• TheNews International
  • facebook
  • twitter
  • rss

Power of language

The greatest harm we are doing to our people is that by not respecting their languages we insult their authentic beings; their identity as members of linguistic groups and carriers of tradition. This was the message of Salzburg Global Seminar

Power of language
How to revive dying languages?

The Global Salzburg Seminar is housed in one of the world’s most beautiful locations: a medieval palace (the Schloss Leopoldskron) next to a lake with the snow-capped Austrian Alps rising in towering majesty. On the top of the mountain on the other side is a castle and below it is the town of Salzburg.

This picturesque castle was built by the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold Freiherr von Firmian (1679-1744) in 1736. The Archbishop was like the other great princes of the period i.e not particularly holy (he exploited peasant labour and also had a mistress). But he was a connoisseur of art and the palace is living testimony to his good taste in art and architecture.

The Salzburg Global Seminar was housed in this palace in 1947 two years after the end of World War 2. It was meant to revive intellectual dialogue in Europe and the world. But, being funded by the capitalist Western block, it was also meant to steer that dialogue against the communist line. However, those who are chosen to meet here as fellows are distinguished in their fields and there is no coercion or paradigm which is imposed upon them so they can conduct their work in an atmosphere of freedom. The fellows discuss all sorts of subjects — health, education, economy, politics, justice, migration, peace etc. — and come up with a statement which is disseminated all over the world.

Even Urdu, otherwise dignified as the national language, does not fare much better. It is used much in the media, the lower judiciary, schools and colleges but it does not compete with English which is the currency used in elite jobs, exclusive clubs and posh drawing rooms.

I was lucky to be selected for the seminar from 12 till 17 December 2017 on language policy (Spring for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in Globalized World). The statement the fellows came up with will be launched all over the world on February 21, 2018, the International Language Day. This article is meant to make Pakistani readers aware of its salient features.

The statement begins with some hard hitting statistical facts: that most, if not all, of the 193 members of the United Nations are multilingual. This does not refer to their official languages which may be just one but to their reality on the ground which is that there are speakers of many languages who are temporarily or permanently resident in them. Even tiny states like Monaco, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Bhutan and the Vatican have people speaking languages other than the official languages of these countries. Indeed, in the Vatican the official language, Latin, is actually nobody’s mother-tongue at all.

Then we find the statement that 130 million children reach grade 4 but do not learn to read (Unicef 2016). This can be understood with reference to the fact that 2 billion people do not have access to education in a language they understand. Their languages are disgraced, ignored and laughed out of schools. This bewilders and confuses the children who give up on reading altogether. That is why out of the 9,097 languages currently spoken in the world one-third are endangered. This means they will die unless they are revived. Indeed, powerful languages — the ones used in jobs and given prestige socially such as English — are killing off the less powerful languages so that half the world speaks one or more of only 23 languages.

With this in mind the statement goes on to recommend multilingualism. This means that linguistic diversity, instead of being regarded as a problem, should be seen as a kind of cultural wealth. Children should be taught in the languages they use at home at least in the first few years of their education. This is not a new recommendation at all since the Unesco has been saying it repeatedly since the 1950s.

Participants of the seminar.

Participants of the seminar.

Indeed, the experiments made by Unesco and its partners in many parts of the world were successful. Children who were taught in their mother-tongues first learned the languages of wider communication (LWC) of their countries as well as English better. They also had a more positive self-image of their communities and their selves. Since this research has not sunk into the minds of parents, policy makers, school principals and owners of schools, it is imperative that they should be persuaded through the imaginative dissemination of such research — films, songs, skits and other cultural means — to abandon monolingual policies. Unless all stakeholders are not on board nothing can be achieved and to have them on board they need to be exposed to new research in support of multilingualism.

The statement ends by calling on all, including employers, educational managers, politicians and bureaucrats, to respect and promote linguistic diversity in the workplace and reward it instead of punishing it.

Now let us apply this statement to Pakistan. Linguistic surveys tell us that we have about 73 languages. Even if some varieties of the same language have been counted twice or thrice as I contend, we do have more than sixty languages. But how many of them are used in jobs and education? Only two — Urdu and Sindhi.

One may point out that Pashto is taught up to Class 5 in some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Swat and Fata but that is not much. Not many jobs open if you have a degree in Pashto though you can work in some universities but how many can find such academic jobs? Similarly, some academic jobs open with Siraiki, Balochi, Brahvi and Punjabi but only a few.

Moreover, since students regard degrees in these subjects as easy options as teachers give them high grades to attract them, the languages are not given the academic respect they would have got had they been academically rigorous. But that would have scared away students so the catch-22 remains, degrading the indigenous languages of Pakistan. Even Urdu, otherwise dignified as the national language, does not fare much better. It is used much in the media, the lower judiciary, schools and colleges but it does not compete with English which is the currency used in elite jobs, exclusive clubs and posh drawing rooms.

The greatest harm we are doing to our people, at least in my view, is that by not respecting their languages we insult their authentic beings; their identity as members of linguistic groups and carriers of tradition. The languages of our people become marks of shame which they cannot use in formal settings. They are punished when they speak them in school and, of course, they are shut out of jobs if they carry the accent of their mother-tongue in English and even Urdu. This is a heavy psychological price to pay. Let us, therefore, heed the message of the Salzburg Global Seminar and actively promote and value linguistic diversity in Pakistan.

Dr Tariq Rahman

tariq rahman
The author is a linguistic historian.

2 comments

  • Its a lengthy issues, how people in the Subcontinent are made language less by the British Imperialist.

  • Jamil Soomro, New York City

    A very useful article on the Punjabi Language.It is unfortunate that Punjabi and Saraiki Languages
    are not taught in Schools in Punjab.Sindhi and Pashto are taught in their respective Provinces.Punjabis
    too are responsible in Pakistan for this.They feel embarrassed to speak Punjabi at home and above all
    the Punjab Government has done nothing in these last 70 years for the uplift of Punjabi and Saraiki
    Languages.I am a Sindhi but I am fluent in Punjabi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

 characters available

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Scroll To Top