The Other Glass Ceiling
Prejudice is as old as man himself; its history includes racial discrimination and xenophobia in medieval and dark ages and culminates in the Apartheid, Holocaust and prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment after the turn of this century. Narrowing our scope down to the kind of prejudice prevalent in Pakistan, one would expect that the educated people of our country would know better than to discriminate and stereotype. And yet, it is in this intellectual setting where we find evidence of the most damaging prejudice in our country, on the basis of what language you speak and how you speak it. This discrimination manifests itself in forms as varied as forwarding racist jokes via email and text messaging to rejecting and discriminating against equally qualified applicants on the basis of some prejudice. These prejudices are mostly ill-formed and based on some form of stereotyping, but when and how do notions like these creep into a society?
To discover more about the cause of these prejudices, I interviewed a number of academicians. The viewpoint of Asma Khan*, a professor of oriental languages at a university in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, presents an interesting insight into the causality that evidently lies behind the existence of prejudice in modern Pakistan. She believes that this might be a variant of the Stockholm syndrome, whereby the conquered race begins to identify – and later revere – the language of the conquerors as the language of the elite. Pakistani society might serve as an example to add weight to this hypothesis: most parents from the upper echelons of society consider English to be a social requirement and in many cases, actively encourage their children to learn it at the cost of other national or regional languages.
Needless to say, sometime before our generation came of age, the transformation from regional languages to Urdu was already taking place in large parts of the country. Today, in the more exclusive circles, the migration from Urdu to English is almost complete. This divide has provided our already fragmented society with another cause for prejudice. The English speaking population regards the other two spheres as socially inept relics of the past; the regional language speaking majority brims with outrage or cowers, and the urban Urdu speaking population remains suspended somewhere in between. But it’s not prejudice that is the primary common factor in all three classes, it is confusion: none of them is entirely sure of their identity. This brings us to the most damaging aspect of this prejudice, which occurs in workplace environments.
Recent graduates might have come to terms with the fact that academic achievements do not take them quite as far as they had hoped in the recession-hit job market. Being successful with your job application often boils down to having influential contacts or outstanding interpersonal skills. While it is fine to regard interpersonal skills as a valuable asset in any person’s repertoire, it becomes a little confusing when communicating fluently in English becomes the sole measure of efficient communication. The situation becomes even more complicated when this preference stretches to technical fields such as computer programming and other engineering related jobs. Most of these engineers and programmers are generally tasked with either writing code scripts or communicating with local clients, mostly confined to one office cubicle, requiring little or no social interaction with the clients. Equal opportunity employment has been flaunted as an emblem of forward mindedness over the last decade, but in their haste to be as progressive as possible employers have become enamored with the glorified image of the corporate suit, communicating freely in English, even in cases when this adds nothing to a person’s job skills.
Talking to a number of recent graduates revealed that this is indeed the current scenario of the hard-hit job market in our country. Nadir Malik*, a junior-year student at National University of Science and Technology, Pakistan and member of the outreach initiative, has already come to terms with the ugly face of prejudice. The outreach program is designed to admit students from underdeveloped areas; NMR originates from one such remote village in Sind. Despite being in good academic standing to date, he has been unable to secure an internship because he is not fluent in English. Considering that most undergraduate interns are, at most, required to show up at work and do menial chores, this discrimination in accepting interns is surprising. Similarly, Saad Riaz*, a design engineer working at a multinational company is disillusioned with his job because he feels that he has been passed on for a promotion only because his competitors communicate more fluently in English. Mansoor Nazir*, a graduate from UET with excellent grades, recounts his job interviews, which were mostly conducted in English, with a grimace. He believes that his distinct Punjabi background and upbringing force him to translate his ideas from Punjabi to Urdu to English, creating a lag in his communication. While his English speaking skills have nothing to do with his job application as an application developer, he has been rejected a number of times because of this language barrier.
Significantly, maybe it is just human nature or perhaps a hint of disillusionment, but the grass on the other side of the fence doesn’t appear as green either. Asim Raza*, a graduate from an Australian university, shares his experience of working for a local data analysis setup. Communicating in Urdu can be a hassle for him, by virtue of having studied in an English medium school even before moving to Australia for education early in his life. He explains that getting a job, with his foreign qualification and accent, was not much of a problem but complains that it sometimes becomes difficult to communicate with his peers since he is mimicked for his accent and ridiculed for his general lack of Urdu knowledge. Sameer Faruk*, a prospective graduate from an Italian University, agrees, admitting that people who have a dominant English upbringing are often stigmatized in traditional Pakistani work environments because of their different background. Co-workers shun and often mistrust them, and thus the rift between the two perceived classes widens. At the same time, he also claims that an education in an international environment has helped him gain a new perspective into our national language prejudice debate. He cites the fact that most academic institutions in the world have swallowed their pride and, as globalization reaches new levels, are beginning to offer courses in English in addition to their national languages. French, German, Italian, Scandinavian and many other international universities have already migrated to English as the medium of instruction, and others are following suit. The important point to keep in mind is that most of these countries are still offering courses in their native language simultaneously.
Perhaps it is time that we set similar limits on our usage of languages. For the preservation of the social fabric, and taking into account how being proficient in more than one language opens new avenues of thought, we need to persist with learning local and national languages instead of disregarding them as out-of-fashion garb. English might very well be the unified language of the future but Pakistani society is bound together by a number of languages, not least important of which are the regional languages spoken by the rural populace which make up the majority of our country’s population. Instead of adapting English as the language of the elite and Urdu as the successful bourgeois, perhaps it would be apt to devise solutions on a policy level. Creation of laws intended to discourage language prejudice by imposing penalties and fines on offending organizations would be seen as a significant anti-discriminatory initiative. Prospective employers could also be required to define criteria for interviews, with legal protection available for job candidates allowing them to challenge any perceived prejudice. Achieving full closure on linguistic prejudice is something that would require extensive coordination between local and central governments to regulate and protect people from different language backgrounds. The proposed measures might only appear to address the implications of language prejudice in the job market but they can also prove to be the first steps in the direction of removing bias from society at a deeper level.
* Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.