Our language tragedy: A report from Pakistan

by Zubair Torwali

There are 69 languages spoken in Pakistan. In addition to Urdu only one language is recognised in each province as the ‘provincial’ language. The non-recognition of the minority languages causes the death of these languages.

A number of the other minority languages are already waning; and the rest are endangered as per Unesco criteria. The cases of Domaaki in Gilgit-Baltistan and of Ushojo in Swat-Kohistan in the north of the Swat valley are just a couple of examples of the threat minority languages face in our country.

The speakers of these minority languages regard their languages to be of no use for them to be able to progress in life. In order to be successful the linguistic minorities think they have to learn Urdu or English – or both. This way they abandon their language in favour of Urdu or any other powerful provincial language.

These languages cannot be saved unless the governments in Pakistan plan pluralistic linguistic policies. However, it is not the priority anywhere as our political parties have their own interests and whims, which they keep in mind when devising policies.

Sociolinguists suggest that language-in-education policies are shaped by people who have political power; and they design polices for economic and political purposes, not necessarily for linguistic or educational reasons. They also identify nationalism as one of the ideologies that influence language attitudes.

Language plays a quintessential role in developing national identities. This role, however, has negative impacts, as well. The use of a particular language for a ‘national’ or ‘provincial’ identity can lead to the formation of policies that suppress other ‘ethnic groups’– linguistic minorities. This is clearly the case with Urdu which has official recognition in Pakistan and has suppressed the other languages.

Similar is the case with the provincial languages which can, in their turn, suppress other linguistic minorities in the provinces. With all its ills the previous government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was linguistically more pluralistic as it had also recognised four other languages – Seraiki, Hindko, Khowar and Indus Kohistani – to be used as the medium of instruction in areas where these languages are spoken as the primary language.

The exclusive status of Urdu as the sole national language in Pakistan had not only triggered violent riots in former East Pakistan, but had also stirred similar attitudes in present-day Pakistan. In Sindh it was the root cause of the unending controversies between the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs and the Sindhis.

This goes back to 1971-72 when there were furious riots in Sindh over the official recognition of Urdu as national language. The riots then caused two deaths and led to scores of others being injured. Sindhis were conscious of the rich Sindhi literary heritage and felt that it would be undermined by the Urdu dominance.

In Pakistan the other ‘linguistic minorities’ are triply disadvantaged. Suzanne Romaine (2001) states “children who do not come to school with the kind of cultural and linguistic background supported in the schools are likely to experience conflict”.

For instance, a Torwali child comes to school with his mother tongue/home language, Torwali. At school he finds the teacher speaking Pashto. Confused he goes ahead and sees the books in Pashto, Urdu and in English. He struggles to decode what the teacher says; and very often the mediocre teacher looks down upon him and laughs at the way the child speaks Pashto with him. Bewildered the poor child finds himself in a world where what he thinks in, or takes value of, does not exist.

Imagine what option would now be left for the child. He will either run away from the school or, if his parents insist, languish there with no quality education at all. If the child is retained at the school anyway the school becomes the most dreaded place for him – killing his happiness and delight – and consequently stops his cognitive development. His personality-growth stops and at the end of education, say at the intermediate level, he becomes more befogged.

Even after getting his masters degree somehow, this young person cannot communicate well in Urdu, English or Pashto. He loses sixteen years without having learnt any of the languages fully. This is a tragedy that every child from a linguistic minority faces.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where about 24 minority languages are spoken, the present government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has time and again announced that a strategy is underway to adopt a uniform education system in the province. But nobody understands what they mean by ‘uniform education’. It can be one with the abolishment of all elite English medium schools; it can be one through which all schools – public or private – will be forced to adopt Urdu as the only medium of instruction. In both cases the state of education will further deteriorate.

Pakistan is a multilingual country and multilingualism, psychologists suggest, has an extra cognitive advantage. Most of the multilingual countries have by now adopted a language policy in a three-language structure with a distinct function assigned to each language.

In this regard M V Nadkarni (1984) identifies three functions: 1) communication with people of the in-group (the ethnic group); 2) communication with people of the out-group (national); and 3) communication involving specialised information (a world language).

In Pakistan the language of the linguistic group fulfills the first function, Urdu the second; and English the third function. In order to be fully functional in all the functions a Pakistani needs to be multilingual. It becomes the responsibility of the state to provide each individual skills in all three languages.

If a language policy is meant to serve both the individual and the state, the policy should be focused on addressing issues, as social psychologist Herbert Kelman (1971) describes: “how to establish and facilitate patterns of communication – both internally and internationally – that would enable its socio-economic institutions to function most effectively and adequately in meeting the needs and interests of the population; and how to assure that different groups within the society, varying in their linguistic repertories have equal access to the system and opportunities to participate in”.

This supports the mother tongue as medium of instruction at the primary level along with the Urdu and English as compulsory subjects with adequate teaching materials. Beyond that from grade 5 English needs to be the medium of instruction along with Urdu and the mother tongue as compulsory subjects till grade 10. Incorporation of the ‘mother languages’ and recognition of the linguistic rights of each ethnic group will promote linguistic pluralism, which is then sure to promote peace and coexistence.

The International Mother Language Day falls on February 21.

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The writer heads IBT, an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat. Email: ztorwali@gmail.com

This piece was originally printed by The News International in Pakistan, and was re-posted here with permission by the author.

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