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Language is identity, it is a worldview

Why do languages die? They die when their speakers abandon them for other languages, because they are not given prestige and they become ashamed of their own languages

Language is identity, it is a worldview

Ethnologue is a book which contains lists and brief descriptions of the languages of the world. It says Pakistan has 72 languages counting sign languages etc. Out of these six are institutional languages, 18 are developing languages, 38 are vigorous mother tongues, eight are in trouble and two are dying. Personally, I think they have counted some varieties of the same language (or dialect as people call them) twice and possibly some of the languages are already dead (Domaaki comes to the mind).

However, these trivial details are a minor matter and, in any case, my own research in such subjects was so far back in time and so limited that my judgments are of less value compared to the word of the SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) researchers. So let us take the judgments of the SIL as correct for it is a genuinely competent team of linguists. I make this claim because I have been privileged to work with the SIL whose researchers wrote the only surveys of the languages of northern Pakistan after George Grierson and I have never met more dedicated and professionally competent people. One of them, Dr. Joan Baart, visits Pakistan even now to train people working on the unknown languages of the country and keeps publishing on the languages of Pakistan.

Among other things, the SIL trained young language researchers to save their dying languages. I personally know those who are doing so. Among the most prominent of them are: Zaman Sagar, Zubair Torwali and Dr Khwaja Abdur Rehman. These people are working on the languages of the northern areas but there are people in Sindh also who work on the languages of those areas. These people have done many things including opening schools for small children where the medium of instruction is the mother tongue. This is a small experiment which may or may not succeed though the Unesco recommends teaching in the mother tongue.

I had interviewed language activists from the Hindu Kachi-language and Parkari-language communities. Kachi is a small language which is close to Gujarati which is spoken in India and the city of Karachi. This community is a low ranking, poor community of agricultural workers and I was told by the activists of the Kachi Community Development Project in November 2010 at Bangkok that they have established two schools teaching children up to class-5 in this language. In 2011 Khwaja Rehman and Zaman Sagar interviewed and tested ten students from these schools and concluded that they were competent in their mother-tongue, Sindhi, English and Mathematics. They were not, however, compared with students of government schools studying through the medium of Sindhi or Urdu.

21st February as a language day was proposed by Bangladesh which was created by the feelings of ethnic identity strengthened on that day in 1951 when firing by the police tried to put down the demand for Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan.

The Parkari-language, another mother-tongue of the Hindu community in Sindh living near the villages of the TharParkar and Nagar regions, is taught in 27 MLE (multilingual education) schools up to class-5. These were established by the Parkari Community Development Project (PCDP). According to Rehman and Zaman, who interviewed students and teachers, these schools provided a supportive atmosphere to this poor, minority community which was under-confident and uncomfortable in government schools.

In the city of Karachi there are Balochi-language schools established in Lyari, one of the poorest areas of Karachi, by the Balochi Language and Literacy Organization (BLLO). These four schools were established from 2002 onwards and teach pre-primary school children for two years.

There are also MLE schools in parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Rehman and Zaman presented a paper on them in a conference entitled ‘Language and Social Cohesion: 9th International language and Development Conference’ in Colombo, Sri Lanka held between 17-19 October 2011. The following information is based upon this paper as well as interviews of both the researchers. There are two Palula-language schools in Ashret, Chitral. They have been functioning since 2008 and offer two years of pre-school education. They compared four MLE students with four non-MLE ones and found their scores higher in recognition of the alphabet, response to simple instructions, understanding of words and mathematics. They also interviewed students and teachers in the only Kalasha school in the Bumboret valley in Chitral. This school offers education up to class-5 and again found its students more proficient in the above subjects than non-MLE students.

Gawri, a language of Kalam in Swat and the mother-tongue of Zaman, is the medium of instruction in a school run by the Gawri Community Development Programme (GCDP) which is supported by the Forum for Language Initiatives. Dr Joan Baart, who has mentored Zaman for the last many years, has helped to support this project. The students are said to perform very well in academic subjects. Another minority language, Torwali, is taught in a school up to class-2. However, it is expected to be offered up to class-5 eventually.

This project was initiated by the Idara Barae Taleem-o-Taraqqi initiated by Zubair Torwali and offers two years of MLE. Another interesting case study is of Aslam Academy in the Kaghan Valley. This offers education in the Gojri language since 2008. It started with 14 students but has 34 now. Interviews with students suggested that the students find the atmosphere using their mother-tongue more friendly than the government schools which are supposed to teach in Urdu though they too use the local Hindko, but not Gojri, for explanation. In short, Zubair, Rehman and Zaman suggest that MLE education makes it easy for students to learn not only their own mother-tongue but also other subjects.

Despite this ongoing work I am skeptical of success for these well-meaning people. The reason for my skepticism is that the government has not shown any interest in the mother tongues of the people. The parents of children, because of the fact that mother tongues have little prestige and do not lead to jobs, do not like to overburden their children with the learning of another language. And, of course, in elite English-medium schools even Urdu is discouraged though it is the national language. They have ‘Only English’ policies in such schools which outlaw the speaking of other languages.

Punjabi is singled out especially for step-motherly treatment since it is regarded as a rustic patois despite being the mother-tongue of most (44.15 per cent) Pakistanis. Given this atmosphere, is it strange that the mother-tongues of Pakistanis are ignored by the state in the education system as well as in employment. It is true, however, that they are taught as optional subjects and there are departments of Pashto, Punjabi, Siraiki, Balochi, Brahvi and Sindhi in the universities of Pakistan. The way they were established is a story by itself. I have written about Faqir Mohammad Faqir’s role in getting the Punjabi department established in the University of the Punjab in my book Language, Ideology and Power-Language-learning among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India (2002).

These languages were also made optional in the competitive examinations of the civil services. While this is commendable and rightly seen by language activists as a step in the right direction, there is a problem which needs to be spelled out. What has happened is that these languages are not opted for out of any genuine interest in them on the part of the students. Most of them regard them as easy options and take them to get A grades. In the civil service examinations, too, they are taken by candidates with a view of getting high marks without putting in much effort. This is very unfortunate but it is only by admitting this in the first place that improvement can take place.

Now I come to that part of the Ethnologue which is reflected in the title I have chosen for the language day i.e. the eight languages in trouble and the two dying ones. Why do languages die? Well, they die when their speakers abandon them for other languages. They abandon them because they are not given prestige and they become ashamed of their own languages. This prestige is connected with power which, in the case of language, means whether it is used in the domains of power (government, education, media, commerce etc). Prestige also comes through a great religious or literary tradition but if a language, previously carrying a great tradition, is no longer used in good jobs it will not be learned by people.

People spend time on learning languages to empower themselves and if no powerful jobs are available in them, they will abandon them. So most of the 72 languages mentioned above do not lead to jobs and prestige and people will abandon them as they become modernised.

Why should we be bothered? Well, many people simply do not care. I think we should care because when a language dies a whole worldview, a distinct identity also dies. I think children should be able to speak with their grandparents in their mother tongue and not learn to look down upon their own people and their ancestors. I think the names of rare plants and animals and herbs in the smaller languages of Pakistan are worth preserving. The language day is a good time to support the indigenous languages of this country and promote research in them. We do not have a proper linguistic survey of Pakistan; this is a crying need of the hour. We do not have jobs for those who take up linguistics, we need these jobs in research institutes and educational institutions and, in order to survey the languages of Pakistan, we need a good research institute for linguistic surveys of Pakistan.

Remember that the 21st of February as a language day was proposed by Bangladesh which was created by the feelings of ethnic identity strengthened on that day in 1951 when firing by the police tried to put down the demand for Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan. In 1994, I was in Dhaka interviewing people about that language movement (Bhasha Ondolan) for my book Language and Politics in Pakistan (1996) and I was astounded at the passion which those memories unleashed. I listened to the words the eyewitnesses spoke with dimming eyes and I understood that they were not talking about a language. They were talking about the honour of their land, their fathers and mothers, their sense of justice.

Language is identity; language is a worldview. That is what February 21 is supposed to remind us. And that is why our languages should not be allowed to die!

Dr Tariq Rahman

tariq rahman
The author is a linguistic historian.

One comment

  • Please, enough with this “we need to preserve languages” nonsense! We do not. For a country that ranks near the world’s bottom in every human development indicator on earth, a country faced with imminent physical destruction thanks to global climate change and ensuing mass starvation, and a massive security and economic problem, preserving these little trinkets of local languages and the convoluted sense of “identity” related to it – all for purely sentimental reasons, mind you – is a luxury that we cannot afford. We need a strong, centralized state to handle these crises and for that we need a single, homogeneous language. There is not a single economic benefit that these little languages can give this country when we need to be in tune with the world, so I say let us discard even Urdu and completely take up English. Sorry, speakers of the little languages, but you need to make a painful but very necessary sacrifice. You can revive your language after our children stop starving to death, after the glaciers in the Himalayas stop melting, and after its security is permanently assured. And this article does an excellent job of using language as a valid reason to justify an armed secessionist rebellion in collaboration with hostile foreign powers. If the Bengalis hold their language on such a high personal pedestal that they were willing to unleash a mass-slaughter on non-Bengalis and try to secede from the country, thus provoking Operation Searchlight, then this is definitely not a trait that deserves praise and endorsement because that is fascist by definition. Next time, The News would be well advised to publish any more articles on this issue only when they are written by economists who can make a very strong case that those little sentimental trinkets of local languages will bring indispensable benefits to Pakistan’s political economy that could not be gotten otherwise. We do not need articles like this written by linguists or poets.

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