AN ESTIMATED 50 million people speak it worldwide. It is believed to be the second most spoken language in the UK after English. This year the first pupils in Scotland took the subject at Standard grade. The position of Urdu in Scottish education could be likened to that of Gaelic 10 or 15 years ago.
Shawlands Academy in Glasgow is at the forefront of the development of Urdu on the curriculum. Of the 122 Standard grade examination candidates in May, 65 were at Shawlands. Of the roll of 1,500 pupils, 35 per cent have a Pakistani background.
"We encourage bilingualism in the school," says Hakim Din, acting depute head, "except in a class where the teacher does not understand the language. Urdu is an incredibly dynamic language. A lot of the kids will mix it with English - a few words of one then a few words of the other".
Tasneem Karim has been teaching Urdu at Shawlands for seven years. Until this year her pupils sat GCSEs, but poor communication with London and a strong feeling that a Scottish qualification was needed to bring the subject into line with the rest of the curriculum made her push for the introduction of Standard grade. She is now principal examiner in Urdu and clearly proud of the progress of her subject.
Her class this morning is a mixture of fifth and sixth year pupils, all girls. They have a bewilderingly diverse experience of the language. Some speak it at home. Others have learned to read and write it at the Muslim community weekend and evening schools, where it is an adjunct to reading the Koran in Arabic, but have no experience of speaking it at home. Some have picked up a smattering on trips to visit relatives in Pakistan.
The place of Urdu in their career ambitions is equally varied. Zeenat Bibi wants to work in childcare. "There will be mothers who don't speak good English, so it will be useful for speaking to them." Sitting next to her in class is Sajda Tufail who is planning to study law. "If I want to take on any Asian cases, I'll need to speak Urdu."
But, she points out, career choices are only a part of the reason for studying the language. "At school we speak English, but outside we are surrounded by Urdu. It's very important to us."
The set book they are reading is lying on the desk. It is a 19th century novel by Nazir Ahmad called Mirat Ul Uroos or Bride's Mirror. Mrs Karim waxes lyrical about its strong cultural message embodied in a story of two sisters, one who acts in a dutiful and proper way and the other who brings disgrace and ruin to her family. "It is a message to daughters, it tells you when you go to your in-laws these are your duties."
I raise an eyebrow at Sajda Tufail. She smiles understanding, but nods in agreement with Mrs Karim: "It is very relevant to today's lifestyle. It shows how education for women is important. It helps when you go to Pakistan."
Upstairs in Nuzhrat Akbar's class, a group of second years are embarking on the language. "They are a very mixed group," says Mrs Akbar, who has been teaching at independent and state schools in Glasgow for 19 years. "Some of them go to weekend school and have great knowledge. Others come with nothing."
Learning Urdu from scratch means mastering a new alphabet, with 38 letters including four to replace the English "z", and three each for "s", "a", and "t". It is written from right to left. "Some of the children find it very odd to be starting at the 'back' of the book," smiles Mrs Akbar.
The majority of pupils taking Urdu at Shawlands come from a Pakistani background, but there are a few whose parents come from different communities. Mrs Karim proudly shows me the handwriting of one pupil with a Bosnian mother. The awkward shapes of the first pages rapidly develop into the beautiful curves and dashes of Arabic script.
There is a strong lobby from parents to make writing in Urdu a compulsory part of the Standard grade, says Mrs Karim, "so that the children can write to their grandparents. It has been taken on board by the Scottish Qualifications Authority."
The real desire now among both teaching staff and the Urdu-speaking community is for the language to be taken on board the Higher Still programme. Shawlands' principal teacher of modern languages, May Winton, expresses great disappointment that there has been no mention of the subject.
She points out that the gap between Standard grade and A-level, and the fact that the latter must be done over two years is unfair to the pupils. A lack of in-service support for A-level puts extra strain on the staff.
There is a strong feeling here that chances are being missed, including by publishers: "There is a big market for Urdu books for schools, but we have to send to Pakistan for our books."
Mrs Karim interjects: "I'm after two people to write a book for me." When it comes to Urdu, it seems, nothing is going to get in the way of progress for long.