Illustration by Fatma Alrebh

Shakespeare over Iqbal: Social Elitism and the English Language in Pakistan

Allowing proficiency in English to be a marker of social status not only perpetuates colonial hierarchies but also actively contributes to the erasure of local languages. It is time to move beyond our colonial hangover.

Over the weekend, a video featuring two Pakistani women, owners of Islamabad’s high-end café Cannoli, spread like wildfire across social media platforms. In this video, the women were ridiculing their manager for his English skills, which they deemed subpar considering all the money they had paid towards funding his English classes. The video caused a stir as many called out this behavior for its elitism and tone deafness, while the hashtag #BoycottCannoli trended in Pakistan.
But this incident is neither new nor shocking. It is just another example of the deeply entrenched idea of English proficiency indicating one’s superiority in society.
The British left the subcontinent about 74 years ago, and the residue of colonial rule is still perceptible in our society. The English language is seen as a symbol of respect, literacy and authority. In most South Asian metropoles, one’s social worth is determined by their English proficiency, or lack thereof; the upper classes speak it with fluency, at times even with a slight American accent, whereas the lower classes simply resign to listening, and if lucky, to understanding.
This mindset is drilled in at a young age, when one attends school. I attended an elite private school in Islamabad. Growing up, one of the pressures felt most strongly by my friends and I was the need to anglicize ourselves. Whether or not we watched English movies, TV shows, read English books and listened to English music, determined our social circles to a great extent. This often came at the expense of ignoring forms of entertainment in regional languages, such as TV series, books and movies. The problem isn’t exclusive to schools, however, nor does it originate there.
The influence of the imperial soft power the West holds over Pakistani thought and society is strong. The need to emulate the West is prominent, particularly among the upper classes. Western culture is seen as sophisticated, lavish and appealing. The emphasis on speaking the English language is simply a facet of this wish to seem more “Western,” which is often equated with being more modern, worldly, wealthy and even respectable. The result of this is that those who cannot afford to learn and speak the English language, or practice and indulge in Western customs, are seen as “lesser.” As one notices in the video, the humiliation the manager faces at the hands of his employers is simply the tip of the iceberg. Access to educational facilities, employment opportunities, interactions and social connections are all impacted by how well one speaks English. This creates social tension and a self-perpetuating hierarchy which measures one's worth by how well one speaks a foreign tongue. The condescending behavior of the women in the video is representative of this mindset, the result of a fixation with the West combined with classist attitudes.
Apart from incidents such as these occurring, another danger resulting from this attitude is the erasure of native languages and forms of media. I myself am guilty of being able to name more English authors, poets, or actors than those from Pakistan. The need for proficiency in English and familiarity with Western forms of media results in a certain neglect, and unfortunately in some cases even disdain, for local culture, media and language. This mindset fosters in our youth and is only cemented as we grow up. It also results in the lack of success and popularity of local art, literature and media. If the focus is on the West, how do we learn to cherish and celebrate our own achievements?
I now wish my school had been more rigorous with teaching us local languages beyond basic reading and writing skills. More emphasis should have been placed on creating interest among students to pursue the study of the language and its literature, as its exploration was very limited in my experience. We never quite went into the depth of Iqbal’s poetry, and I wish we had.
The education system is a key starting point if we are to aim for a change in attitudes. A healthy fostering of a love for local languages, and a structurally improved curriculum that explores local writers, poets and playwrights would be helpful in this situation. Moreover, the local media industry can also influence these attitudes by producing good quality entertainment in the forms of movies, TV shows or music. We all have a responsibility at the end of the day to consume local art and literature and to make an effort to learn more and keep in touch with our local languages in order to preserve them.
Such efforts start within households, whether it is speaking your mother tongue at home or encouraging children to read Pakistani literature, and should continue on an individual scale as one grows up. Things are still far from ideal, but with these subtle changes, we could begin to see a positive change in society.
Eyza Hamdani is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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