Urdu At A Glance

  • About 65 million speakers
  • The national language of Pakistan, and one of two official languages of both Pakistan and India
  • Urdu and Hindi, combined, comprise the fourth most spoken language in the world

The Urdu and Hindi languages have a unique relationship: they’re “mutually intelligible.” That means if you can understand Urdu, you can understand Hindi, too. They’re like fraternal twins—they share a common grammar and vocabulary, and are considered to be separate forms of the same language: Hindustani. But like fraternal twins, they’re not identical. They’re written in separate scripts; both languages have different cultural influences; and Urdu, not Hindi, is the language often associated with the Muslim religion.

In 1947, a newly independent Pakistan declared Urdu as its national language to avoid giving preference to any native Pakistani language. But nearly all Pakistanis—90 percent—speak a native language other than Urdu and use Urdu as their second or third language. Outside of Pakistan, some of the largest communities of Urdu speakers live in the U.S., U.K., Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh.

For English speakers, Urdu’s biggest challenge is learning to read from right to left. But once you master that, communicating with other Urdu speakers is easy: the Urdu keyboard is available on Apple’s Macs and mobile devices and Microsoft’s laptops and PCs.


Want to meet new people—lots of new people? Learn Urdu, and you can converse with 500 million people throughout the world. Do you like watching movies? Bollywood, the world’s biggest film industry, releases 1,000 movies each year—twice Hollywood’s output—and almost all of them are in Urdu. And if you’re an avid reader and Urdu speaker, consider jumping on a plane to India, where more than 3,000 Urdu publications, including 400+ newspapers, await. Knowledge of Urdu also puts you on the fast track if you want to learn Arabic, Farsi, or Kurdish.

The language of Urdu holds an esteemed place in literature and religion, too. Many revered religious texts are written in Urdu, including one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic literature and translations of the Qur’an. The rich literary tradition of Urdu poetry, which originated in the 17th century, features several poetic genres and is treasured in the Urdu-speaking community as well as worldwide.

There are also practical reasons to study Urdu, especially if you aspire to become a linguist, translator, or teacher in South Asia. Looking for a job in the financial, intelligence, technology, public health, or film industry? Speaking Urdu can help you break in. If you want to know more about the Afghanistan or Pakistan regions, Urdu is a valuable tool. The State Department considers Urdu a “significant language,” and offers undergraduate and graduate scholarships for its cultural immersion program. Learning Urdu opens doors to new discoveries, new relationships, and new opportunities, in places that were once home to some of the oldest civilizations on Earth.


What can you do with Urdu?

  • Be an entrepreneur in South Asia
  • Translate renowned Urdu literature and poetry to English
  • Consciously shop for textiles and fabrics in South Asia for clothing companies


Boren Awards

Critical Language Scholarship Program