents came from the head office – had this been the case, it would have been distributed at every branch of Beaconhouse across Pakistan”, it added.

    Beaconhouse has been asked if it is trying to imply that the school accepts curses in Urdu or English language. Needless to say, as an educational institution, we find cursing in any language completely inexcusable.

    “Unfortunately, Ahmed highlighted Punjabi because cursing in Punjabi was a specific issue at his branch – however, he was wrong and should never have singled out the Punjabi language”, the statement said.

    Furthermore, he did not understand that his sentence structure implied that all of Punjabi was a foul language as such an interpretation would have never occurred to him because he himself is a proud Punjabi-speaking person – just as half of our students and teachers, it added.

    “As a consequence of the above, Beaconhouse apologises to its students, staff, alumni, and indeed all speakers of the Punjabi language for this unintentional offence and confusion caused by the circular. We have also – with immediate effect – withdrawn the said circular from Sahiwal and expunged it from our records. A fresh circular will be issued to all parents to sign and return to the school”, the statement said.

    Considering Beaconhouse ‘a nationwide network of hundreds of schools from Peshawar to Karachi’, unfortunately it is not an easy talk to screen every single circular from every school – without crippling the day-to-day operations, it added.

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  19. Is Pakistan still a colony ruled by the white man’s supremacy?
    By Izzah Imran Published: March 5, 2017

    As I waited outside the Head of Department’s office at my university for the sixth time in a week, I started thinking. I wondered what made someone attach so much importance to themselves that they felt the need to berate others in order to recognise their authority. This made me speculate; is Pakistan still a colony ruled by the white man’s supremacy?

    Have we honestly never recovered from the imperialistic practices of the West? Does the ordinary Pakistani citizen try to exert the ‘white man’s burden’, knowing fully well that he is of colour? The answer is yes!

    You see when an area is colonised, it is not just the people who suffer; it is also the environment, the nature, the language, the culture and most importantly, the thought that undergoes a lasting revolution. Some have the privilege of recovering; unfortunately, we did not.

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