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Languages on death row

Pathanay Khan was already in his mid-forties when his melodious voice crossed the walls of the Sufi shrine of Suleman Shah at Taunsa Sharif. This is where he used to sing after a radio station was inaugurated in Multan in 1970 and the state’s attitude towards ‘local languages’ changed in the PPP’s first government.

Till then, all national languages were considered suspect and threats to national unity. The state had followed a policy of creating homogeneity by suppressing all cultural and linguistic diversity. However, this quest for unity resulted in discord and division.

Though Pakistan still remains weary of its ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, national languages have found some grudging acceptance. Like the rest of the world, Pakistan observed International Mother Language Day on February 21. According to Unesco, the aim of celebrating this day is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. It was in fact Pakistan that gave the world a reason to celebrate this day as it corresponds to the day in 1952 when a number of students demonstrating for the recognition of Bengali as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan were shot dead in Dhaka by the police.

The most notable event of the week was the Pakistan Mother Languages Literature Festival at Lok Virsa in Islamabad joined by linguists, scholars, writers, poets and activists from all over the country. It was a chance for participants to celebrate Pakistan’s diversity and witness how it unites people into one salad bowl if not in the elusive melting pot. It was also a chance to meet people who had spent their lives protecting languages we did not even know existed. Yes, while Pakistan reluctantly admits existence of half a dozen languages, it is home to no less than 70 languages.

Almost all the scholars and activists I listened to, focused on the role of the state in suppressing diversity and failing to protect and promote national languages – in fact, even failing to recognise them as national languages by using the derogatory term ‘local languages’ instead. There is much weight in this argument but this is only a part of the story in today’s world. There is a much bigger elephant in the room that is trampling diversity everywhere in the world. Languages that were able to withstand discrimination by the state are being annihilated at the hands of market forces and globalisation.

This is how Thomas Friedman puts it, “The more I observed the system of globalisation at work, the more obvious it was that it had unleashed forest-crushing forces of development and Disney round-the-clock homogenisation, which, if left unchecked, had the potential to destroy the environment and uproot cultures at a pace never before seen in human history”.

According to one estimate, 50 to 90 percent of the 7,000 world languages spoken today are at the risk of extinction by the end of this century. Most of these languages are dying out because their speakers are shifting to other languages that carry more prestige or economic dividends. It appears that many Pakistani languages are also on death row.

Languages are strongly linked to power and politics. According to Pierre Bourdieu, the renowned French sociologist, language is a form of cultural or symbolic capital which is available to be exchanged in the marketplace of social interaction. As symbolic resources, languages can receive different values depending on the market.

To quote Bourdieu, “The possession of symbolic resources such as certain highly valued types of linguistic skills, cultural knowledge and specialised skills, helps to gain access to valuable social, educational and material resources. These resources that constitute symbolic capital in turn acquire value of their own and become sources of power and prestige in their own right.”

India’s ruling elite defined Persian as the most prestigious language of the empire. Most empires used to pick one language and privilege it over all other languages in order to unite the whole kingdom and also to perpetuate the dominance of the elite. Interestingly, Persian was not a language of any ethnic group in the region and it was not a language of the rulers either. Persian ruled supreme till the mid 19th century when English arrived on the horizon and conquered South Asia, alongside much of the world.

Pakistan has used Urdu in a similar way. It is not the language of the dominant majority ethnic group. In fact, it is the language of the Gangetic Valley situated in India but it does serve the purpose of uniting people in a way no other language can. Even the Baloch insurgents speak Urdu at their Ferrari camps because their own languages, Balochi and Brahavi, are mutually unintelligible.

Urdu is important because it is Pakistan’s lingua franca and without Urdu it is hard for a person to do business or find employment in our multi-lingual environment. We need to use Urdu more than we do at the moment. For example, by using English at the lower courts we not only limit the participation of the common man in the process, but also seriously compromise on the process of justice itself because most judges, legal officials and lawyers have a very poor command over English. Similarly, by using English on sign boards, advertisements and public service messages, we exclude a large majority of people from the public domain.

Mother languages are considered important for acquiring literacy and as carriers of identity, indigenous knowledge and culture. However, except for Sindh, mother languages are not taught at the primary level anywhere. Not only this, but Urdu is taught with the assumption that children know this language already and they only need to be made literate. Teaching Urdu as a native language, rather than as a second language, puts those children who do not speak it in their homes or are not exposed to Urdu media at a serious disadvantage.

However, the case of Sindh demonstrates that too much emphasis on mother tongues can also be harmful. The absence of Urdu at the primary level means that a Sindhi worker finds it uncomfortable to work in large multi-ethnic cities. The imposition of Sindhi as a language of higher education has proved to be disastrous as it has played havoc with the quality of education in Sindh and made most Sindhi graduates unemployable anywhere except at government departments.

We need English not only as a global lingua franca but also as the language of higher education because we have not been able to transfer enough knowledge to any of our own languages that would qualify them to become academic languages. Japan may be a good example, but it has spent two centuries in transferring knowledge from all over the world to its language and this process has been supported by its economic might. The situation is very different in Pakistan. In social sciences, for example, most books available in Urdu are 40-80 years old.

Simple solutions can produce attractive narratives but policy solutions have to be complex, with a sharp focus on people, their belongings and their development.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: zaighamkhan@yahoo.com

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Zaigham Khan, "Languages on death row," The News. 2017-02-27.
Keywords: Literature , Literature festival , National languages , Higher education , Academic languages , Sociologist , Language , Education , Suleman Shah , Pathanay Khan , Taunsa Sharif , Dhaka , PPP