A Few Words, and a Voice

Languages are conduits of human heritage, and when a language is lost an entire worldview, knowledge and culture of the people who spoke it is lost with it. Language is an essential part of conveying the intricacies and curves of a native environment, and when the language of those who represent that culture withers away with time, the rest of humanity is deprived of the knowledge of that environment – the wisdom it holds through religious and philosophical beliefs, through the dots they connect between illnesses and plants, and the expanse of cultural expression grounded in visual art, poetry, and music that’s often lost in translation.

Since writing is a rather recent development in history, and with only around one-third of the world’s languages having proper written systems, language functions as the only way to convey the unique and distinct culture of a community through mediums like poems, songs, and stories. Apart from the usual romanticism and nostalgia attached to the loss of a language, there’s an entire body of knowledge regarding subjects of mathematics, geography, pharmacology, botany, astronomy, and the likes, which goes missing.

In Pakistan, 10 out of 72 languages are considered to be near extinction, according to a 2014 parliamentary paper. Even regional languages like Punjabi and Sindhi no longer hold the prominence they once did. The new generation of regional language speakers often display a low competency and use of their mother tongue in both informal and formal spheres, and also give a cold shoulder to their own language as seen through their inclination to study in English and Urdu mediums at all levels of schooling.

However, even the national language of the country, Urdu, has been consigned to the middle and lower ranks of power, whereas English continues to be seen as a language of the elite – used in the domains of power such as the corporate sector, law, government, and higher education. In keeping with the power it exerts both internally and globally, the English language is often seen as a vehicle for social and economic mobility, the sort that those unable to access English medium schools, or a part of school systems with a lack of proficient English teachers, are left out of.

According to linguist Tariq Rahman, majority of Pakistanis do not speak English well or at all. “The result is an underclass that remains out of any public policy-making, its upward mobility increasingly limited, and harboring a deep sense of inferiority,” stresses Urdu poet Harris Khalique in a research paper. If our colonial hangover wasn’t obvious enough, our obsession with English language is plastered across the country in the form of number plates, road signs, street sign boards and address plates, that the majority of Pakistanis is unable to understand.

One school of thought is that even public officials and civil servants, who may have received education in English, would not be comfortable with the language. Thus, forcing them to take decisions in a language they have to ‘decipher’, and wasting time as a result – instead they could’ve easily drafted it in Urdu. However, with globalization becoming the buzzword of the century, another school of thought is that being an already impoverished and isolated country with a tumultuous political landscape, divorcing from the English language would exclude us from a world of opportunities and competition. Moreover, with Pakistan demarcated along provincial, and consequently lingual lines, sticking to English as an official language would only help to avoid conflict between the diverse native languages that exist.

Urdu, though, is far from extinction. What requires our attention is the decay of regional languages, slowly pushed out of the various domains including education. A prestigious school in Punjab prohibited students from speaking in Punjabi in the classroom, deeming it ‘foul’ and unacceptable on school premises. While the school went back and forth between the bases of its decision, what irked many was that a language with such a rich history was simply reduced to the obscenity and crudeness of stage show dramas, and indecent slang.

“There is not a single newspaper or magazine published in Punjabi for the 60 million-plus Punjabi speakers,” says journalist Abbas Zaidi, in spite of it being the language of the celebrated Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. While private initiatives dedicated towards preserving regional languages do exist, what is required is state support, and adequate government planning with regards to language policy in education that promotes cultural pluralism and offers crutches to minority or decaying languages.

In a time of environmental degradation, and the loss of species, shriveling languages are also a reality – albeit less tangible, but equally disastrous. It is naive to think that all languages can be saved, and cultural pluralism can flourish in a time of warring and competitive identities, but to be ignorant towards the heritage and hence the way different people view the world, and to let it wilt with their ability to communicate what their ancestors have been passing on for centuries is an immense loss of tradition and history.

Befittingly, found on the Internet somewhere:

“Listen:
my father speaks Urdu,
language of dancing peacocks,
rosewater fountains –
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi,
suave and melodic,
earthy Punjabi,
salty-rich as saag paneer,
coastal Swahili laced with Arabic.
He speaks Gujrati,
solid ancestral pride.
Five languages,
five different worlds.
Yet English
shrinks
him
down
before white men”