There are between 60 and 70 million speakers of Urdu: there were 52 million in India per the 2001 census, some 6% of the population; 13 million in Pakistan in 2008, or 8%; and several hundred thousand apiece in the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, United States, and Bangladesh, where it is called “Bihari”. However, knowledge of Urdu allows one to speak with far more people than that, as Hindi-Urdu is the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world, after Mandarin, English, and Spanish.
Owing to interaction with other languages, Urdu has become localized wherever it is spoken, including in Pakistan itself. Urdu in Pakistan has undergone changes and has lately incorporated and borrowed many words from Pakistani languages like Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi and Balti, thus allowing speakers of the language in Pakistan to distinguish themselves more easily and giving the language a decidedly Pakistani Flavour. Similarly, the Urdu spoken in India can also be distinguished into many dialects like Dakhni (Deccan) of South India, and Khariboli of the Punjab region since recent times. Because of Urdu’s similarity to Hindi, speakers of the two languages can easily understand one another if both sides refrain from using specialized vocabulary. The syntax (grammar), morphology, and the core vocabulary are essentially identical. Thus linguists usually count them as one single language and contend that they are considered as two different languages for socio-political reasons. In Pakistan Urdu is mostly learned as a second or a third language as nearly 93% of Pakistan’s population has a mother tongue other than Urdu. Despite this, Urdu was chosen as a token of unity and as a lingua franca so as not to give any native Pakistani language preference over the other. Urdu is therefore spoken and understood by the vast majority in some form or another, including a majority of urban dwellers in such cities as Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Multan, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Jhang, Sargodha and Skardu. It is written, spoken and used in all Provinces/Territories of Pakistan despite the fact that the people from differing provinces may have different indigenous languages, as from the fact that it is the “base language” of the country. For this reason, it is also taught as a compulsory subject up to higher secondary school in both English and Urdu medium school systems. This has produced millions of Urdu speakers from people whose mother tongue is one of the State languages of Pakistan such as Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Potwari, Hindko, Pahari, Saraiki, Balti, and Brahui but they can read and write only Urdu. It is absorbing many words from the regional languages of Pakistan. This variation of Urdu is sometimes referred to as Pakistani Urdu. So while most of the population is conversant in Urdu, it is the mother tongue only of an estimated 7% of the population, mainly Muslim immigrants (known as Muhajir in Pakistan) from different parts of the Indian subcontinent (India, Burma, Bangladesh etc.). The regional languages are also being influenced by Urdu vocabulary. There are millions of Pakistanis whose mother tongue is not Urdu, but since they have studied in Urdu medium schools, they can read and write Urdu along with their native language. Most of the nearly five million Afghan refugees of different ethnic origins (such as Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazarvi, and Turkmen) who stayed in Pakistan for over twenty-five years have also become fluent in Urdu. With such a large number of people(s) speaking Urdu, the language has in recent years acquired a peculiar Pakistani flavour further distinguishing it from the Urdu spoken by native speakers and diversifying the language even further.