Urdu and English Languages Require Different Teaching Strategies

It seems we have forgotten how to teach the Urdu language. Our Urdu language teachers don’t know what treatment the language is getting at their hands. Are they teaching Urdu as a first or the second language?

Our teachers don’t know even the conventional method of teaching the Urdu language which demands a good grasp of the grammar and is long drawn and time-consuming. What to talk about the new researches and methodologies!

Teaching at the primary school requires knowledge, skills and critical understanding as at this level, one is laying the foundation of future and higher education. But tragically, everyone who is unable to find a place anywhere else feels competent and confident to teach in a primary school. Our schools in the formal and non-formal sectors are the breeding grounds for present and future teachers of the Urdu language who have no clue of how to approach the teaching and how to help children who are naturally ready to learn more than one language. Even the teachers at expensive schools seem to have very little knowledge and expertise which results in failure to cultivate interest and appreciation of the national language among the learners.  On the contrary, the culture promoted at these schools takes pride in being ignorant and illiterate in the language. Countrywide surveys also tell us that half the children in schools are unable to read a simple text in Urdu.

In an attempt to modernise, we superimpose the approaches, methods, techniques and strategies employed in teaching and learning the English language. And that too half- heartedly, not knowing the marked differences between the two languages. Ironically, our English language teachers don’t know either whether they are teaching the language as the first, second or the third language.  The National Curriculum 2006 also makes no mention to that effect.

Our curriculum developers must pay attention to the fact that Urdu and English languages belong to two substantially different systems and the teaching strategies must be cognizant of the differences.

Just to flag some of the differences, Urdu is a highly phonetic language; the pronunciation can be reliably predicted from its written form while the spelling of an English word is not always an accurate guide to how it is pronounced. There are numerous examples of  same spelling combinations giving  different sounds in different words or one letter representing a variety of sounds e.g. [oo] in book, sounds /ʊ/ but in pool, it sounds /u:/; the letter [u] in put sounds /ʊ/ but in hut it sounds /ʌ/. To make matters more complicated, there are words with different spellings which have same vowel pronunciations as in sun |sʌn | and son |sʌn.

English orthography has the morphophonemic system. The pattern of word formation and its associated form e.g. period and periodically, the base word is spelt the same way in both but pronunciation is not same e.g. period /ˈpɪərɪəd/ and /ˌpɪərɪˈɒdɪkl̩i/. On the contrary, being a phonetic language, Urdu orthography represents sound according to its alphabet.

In comparison to English, Urdu has approximately half the number of vowels and double the number of consonants; there are 48 letters (some linguists stretch the number to 54) while there are 26 letters in English alphabet. Urdu has ten vowel sounds while English has twenty such sounds, including single vowels and diphthongs. It is not only the difference in the number of the letters of the alphabet but more importantly the repercussions it has for teaching and learning.  Urdu possesses more letters than the corresponding sounds whereas English orthography has fewer characters than the linked pronunciation. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet but the sounds it has are many more than the letters of the alphabet; in fact, more than in the Urdu language.

English and Urdu have different stress patterns. Urdu has weak but predictable word stress but English has irregular stress patterns of words such as photograph / photographer. Urdu learners are disinclined to ‘swallow’ unstressed syllables such as the first syllables in the words tomorrow, intelligent, remember, etc., and will often try to clearly articulate short, common words that are usually weakly stressed in English: has, and, was, to, etc.

In Urdu emphasis is accomplished by higher pitch rather than by the heavier articulation that typifies English.

Urdu letters have various shapes which are characterised by their positions in the given words – initial, medial, final and independent while English has nothing like that. On the other hand, there are two types of letters in English – capital and small while Urdu doesn’t make such distinction.  In English, the first word in a sentence starts with a capital letter while Urdu has nothing like that. English is written from the left side while Urdu is written from the right side. Urdu has a list of aspirated sounds and special corresponding letters while aspiration is not a major issue in English.

Urdu uses special symbols, called diacritics, to represent short vowels while English uses whole letters instead. For instance, in words like ‘cup’ and ‘zip’ letters u and i are for the vowel sounds /ʌ/ and /ɪ/ while in Urdu the same sounds are written using short vowel signs ۔َ and ۔ِ. In Urdu, long vowels are also written in combination with diacritics while English doesn’t use diacritics.

The sentence structure of Urdu is different from the one in the English language. Urdu follows the subject-object-verb pattern while English has a subject-verb-object sentence structure. Contrary to English, the prepositions in Urdu come after the noun or pronoun it qualifies which can be justifiably called postpositions.

The use of articles has an important role to play in English but there is no such thing in Urdu.

The differences between the two languages don’t stop here; it is a long list.

I have witnessed attempts to tailor the teaching plans of Urdu in accordance with this or that model of teaching the English language which, for sure, does not yield the desirable results but helps spread illiteracy further.

We don’t realise that Urdu is the second language for the vast majority of our learners. But recognition of the letters of the alphabet, the formation of a few words and writing some most basic sentences is thought to jump to the next level of memorising the irrelevant definitions of various rules of Urdu grammar. Obviously, it yields no new knowledge and does not help in comprehension and self-expression. We must train our teachers to teach Urdu as a second language, wherever it is applicable.

Given the phonetic nature of Urdu language, it doesn’t require layered and multi-level phonemic awareness which is spread over a number of years. We don’t need lengthy reading programs. The logic of building phonemic awareness in Urdu is very different and is based on conceptual understanding. Unlike many English teaching models, phonemic awareness should come before the alphabetic understanding. Once the learners are comfortable with the relationship between a word and the constituting sounds, fifty percent of the job of teaching literacy in Urdu is done. Establishing a link between the sound/s in a given word and its/their written representations comes next on the ladder of teaching literacy in Urdu.

Urdu is not only a language but represents a whole culture. Unless the teachers are appreciative of that and unless the teaching and learning are contextualised in our local languages and cultures the future of the national language will remain hanging in the balance. Moreover, unless Urdu is given the treatment it deserves as a national language and unless it is taught in a holistic and integrated manner, we cannot expect good learners of English language either.

Let’s not make learning Urdu a challenge for children and adults. Let’s not superimpose imported models of teaching English.

Part 2 of this blog will deal with issues, problems and challenges children and adults from Pakistan face while learning English.

2 Responses to Urdu and English Languages Require Different Teaching Strategies

  1. Dr.Imran says:

    I am extremely frustrated and confused for my daughter’s education. She has been going to school ( A private one) for the last 2 and half years but she cant read urdu or english words.
    Private schools are wasting our money, more importantly time.School is emphasizing on cramming up spelling instead of phoenics.
    My daughter is 5 years old and me and my wife want some of your honorable guidance and some material if you can kindly help us

    • Nasira Habib says:

      We have set up a system for virtual teaching and learning Khoj School at village Thathi Bhanguaan. Let me think if your daughter can participate in some of those classes.
      Additionally, development of an app based on Khoj methodology is also in progress. We may include your daughter in piloting the effectiveness of the app. She will learn without any difficulty. The only thing is to work out how to include her in both activities.I will return to Pakistan on 30th May. Please get in touch.

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