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English Language in Bilingual Context: Story of Pakistan

Chandio Ali

Institute:    Faculty of Education,  University of Warsaw, Poland    



I am Chandio Ali from Sindh province of Pakistan.  Sindh is well known for its message of love, humanity and peace by its iconic poet Shah Lateef. At present pursuing my graduate studies in Teaching English to Young Learners in the Faculty of Education at University of Warsaw Poland. I have been teaching English language in an undergraduate engineering college named Quaid -e-Awam University College of Engineering Science and Technology Larkana, Sindh Pakistan since 2010.  Larkana is well known city of Sindh for education and being abode of the country’s most prominent political family, the Bhuttos.  Here also lie he archeological ruins called Moen Jo Daro defined by UNESCO in following words:

center of the Indus Civilization, one of the largest in the Old World, this 5,000-year-old city is the earliest manifestation of urbanization in South Asia. Its urban planning surpasses that of many other sites of the oriental civilizations that were to follow.”


This is an evidence of the rich cultural heritage of this part of the world. My areas of interest include Second Language Acquisition, Cross cultural elements in Language teaching and Additive Bilingualism.



English Language in Bilingual Context: Story of Pakistan


Pakistan lies in the southern part of Asia bordered with China India Iran Afghanistan and Iran. The country has many interesting geographic, demographic and linguistic features which contribute towards its diversity and peculiarities. Being a seventh nuclear state and sixth most populous country, Pakistan has area larger than that of Germany, Poland and Austria and Switzerland taken together. Linguistically speaking Pakistan has six major languages and around fifty seven small languages as well.( Jan Faizullah) This attempt is made to delineate language education and its pre-dominant features in the country specifically in a bilingual education context. A major part of this article will be dedicated to language education policy, language education in practice and efforts being made by government and non-government organizations for enhancing the opportunities of English language education through various means of trainings study /research projects and skill development workshops. In the end some recommendation are also to be made for far reaching results of foreign language education particularly English.


Keywords: Pakistan, Bilingualism, Education, Language Policy



Pakistan emerged as an independent nation state following the end of British colonialism in the subcontinent, a geographic region in Asia most commonly known as South Asia. Since the major indigenous groups comprising Pakistan were Bengali, Punjabi, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Balochs they had their indigenous languages to which they were deeply adhered since long. In such a diverse linguistic society where each clan had its own language, the identity marker representing them was religion i.e. Islam. Urdu at present serves as national language of Pakistan whereas English is functioning as official language in the country. Urdu has its roots in Persian, Arabic and various local languages. It is , to some extent , is similar in meaning to Hindi but written in Persian script.


Linguistic Profile of Pakistan:

As mentioned in the beginning, Pakistan has a fascinating blend of its indigenous hence here in one country you can come across different languages. There are six major languages which are further categorized as National Language, Official Language and provincial languages. Besides this the concept of regional languages is quite common in Pakistan and even the same language has varied dialects in different parts of the country. The status of National language is granted to Urdu, Official language privilege goes to English and provincial languages i.e. Punjabi Sindhi Pashto and Balochi are to represent the identity, art, culture and literature and life of their respective province in a bigger national picture.   There is an interesting similarity in all major languages of Pakistan in terms of their writing system: they are written from right to left in contrary to the many western languages which are written from left to right. The image given below shows the writing systems of Urdu, the national language and Sindhi one of the most dominant languages in terms of its curricular and literary utility in the southern province of   Pakistan called Sindh. Below is given the description of Urdu Alphabet letters.





                                        (GOOGLE SOURCE DOWLOADABLE)


SINDHI LANGUAGE ALPHABET: English Readable letters  ( Google Source Downloadable)


This feature of similarity writing method is also shared in many of their grammar structures as in both the languages verb comes at the end of the sentence as compared to many languages of the west i.e English German and French etc. Urdu is predominantly used in the urban centers of the country whereas other provincial languages have their target speakers exclusively in small towns and rural areas; this, however, does not mean that provincial languages are narrowly restricted to the small towns and rural areas. These do have a majority of speakers in commercial urban towns as well as in selective parts of Metropolitan cities.


Educational Systems in Pakistan:

Education system in Pakistan is divisible into six categories which include: 1. pre-primary (below five years) 2. Primary (Five years for grade1 to 5 age: 5-10 years) 3. Middle (grade 6 -8, aged 11-14 year) 4. Secondary School Education or Matriculation (Grade 9 and 10 5. Higher Secondary (intermediate college level) and 6. Undergraduate/ graduate level (University education). However the buzzwords for education terminology to define Pakistan’s education system are primary, secondary and higher education. School, college and university are associate institutions to these levels of education. Generally, the country’s education system has linguistic and nonlinguistic courses’ mix to define its educational periphery. Here  the term linguistic  and content ( non-linguistic) subjects refers to the languages taught mainly through textbook  and those often go in following equation:


Linguistic Subjects: Mother Tongue (Indigenous/ Provincial Language) + National Language i.e. Urdu + English

Nonlinguistic subjects or content subjects: Math’s, Science, Social Studies and Religion


Language Education in Pakistan:

Language education in Pakistan is, in many ways, linked with the access to educational and economic objectives in a long run. The major sources of exposure to a language in Pakistan are formal and informal institutions of the country. The former includes school, colleges and universities and the later comprises of mass media, social gatherings, cultural events and the environment at home. Broadly speaking attitude to and aptitude for language acquisition and education varies and it largely depends on which part of the country the learner belongs to. In schools Urdu, English and one of the indigenous languages i.e. provincial languages is added to the curriculum and syllabus. The logic behind using three languages is also convincing: Urdu is used to integrate all the people nationally, and strengthen this bond, by means of a lingua franca, English to meet the requirements for modernizing the state and acquire global competence in scientific and modern education and indigenous languages so as to preserve cultural diversity and provide indigenous/ provincial languages an adequate space to grow. All the provinces are allowed to use their indigenous language(s) in their education system by providing instructions and publishing reading/ study materials in their indigenous languages. It is also worth mentioning that there is a bit difference of approach towards selecting, preferring language of instruction in private and state run schools. Most of the private schools prefer using English exclusively as a medium of instruction so as to both attract the attention of parents as well as augmenting their educative profile.  However the state run schools follow a three- language model: English+ Urdu+ Indigenous Language.  Learners as well as teachers predominantly rely on course books in their teaching/ learning process. What is common across the country is a privilege and preference for English followed by the necessity of Urdu as national language and desire for indigenous language.  Each province has its own text book board responsible to review publish and supply text books to state run schools across the concerned province. This process flows while keeping in mind the overall policy guidelines and directions conveyed by government of the country through national curriculum. A brief overview of Language Policies of the state envisaged from time to time will provide a more clear view of the picture.


Language Education Policy of Pakistan

In multiethnic countries, like Pakistan, language policies can determine who has access to schools, who has opportunities for economic advancement, who participates in political decisions and who has access to jobs etc.”  (Jan Faizullah). The country since its inception has emphasized strengthening and promoting Urdu (Ibid) as a language of education and communication for the purpose of creating national identity based on a national religion and a national language.  The founding and ruling elite of the country expressed their mind by saying “Pakistan is a Muslim state, and it must have its lingua franca, a language of the Muslim nation … It is necessary for a nation to have one language and that language can be Urdu, no other language.”


Historical study of the country’s’ language policy tells us that the country inherited a colonial language policy by British Empire in India. British ruling elite devised a dual language education policy in which the privileged class had access to English language oriented education and the common class had to rely broadly on Urdu for the said purpose. With the passage of time and initiatives of respective governments Urdu assumed the status of lingua franca and later on that of national language but it could not replace English as the main source of education and official communication across the country. (Ibid) .The state’s continuous vows to replace English with Urdu underwent a drastic change when the government shifted its policy in 1989 by when it declared English as compulsory subject from grade-1. In 2007 the need of to be taught form grade-1 was realized and emphasized  and the education policy 2009  adopted that English should be  medium of instruction for teaching mathematics and science from grade-4 and 5 and from 2014  onwards all science subjects are necessarily to be taught in English.  A study of government initiatives and policies shows that the English plus Urdu policy has been adopted in language education with major aim being national cohesion through Urdu and meeting the growing demands of modern world and scientific education through English. Southern province of Sindh is the only province in Pakistan which has enforced its indigenous language. i. e Sindhi as official language. Despite of having multi-linguistic milieu, the International Schools Consultancy (ISC) listed Pakistan as having 439 international schools.  ISC defines an ‘international school’ in the following terms:


“ISC includes an international school if the school delivers a curriculum to any combination of pre-school, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country, or if a school in a country where English is one of the official languages, offers an English-medium curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum and is international in its orientation. English Until today English language is viewed in a privileged perspective which promises better future in the form of enhanced job opportunities in the market. The traditional notion of education is changed. Instrumental values linked with language these days are higher education and employment as compared to the traditional function attached to language .i.e. identity of a nation or community.


Language Education: Case of English:

As much of our discussion has been centered upon complexities and challenges to language education caused by our internal diversity and existence of numerous languages simultaneously. This co-existence in a way causes the dichotomy of language education. Obligation of learning national language at the expense of conceding indigenous language has been neither enforced nor has it drawn much attention because the masses irrespective of realizing and honoring the national language do have a strong propensity for their children to continue with the indigenous language as well as making efforts to learn English as well. It is worth mentioning that in the metropolitan cities and big commercial destinations of the country, particularly in capital cities, there is an increasing trend of English language education throughout right from the beginning of child’s schooling. English, being an official language, is exclusively used for official purposes to run the state affairs from government policies and institutional communication of the state of Pakistan ((Jan Faizullah)  The mushroom growth of private schools which offer English Language as a medium of instruction for all subjects and as a result of the changed notion of language from “identity marker” ( Ibid)) to an indicator of socio-economic benefits is attracting many students in private schools. Such a Prestige Value of English and rural-urban aspirational demand for English medium schools has made English as a pivotal part of the country’s education system. The rapid growth of private sector in education is also defining academic set up of Pakistan.  The importance of English can be realized from the fact that English is compulsory subject not only in the education of the country but also a must pass exam for the most prestigious jobs in both private and government sector. Besides schools for formal education there are certain private academies which provide English language lessons to students from primary to intermediate level. It looks quite interesting that in Pakistan multiple language use is common in education as compared to western world where all the learners have homogenous first language. The linguistic heterogeneity of a particular region, or country, specific socio-religious attitudes and desire to promote national identity are main reasons behind introducing multi-language model of education in multi-linguistic countries like Pakistan (Ibid) .As mentioned in previous discussion, Pakistan education philosophy implicitly attaches three main objectives to achieve national identity, create well educated human resource and preserve indigenous sub-cultures in the country. For these objectives a mix if Indigenous, Urdu and English language has been in practice since the years. Above all these, English serves as Pakistan’s “all-purpose second language” (Raja, Farhan) as it serves their purpose of schooling employment and global exposure. The fact justifying this view on education in particular is that there is insufficient material available in indigenous languages as well as in Urdu, the national language, as compared to English.


Problems in Bilingual Education– Dilemma of English:

English language is used to impart education and run state affairs in Pakistan.  There are certain challenges the country encounters with reference to English in bilingual education context. The first one is language anxiety. A student is supposed to work with three languages at the same time .i.e Urdu +English+ Indigenous Language, right from the beginning of his/her schooling.  These three languages have different semantic and morphological orientations and definitely student has to put maximum effort.   For majority of the students who come from different ethnic communities neither Urdu nor English is the first language (Farhan Uddin Raja)  and their access to education pre-dominantly into their second  and third languages. As a result this affects their cognitive faculties because they are supposed to work with three different languages simultaneously which causes stress and undermines their learning potential. Besides this there is a strong feeling that excessive teaching/ reliance of English causes language loss as it contributes to a great loss of national as well indigenous languages. This problem occurs mostly when a rural family shifts to a metropolitan city where their children have either limited or no access to their indigenous language.


Another serious issue is that of poor skilled language teachers for early grades as well middle school studies Majority of those teachers have neither specialization in language teaching nor have they a good exposure to different education systems. The main problems facing early grade and middle school teachers range from poor language skills to limited teaching experience and training. These kind of problems result into teachers’ reliance on traditional lecture method where learner autonomy is mostly ignored. This traditional lecture method also prevents activity based learning. Apart from this, there is a big problem of large class rooms mostly in state run schools. The main reason for crowded class rooms is ever increasing population of the country.  These crowded classes often engender great challenges for teachers to devise and apply follow up strategies and comprehensive monitoring of the learning process.


Initiatives for Student-teacher awareness:

In reference to the initiatives taken for awareness of teachers as well students in language education context, it is worth referring two significant moves made by the British Council Pakistan and the USAID. Former aimed enhancement of teachers’ skills and the later focused literacy issues and their solution in early grade students. However it should also be kept in mind that there are still many organizations, working in this direction. The country’s apex  government educational body Higher Education Commission of Pakistan is contributing at a significantly to address the issues related to teachers’ skill development for language teaching in collaboration with the governments of the United States United Kingdom. The widely known teachers’ training program called English Language Teaching Reforms or ELTR has been a great success story in this direction. The initiatives and projects aimed teacher and student awareness on language teaching and learning .I want to mention here are namely the Punjab Education and English Language Initiative ( PEELI) and Early Grade Reading Assessment ( EGRA) the British council Lahore and the USAID Pakistan  respectively are at the core of  these projects.


The Punjab Education and English Language Initiative ( PEELI)

PEELI is a venture of the School Education Department of the Government of Punjab in Pakistan aimed at achieving potential and structural  improvements in the ability of 300,000 Primary (Grades 1-5) and Middle school (Grades 6-8) teachers to use English and deploy English language skills as part of its English Medium of “Instruction (policy.”  Broadly speaking PEELI is a Means to achieve an end by the provincial government which decided to adopt EMI (English Medium Instruction) policy based on the aspiration to enhance the potential of young people, helping them develop their skills and knowledge in a world of growing competence. This is a comprehensive and well planned project envisaging very important objectives to achieve. According to the project document, it aims to bring “better quality teaching that brings better learning outcomes” .(PEELI) .This project aims at working on various skills and expertise building such as: engaging and child centered activity based learning, strengthening cognitive and communicative skills which will result into the province’s instructional capacity building and conducive learning environment. The project activities include Activity Based Learning in English (ABLE) for primary school teachers (Grades 1-5, Training in Secondary English Language Teaching (TiSELT) for English subject specialists teaching at Grades 6-8, Trainer training courses for teacher educators, Leadership in EMI for subject specialists, head teachers and education managers and Child protection training courses.The attached video file highlights the aspects of the project emphasized here:




Early Grade Reading Assessment

Another important initiative towards enhancing and improving literacy skills is the USAID led Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) which started before the launching of $160 million fund Pakistan Reading Project. USAID Pakistan terms this EGRA project as an “extra mile for a better journey” (USAID). The project underscores the critical importance of reading for a better learning so it targets to enhance and improve the reading skills of early grade students in Pakistan. It is immensely important for a child to acquire the reading ability in his early years so that they can learn to read according to their age and requirements of the academic standards. As of December 2013, a number of 33,000, grade 3-5 children in Pakistan have been tested, a random sampling in 37 districts of  Pakistan’s seven administrative units (EGRA). According to the USAID “EGRA is the first ever extensive Early Grade Reading Assessment Survey across Pakistan” (USAID). In this survey each child selected for survey was given a specified time .i.e. 2o minutes. With the trained enumerators and this enumerating process was well monitored as well so as to ensure as much error free data collection as possible. This survey assists Pakistan government in their improvement of education and encouraging the reading culture across the country. The program also envisages to conduct initial baseline, midterm and impact survey to further narrow down their objective and make concrete and formidable conclusions. This initial baseline survey under the auspices of EGRA is claimed to be the largest such survey across the world due to number of its participant students, teachers, schools and regions. (USAID). As mentioned earlier reading is a prime skill required for learning, the USAID intends to improve the reading skills of 04 million Pakistani children through its Pakistan Reading Project and build the capacity of 94000 primary school teachers so that they may become capable of assessing and improving the reading ability of their students. The prime merits of this survey include its being conducted on scientific methods by utilizing the best international practices in order to make the study effective and helpful to launch the mega project called Pakistan Reading Project which visualizes to train Pakistani children for realizing the importance and splendid power of books and the significance of reading culture. The survey had to face some challenges and the foremost among them has been preparing the material in three languages .i.e. English, Urdu and Sindhi (USAID).  The video of the project added below in Urdu English translation titles will comprehensively highlight the main aspects of this project:





The reflective discussion on language education in Pakistan has explained the country’s rich heritage of indigenous languages. In such a context different roles are assigned to indigenous and national and official languages—here by national and official languages means Urdu and English respectively. The major function indigenous languages serve are assigned to is maintaining their very essence among their speakers by means of their inclusion in curriculum since early grade and their socio-cultural function to promote themselves by means of art and media. The major challenge both Urdu and English face in educational context is that both the languages are not L-1 or even L-2 for a vast majority of the learners. However the national education policies have given guidelines in time to time which can be summarized as: maintain and preserve indigenous languages, promote national language and incorporate English language in curricular and cross curricular context of the country. Government policies and some international organizations have been making efforts for capacity building and enhancing of students’ communicative and linguistic competence.



REFRENCES: :  Punjab Education and English Language Initiative One Year On Report

 Jan Faizullah :                Language Policy in Pakistan

Raja FarhanUddin:         Bilingual Education System at Primary Schools of Pakistan

The International Schools Consultancy Report



Published: 2015-06-22