Although Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, an interesting debate that often resurfaces is that the native speakers of Urdu hardly constitute 10 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Linguistic scholars had stirred up a sort of controversy when a few years ago in Pakistan when they surmised that Urdu was Punjab’s mother tongue; hence the number of native speakers of Urdu was much higher than usually reckoned.
Though research scholars and educationists, do not go to that extent as to call Urdu Punjab’s mother tongue, they believe that Urdu cannot be called anybody’s ‘mother tongue’ in true sense of the word as it is very difficult to determine ‘Urdu’s native speakers’. Most of the speakers of Urdu in fact speak ‘Pakistani Urdu’ and they know or speak another language — an indigenous or local language or a regional dialect of Urdu — and the statistics showing the numbers and ratio of native speakers of Urdu are misleading. Data shows that by the number of people, who ‘speak’ Urdu, Urdu is ranked third amongst the languages of the world after English and Chinese. UNESCO has dubbed Urdu as “Hindustani”, which includes both Urdu and Hindi, but if Urdu and Hindi are put together, Urdu or Hindustani would be world’s second largest language by the number of speakers.
The fact is that in today’s world the use of the term ‘first language’ is preferred over the term ‘mother tongue’ in certain contexts. And first language is the language first acquired by a child (also called the mother tongue or native language) or preferred in a multilingual situation. The second context may not be identical to the first; for example, the children of many European emigrants to the USA have come to use English as a first language. A native speaker is someone for whom a particular language is a first language. About second language it is a language which is not a person’s mother tongue, but which is learned in order to meet a communicative need. Immigrants commonly learn the language of their host nation as a second language. Often, a country chooses to give a language official status as a second language, using it as a medium of government, law, education, or the media — a role played, for example, by English or French in many countries of Africa.
In Pakistan, one feels, for most people Urdu has become their second language, and in many cases even first language. In addition to being widely used by print and electronic media and, as a result, becoming Pakistan’s lingua franca, it has established a role at the social level, too. Though many upper-class Pakistani families use English as their first language now, in many cases — especially in middle-class Punjabi families — Urdu is preferred over ‘mother tongue’. In fact, Urdu has become their first language and now they are the ‘native speakers’ of Urdu.
The educationists in Pakistan are concerned with teaching Urdu to the young generation and they think that since Urdu is not a ‘native language’ or ‘mother tongue’, its teaching has to be much different from the teaching of mother tongue. In other words, Urdu should be taught as a second language. I don’t think this will go down well with the linguists and teachers of Urdu.