The last weekend had been a rich experience for me as the country celebrated its mother languages week. During my engagement with many linguist scholars and language rights advocates, I was amazed by the diversity of powerful viewpoints the idea carried. It provided me with an opportunity to start looking into the matter more systematically as it does affect both the teacher and his/her students in their learning environments. A major barrier to education, and perhaps a primary source of our learning barriers, is caused by keeping a child away from his/her mother language. Language has a direct link with a child’s cognition. And that cognition cannot be developed without a child getting internally acclimatized to his/her surroundings. There are many beautiful initiatives undertaken by our own local educators (heroes) who have internalized systems of learning that helped children have fun with learning solely because of the comfort and acceptance they have found in such environments. But all such extraordinary steps get wiped away when the state imposes its diction on uniform learning systems; and we can’t get out of our binary of English and Urdu medium of instruction and learning in public schools. That’s one viewpoint on language rights, strongly adhere to.
The other viewpoint is more nationalistic which stems from the resentment of communities that feel that their fundamental cultural identity is being robbed of them by the hegemony of Urdu, which is the sole official language of Pakistan. During discussions, a debate arose about whether or not Urdu should be considered a lingua franca, a common language among different communities, but the idea was opposed by other language proponents on the ground that Urdu might actually become an obstacle itself between two language communities because consequently, each group will fail to make an effort to understand each other’s way of talking. The idea was further supported by the perception that people can begin to understand each other through mere words and simple actions, and this will enable them to familiarise themselves with how they communicate and learn with each other in their own language. This way, they become more immersed with each other, however, if there is another language to be used between them, their direct interaction runs the risk of becoming restrictive and alienated.
This is a very persuasive viewpoint on language nationalism, but I found many other questions unfold: what happens in the context of technological advancements in a heavily globalized world where vocabulary and languages are shifting from their conventional paradigms and moving towards more universal languages? It is a civilizational evolution that is bound to occur as no language could remain static or in silos for a long time. In times of high-paced technology and scientific advancements, commonalities are crucial for sharing of information and knowledge. That is where I tend to disagree with the nationalist political perspective of keeping languages “pure”. I do, however, believe that languages need to be preserved because they carry with them important history and lessons that we can learn from. But keeping it from evolving and absorbing changes as communities interact will only make it irrelevant and redundant ultimately.
The third viewpoint is legislative hegemony of language; whereas article 28, the fundamental right to preserve language, script and culture, but that is subject to article 251 which stipulates Urdu as an official language. Many attempts had been made to amend the said article so it could accommodate the required official status of other spoken languages as well, but it could not get through on technical hindrances. The promotion of local languages was legislated in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well, but they are nowhere near implementation as they become subject to bureacratic obstacles. This is the reason why all 77 local languages are perishing, out of which 28 are in extreme danger of extinction. This should be a major concern for the state, as the loss of a language here means a loss of heritage. Although it’s hard to revive a dying language, preserving a language for the sake of saving knowledge and wisdom it carried through the ages becomes more than a national responsibility.
The writer, Zeeba Hashmi, is the founder of Ibtidah for Education (IFE), an educationist, she tweets: @zeebahashmi