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The Other View

foreigners’ language proficiency in pakistan – not just a utility

When some weeks back I wrote a commentary on Schmidle’s New Yorker article and Fair’s criticism of it, many jumped at one sentence, which I didn’t mean to be very central to this specific debate, but is an issue that I wanted to look at since some time – foreigners’ language proficiency in Pakistan and the way the country is thereby portrayed.

I think reporters and especially scholars who report on the area extensively (like Schmidle and Fair) should be oblidged to state in their papers ‘that I actually don’t even understand the local population without a translator’.


A reader has commented that Fair’s proficiency in not only Urdu is actually quite well advanced. That may be so and I believe Schmidle can speak Urdu as well – I didn’t mean to point the finger at these two, who, as I have stated, I respect for much of the work and writing they have done. However, many journalists and scholars who have a great influence in shaping the image of Pakistan in the media abroad have extremely poor language skills. There is of course no prerequisite for immediate language skills of the country you report on – interpreters do the job to get a story together. When however you step up the ladder to being a commonly acknowledged ‘expert’ on the region (in Manan Ahmed’s definition of the word) and you still are dependent on English sources and an interpreter for the vernacular, I am becoming sceptical (and for the Pashto speaking drone impact area, Fair is such an example!). It’s not so much for being capable of proper grammar, but rather that you get a feeling for what a communication is suggesting between the lines – something an interpreter won’t translate. It will give you the chance to actually understand what they are brawling about at Aaj KamranKeSath or Capital Talk or whatever is currently running in the TV that is placed in the restaurant where you are waiting for an interview partner.  You’ll be actually able to understand what people talk about on the roadside and need not always resort to copy paste phrases like ‘the mood in the street is running high with anti-US sentiment’. Even if you are one of those journalists who base their stories basically on what the taxi driver from the airport to the hotel tells them, it would give you the chance to understand what he really has on his mind, and not just what remains when you put together the few English phrases he happily produces.

I find that issue especially valid for Pakistan, because it gets such wide, but, because of the language deficiency among other things, so shallow coverage. Few understand that Urdu may not be the ideal means to get at the core of the matter in most parts of the country, and that in some areas it’s even considered as colonial as English. Knowing Punjabi will help you understand that your chaiwallah is talking in poetry to you, knowing Pashto will make you aware that the local tribal leader is not cursing the infidel West into hell, but he is arguing reasonably and the tone of the language makes it sound crude to you, and understanding Burushaski will make you aware that the locals are complaining about other Pakistani individuals and not just the government. And the fact that so many media in the country are conveying information in English, leads to the assumption, that this gives a pretty fair and unbiased overview of what people are currently concerned with. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. It will tell you what the Urban Upper and Middle Class of the country is concerned with. Not much more.


On the other hand, it’s bemusing how languages in the area turn into vehicles of utility. Pashto you learn to get insight in the terrorist culture, Dari and Urdu because they have such a wide reach, Arabic because, well, religion and script and stuff. Of course that’s what how we learn languages at school as well – in Austria rather French than Italian because it has a more global reach, Chinese at University because that’s the new market, Spanish and South America is yours. Do learn Pashto because you always wanted to read Rahman Baba, Wakhi because you love the Pamir, Seraiki because of a good friend. It will give you the motivation to understand the language as a conveyor of history and culture that you could otherwise hardly grasp or just make you appreciate it’s sound and not just acknowledge it as a code that passes along information that may be geopolitically relevant. In the long run the understanding of culture through language will prove more relevant than what some Waziri checkpointwallah passed through in his Pashto dialect on the whereabouts of some cook of the third cousin of Sirajuddin Haqqani.


If foreign writers and journalists would be able to read something aside of English, we would have been spared all the recent articles on the ’emerging literature scene’ in Pakistan which, in these accounts, basically comprises just half a dozen young writers who brought the whole Pakistani literature landscape into being.


I even find many Pakistanis unaware of the fact that the country has an extremely diverse linguistic map which is not represented well in the media coverage even inside the country – reporting in Punjab or Sindh on areas outside their linguistic reach is often limited also because they have no knowledge of the language spoken there or are ignorant of their significance to local issues.


Once foreigners have aquired some ever so minor language skills, it becomes fancy to drop vernacular words here and there. I have done so and having come to think over it after a comment by @salmaan_h, do agree that if it’s not necessary to convey information that could not otherwise be conveyed in English and is just inserted to add ‘local flavor’ one should cut it – I will.

Further Interesting Reading

Anjum Altaf on learning Hindi, Farsi and Pashto as an Urdu Speaker (note the language section on their page):

As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself.

U.R. Ananthamurthy on translation in India, a very short, very great read:

[W]as he influenced by the ethos into which he was translating? Wouldn’t a lot of great literature in our languages remain untranslatable if what is good is determined by the literary ethos of the language into which we are translating? I do not know what we can do about it, or honestly speaking whether we should do anything about it. […] I read Saul Bellow as literature, but Premchand is read in the universities of United States of America for sociological purposes. That is their problem not ours. But that may well become our problem, too, if we should also globalize and become prisoners of the homogenized modern world system.

Supriya Nair on Mumbai’s Urduwallahs:

A note, Arzu says, which is too often unacknowledged. “Urdu is the language of people who are usually invisible except in movies and mushairas,” he says. “For a long time, nobody cared how people lived in Madanpura or Bhendi Bazaar. Urdu newspapers specialized in learning exactly what was going on in these communities.”

The form and functions of English in Pakistan, thesis by Mubina Talaat.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


7 thoughts on “foreigners’ language proficiency in pakistan – not just a utility

  1. With everything that you write below your initial ‘one sentence that everyone jumped on’, wouldn’t it make more sense for you to write “local populations” instead of “population”?
    I ask this since, as you reluctantly state further on in the piece, if someone *does* understand one or more local languages, then there are, in fact, “local populations” with whom they can communicate?

    Posted by khanumbilquis | October 16, 2011, 11:31 PM
    • if you are referring to the ‘s’ in populations versus population, I guess you may be right. Because ‘local’ I did write. It’s important to differentiate between different languages/communication cultures, not to end up what people ask me ‘do you speak pakistani?’.

      It also shouldn’t be a consolidation of all foreigners being unable. It’s just once they become advocates in the West for populations (yes) they can not even talk to face to face, it’s turning highly problematic.

      I am not sure I get you though…

      Posted by Jakob Steiner | October 17, 2011, 7:49 PM
  2. “A reader has commented that Fair’s proficiency in not only Urdu is actually quite well advanced”

    …you start with the sentence above, I think proficiency in English would help as well.
    I will write about your Pashto references in my next comment.

    Posted by Riaz Khan Isupzai | October 17, 2011, 7:35 AM
  3. “On the other hand, it’s bemusing how languages in the area turn into vehicles of utility. Pashto you learn to get insight in the terrorist culture … ” You wrote this sentence thinking it bemusing that somehow knowing Pashto would give you an insight into the terrorist culture. I know Pashto quite fluently yet I can assure you that just knowing one dialect of Pashto (because Pashto is not monolithic) will give you no such insights as you presume. Furthermore on behalf of the 50 million Pashtun who are NOT terrorists I resent the implications of your statement. Were it not for the Pashtun Pakistan would not be in possession of the portion of Kashmir it has, it may have been still fighting the USSR, and would not be receiving ‘the highest amounts of foreign remittances’. Three of Pakistan’s presidents have been Pashtun, and one gave you the only decade of prosperity ever. The only world caliber leader from Pakistan has been Pashtun with Abdul Ghaffar Khan being the only non Indian to receive the Bharat Ratna; Only a Pashtun (Cosmonaut Abdul Ahad)has been to deep space, while in the span of two centuries have fought off three Super Powers. So please when you speak of Pashtun and terrorists in the same sentence, remove that smile from your face or else visit our graveyards to know our sacrifices for freedom.

    Posted by Riaz Khan Isupzai | October 17, 2011, 8:57 AM
    • Dear Mr. Isupzai, I sencerly apologize to you and others who may have gotten it wrong, that my intended irony may have gotten lost on you – especially so if that was solely the case because of my bad phrasing. I was rather trying to make the exact opposite point of what you are accusing me of. If you reread I hope you will understand that I was ‘bemused’ at the very fact, that people think the Pashto-terrorism link is possible. Jakob

      Posted by Jakob Steiner | October 17, 2011, 7:53 PM
      • Dear Mr. Steiner, Shalom:
        After your explanation:
        Irony has been ironed out, apology accepted, my bad.
        Egg on my face.
        I would love for you to explore the Jewish connection in Pakhtunkhwa e.g. while in Islam the father of Abraham is Imran, an area of interest in Pashtun (Afridi) territory is called Tirah. We have the Tahkht-e-Suleiman mountain range. A village named Sudom, near Mardan. And DNA tests show a Jewish marker among some of the tribes. Too many others to list here.

        Posted by Riaz Khan Isupzai | October 17, 2011, 10:36 PM

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October 2011


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