Breaking the Language Barrier

(Published in The Express Tribune, July 19, 2010)

KARACHI: One of the biggest challenges our country faces with regards to our participation in the global economy is the language barrier. It hinders not only business dialogue but also limits our ability to consume knowledge, offer global services and alleviate our professional standards.

Bowker, a leading provider of global bibliographic data reports nearly 300,000 book titles were produced in the US alone in 2009 and a further 750,000 “non-traditional” books were introduced on the web and electronic formats.

The English language produces the largest volume of literature pertaining to everything from mastering the culinary arts to the physics of internal combustion jet-engines, furthermore acclaimed foreign language titles usually get translated into English first.

A lack of English fluency keeps this knowledge locked away and out of reach from most Pakistanis.

International barriers

Participation in the global economy, particularly in the services sector requires a certain level of English proficiency.

Call centers are the simplest of such industries requiring just a verbal command of the language.

Outsourced electronic and paper filing work required for back-office operations across most industries also requires just a basic grasp of the language and the ability to follow written instruction.

If Pakistan does not tap into the global services sector; it risks limiting itself to factory line work, farming, construction and odd jobs.

Local barriers

An estimated 45 per cent of Pakistan’s population speaks Punjabi, 15 per cent Pashto, 14 per cent Sindhi, 10 per cent Seraiki and seven per cent Urdu.

With over two dozen other minor languages, the problem becomes clearly apparent: cultivating and exchanging knowledge becomes not only difficult but gets neglected altogether.

The language barrier is so great that even simple text messaging is out of reach for a large majority because the required script is English.

This results in a lot of forgone potential as there is little knowledge interchange, formulation of ideas or thoughtful transcription and consequential preservation of ideas.

Breaking barriers

Maintaining a minimum threshold of English broadcasting on popular media such as television and radio, taking on academic initiatives, subsidising language training centres and positive public campaigning are all measuers that would tremendously alleviate Pakistan’s intellectual malnourishment.

Introducing computers in schools and rural areas would also bring Pakistan in line with similar international efforts to provide self-help, interactive learning stations through specially designed training and test-taking software.

With nearly 35 per cent of the Pakistani population under the age of 14 years, the country could benefit tremendously from such initiatives.