By:Sadhu Binning

Punjabi Language Education Association (PLEA) will be celebrating its Sixth Annual International Mother Language Day on Feb. 24, 2008. In 1999, UNESCO declared Feb. 21 the Mother Language Day in response to the resolution put forward by the Bangladeshi government. On this day in 1952, a number of young men in Bangladesh, which was East Pakistan at the time, sacrificed their lives while struggling for the recognition of their mother tongue.

At this time each year, PLEA, while celebrating Punjabi makes a special effort to focus on the problems faced by the language in modern times. The root cause of these problems is the colonial hangover coupled with the pressures created by globalization. A large number of Punjabis in Pakistan and India have been turning away from their mother tongue in favour of English, Urdu and Hindi in order to become successful in their lives. Those attitudes become even more pronounced in Canada where they are living in a English speaking country. It is an uphill battle to convince people that while they are learning and using other languages, they do not necessarily need to totally abandon their own.

PLEA has been trying to raise awareness of the importance of the Punjabi language for our future generations growing up here. We have very clearly focused on a small number of practical issues during our fifteen years of existence. We have two main objectives: a) to firmly establish the teaching of Punjabi as a second language in every level of educational institutions in Canada; b) to win recognition for Punjabi as a Canadian language.

The BC Education Ministry brought in a new language policy in 1994 and made it mandatory to learn a second language after English from grade 5 to grade 8. We began our activities a year before the policy was announced and were part of the lobby that demanded that Punjabi should also be taught in BC schools. Though the new language policy did include Punjabi, as one of the six languages to be taught in BC schools, the implementation of the policy did not happen on its own. This seemingly easy task of getting Punjabi in schools according to the new policy has proven to be a most complex and difficult thing. However, there are some success stories. Punjabi is now taught in a number of elementary and secondary schools in Surrey and Abbotsford. Several other school districts also offer Punjabi in one or two schools. Basic level Punjabi is also offered at UBC, Kwantlen University College and the University College of Fraser Valley. It is also offered by SFU as a SILP – self instructional language program – course.

Still much more needs to be done to make Punjabi a permanent part of the educational system. Among the difficulties faced in this regard are the lack of locally trained Punjabi teachers, the multimedia teaching resources and texts. There is the problem of convincing parents, students and in a way, the community, that learning Punjabi, especially at a school level, can be beneficial. The research into bilingualism strongly advocates the benefits of preserving and teaching of mother tongue. According to a well known Canadian educator Jim Cummins:
“Spending instructional time through a minority language in the school does not hurt children's academic development in the majority school language. Some educators and parents are suspicious of bilingual education or mother tongue teaching programs because they worry that these programs take time away from the majority school language. For example, in a bilingual program where 50% of the time is spent teaching through children's home language and 50% through the majority school language, surely children's learning of the majority school language must suffer? One of the most strongly established findings of educational research, conducted in many countries around the world, is that well-implemented bilingual programs can promote literacy and subject matter knowledge in a minority language without any negative effects on children's development in the majority language.”

On the other hand, as shown by Dr. Cummins below, there are clear negative effects when the mother tongue is denied:

“To reject a child's language in the school is to reject the child. When the message, implicit or explicit, communicated to children in the school is "Leave your language and culture at the schoolhouse door", children also leave a central part of who they are-their identities-at the schoolhouse door. When they feel this rejection, they are much less likely to participate actively and confidently in classroom instruction.”

There are immediate economic benefits for literate Punjabis. PLEA has been trying to point out the obvious; that in communities where Punjabis live in large numbers, there are numerous jobs that require the knowledge of the Punjabi language. At the present time in Canada, a sizable number of people are making their living while working in the Punjabi media. Many government and non-government agencies directly or indirectly employ a large number of translators from Punjabi to English and English to Punjabi. The courts, hospitals, airports and many other such services need interpreters. There are other untapped areas that can provide many jobs for the Punjabi people. For example, Punjabis from Canada and US travel each year to and from Punjab. During the winter months, some flights carry over 90% Punjabi passengers yet no service is provided in Punjabi. People can easily demand that the crew should be Punjabi speaking. There should be Punjabi food, music, films and magazines available on such flights. Just imagine the number of jobs this could create for Punjabi people. In other words, there are clear economic benefits for people to learn Punjabi as a second language in our schools.

To raise these issues, PLEA, in the past, invited Punjabi teachers, students, and administrators from the various post-secondary educational institutions, the media people, and the political leaders. For this year’s function on Feb. 24, we have invited a number of successful Punjabi business people to our panel.  It is indisputable that Punjabi businesses are comparatively contributing the most to the development of Punjabi language in Canada. The community newspapers, radio and television programs are all supported by business advertisements. Undeniably, the business community’s goal is to advertise their commerce not necessarily the development of Punjabi language in Canada. During these discussions, we want to explore how Punjabi businesses can contribute more directly to the development and preservation of their language.

There is another very important question that will be posed to this panel. Unlike many languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, Punjabi does not have the support of a powerful state behind it. The Canadian state, though a multicultural state, does not officially recognize languages other than English and French. Other languages in Canada are known by various names such as ‘heritage’, ‘ethnic’, ‘minority’, ‘ancestral’, non-official’, ‘community’ and so on. In practical terms they all mean ‘foreign languages’. It is clear that the Canadian state is not going to spend any money on Punjabi unless it is considered a Canadian language. That is a question of power and politics and may take a long time. However, to promote Punjabi language and develop its multimedia teaching resources, support is needed now. So the question for the business community is: could the Punjabi business community fill the gap of the state? Looking at the enormous economic and political strength of the community, we believe it can be done.

Hopefully, there will be lively discussion on these issues. Punjabi has been spoken here for the last 110 years. It has contributed to the development of this country. Let’s all celebrate our mother tongue Punjabi as a Canadian language and make Farid, Nanak and Waris proud.

(PLEA function will be held Sunday Feb. 24 from 10am to 5pm @ Haweli Restaurant Scott Rd. and 82nd , Surrey, BC. For info Contact Balwant Sanghera-604-275-8977; Sadhu Binning – 604-437-9014)

Sadhu Binning is a Vancouver based Punjabi writer. He teaches Punjabi at UBC and is the Vice President of PLEA.

Back To APNA Home Page