About 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. The Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of those languages which are spoken by only a handful of people. Thus every year, the world loses around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade.
Pakistan has been and is still rich in lingual diversity. Even today, it has more than six major and 70 small languages. This language heritage provides the country a reliable source of cultural strength and diversity. However, Pakistan as a federation did not treat the diversity to increase the social capital but tried to enact national integration through religio-ideological hegemonic designs.
Some 28 regional languages including Hindko, Kashmiri, Torwali, Khowar, Shina, Burushaski, Balti, Wakhi, Pahari, Hazaragi, etc., are in extreme danger of extinction. Some may refer to these as minor or small languages. Whatever you name it, whatever status or respect you give it. It does not matter. What matters is the vital role of the mother tongues in shaping identity and worldviews of the native speakers. First the forces of colonisation, now it is the power of globalisation and modernity which has endangered the mother tongues of the local populace.
Interestingly, the language and identity politics recently gained firm grounds in Sindh, Karachi, Southern Punjab and Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa linking language with the creation of new provinces. The issue of language and new provinces, no doubt, has been politicised over the years. The movements for the creation of new provinces fuelled due the persistence reservations of these language communities over distribution of resources and unfair dealing with the regional languages. Since the state favors English and Urdu, regardless of whatever happened in the past, the languages of the domains of power – government, corporate sector, media, education etc., are English and Urdu.
The language issue has also divided the society in classes such as “English being the language of the powerful” and the rest taken as marker of lower status and in some forms “cultural minors”. In the current situation, it appears that the Sindhis, the Pashtuns and the Baloch have resisted elimination of their languages while the Punjabi middle class has completely succumbed to the dominant English and Urdu oriented culture. However, the question raised by many researchers including Dr. Tariq Rahman, one of the prominent linguists of the country, is whether we are all collaborating willfully or unknowingly in “killing” our indigenous languages?
The dominant elites in media are deliberately code switching and code mixing is also affecting the languages of the region. Similarly, the private educational institutions are contributing to the extinction of these languages as it has almost become impossible for the so-called educated youth to purely speak their mother tongue.
The recent episode of the Beaconhouse School System, which is one of Pakistan’s top schools, has come under fire after calling the Punjabi language ‘foul’ and banning it from usage within and outside the school premises. The controversial text of the circular has invited strong criticism from linguists, language students and researchers for imposing ban on the language which has already been reduced to spoken form amongst its speakers. The English medium private school’s categorisation of the language as ‘foul’ not only perpetuates colonial stereotypes, but also reeks of racism.
It’s nothing new all the so elite English medium schools forbid children from speaking any native language and this is how our so called education system is teaching the children how to disown their identity. Above all, the notification has numerous grammatical mistakes, which makes the Headmaster’s authority over the English questionable. Those who are intentionally becoming part of the same agenda of disassociating us from our mother tongues are actually breeding a generation who would soon turn their backs on their roots.
We would never be able to acquire the native-like efficiency in English or any other second or third language but surly the unfair dealing with the mother tongue will make us foreigner to our first language which is the sole transmitter of our culture, tradition and distinctive human characteristics.
Let us treat the rich language heritage as cultural assets and not liabilities. It is need of the hour to change our language policy so as to add English and Urdu to our repertoire of linguistic skills without destroying our mother-tongues, our authentic selves, our culture and our identity. The federation is strengthened when minorities feel that their rights, culture, language, and heritage is being preserved, safeguarded, protected and promoted.