(This is an expert of Appendix 1, in which I explain our philosophy towards learning the Urdu Script and the use of Roman Urdu)
One of the challenges Urdu learners run into is the unfamiliar script – and with it the question whether it is worth learning it or not.
Urdu is usually written in the Nastaliq style, which is a beautiful calligraphic writing style. While it looks great, it is troublesome for new learners to decipher. Each letter has an initial, medial, and final form, which sometimes vary greatly from each other. The long vowels that are written can have up to four different sounds. These features of the Urdu script mean that it usually takes a significant time to learn to read fluently. Our experience with Urdu learners has shown that greater progress is made once a student has some basic knowledge of Urdu. Still, we believe it is worth investing time in learning to read (and write) in Urdu.
The Urdu script is a derivative of the Persian script and a so-called abjad script. I.e., only consonants and long vowels are written out. Short vowels are inferred from the context
- it is not a prerequisite to know the Urdu script when starting this course
- we have included a separate section for reading & writing
- sight reading words are included in each chapter (only high-frequency words and words the student already knows)
- reading activities include sound and letter recognition, and more
Roman Urdu & Transliteration
To make it easier for learners, transliteration or “Roman Urdu” is often employed. Almost all resources for learning Urdu – whether the small phrase books for tourists or academic textbooks – do this. The benefits are that learners can immediately “read” words, take notes, create flashcards, memorize new words easier to name a few. On the other hand, research and experience has shown that it can lead to poor pronunciation, low listening comprehension skills and that it does not help in learning the Urdu script in the end. There are several reasons for these negative side-effects:
Challenges when using Roman Urdu 1) No standardization exists for Roman Urdu 2) No Roman equivalent for unique Urdu sounds 3) One Roman letter often used for different sounds 4) Hinders development of native-like pronunciation
- The Urdu language has several unique sounds that do not exist in other languages and cannot be easily transliterated, e.g., the retroflex sounds. The transliterated word “roti” could either mean bread if the t is retroflex (or: hard ‘t’) or she cries if it is not retroflex (or: soft ‘t’). Another common example is the way aspiration is transliterated. Usually, one adds the letter h after the consonant, e.g., kh, would indicate that the consonant is aspirated. But there is another sound, which is usually written “kh” as well: The Urdu sound called “khe” which is created at the back of your throat, like the “ch” e.g., in the German language. When learners use transliteration, they tend to use letters that are common in their mother tongue and seem more or less an equivalent. This frequently leads to poor pronunciation, where mother-tongue influence is strongly evident.
- There is no standard for transliteration in Urdu. The authors of Urdu language learning books tend to all create their own systems, which learners are introduced to in the first pages. When switching to a different book, learners must start all over again. Our experience has also shown that Urdu language teachers, who are native speakers, have a hard time understand how these transliterations where created, which leads us to the next point.
- When you arrive in Pakistan you will quickly notice that native Urdu speakers frequently use Roman letters to write in Urdu. This is especially true for advertisement, signs and communication on social media and text messaging. Again, there is no standard, though, and spellings – even within the text of one author – can be quite irregular.  When analyzing the Roman Urdu used by native Urdu speakers, it is apparent that they tend to transliterate each letter from the Urdu script, rather than using a sound-based system. To give an example, the pronoun “I” is often written “main”. When reading this, Urdu learners would usually pronounce it completely incorrect, not realizing e.g., that “a” represents a short, almost unnoticeable vowel and “n” stands for the nasalization.
Keeping all these complexities in mind, we propose a balanced approach, which attempts to use the benefits that come from transliteration, while trying to avoid its negative effects. We do this by
- Not promoting a specific type of transliteration or use of Roman Urdu
- Keeping the use of Roman Urdu in our book to an absolute minimum (usually only used for names of people or places)
- Our vocabulary lists are written only in Urdu script
- Vocabulary lists include an extra empty column where students are encouraged to write their own transliteration based on their mother-tongue or own preference.
- We include lots of audio and video recordings in our course. We also encourage students to make additional audio recordings to listen to for review and homework.
Lastly, we want to encourage all students not to take a short-cut, but to learn to listen well. Time invested in listening carefully, trying to mimic new sounds, training your ears to hear the differences e.g., between a “normal” r and a retroflex r, will pay off in the end.
 Tafseer Ahmed, “Roman to Urdu transliteration using word lists” from http://www.cle.org.pk/clt09/download/ahmed_translit.pdf