World mother tongue day

Dr Tariq Rahman

The News:  February 21, 2004

The 21st of February is celebrated as World Mother Tongue Day. The UNESCO, which hopes to make people conscious of the importance of the mother tongue, declares in its latest publication Education in a Multilingual World (2003), that the most suitable language for teaching basic concepts to children is the mother tongue. Indeed, the UNESCO declared this as early as 1953 in its report The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education. Yet, as the world modernized, the smaller and weaker mother tongues started dying. The schooling system, the media and the jobs all demanded the languages of power - the languages used in the domains of power i.e. administration, government, military, commerce, education, media etc. - which had to be learned by people in their own interest. As globalisation increases, languages die. And, of course, English is the great ‘killer language’ because the media and the corporate sector use it. The 21st of February reminds us that, despite this inequality of power between our mother tongues and the languages of power, we must not give up hope. We must be conscious of the significance of our mother tongues, which give us identity; which are repositories of culture and which, in the final analysis, make us what we are. If we start speaking other languages and forget our own, we would not be ‘we’, we would be clones of an alien people; we would be aliens to ourselves.

For us in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the 21st of February reminds us of Ekushe. This was the day when student activists of the Bengali language movement were shot down in Dhaka outside the University. According to a police inquiry report, there were ‘nine casualties, of whom three were students and six outsiders’. This event, Ekushe, became the barometer of political sensitivity in the then East Pakistan. In 1961, and again in 1966, when there was protest against Ayub Khan’s government, the processions on the 21st were the longest ever seen. Similarly, the 21st witnessed much fiery enthusiasm when Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman had become the most popular leader in what was to emerge as Bangladesh.

The lesson to be learned from Ekushe is that there should be no suppression of the culture and language of any region. Moreover, and this is even more important, power and resources should be distributed by the centre in such a just, fair and equitable manner that language (or other distinctive features) do not become symbols of resistance. The only way a federation can be strong and prosperous is to keep the federating units happy. If they feel they have a stake in the federation, they will not try to break away from it. This is the gist of recent history from Canada, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland, where different languages are recognized and rights given in such a manner that pluralism becomes the governing principle and unity through diversity comes in sight. This, in short, is the theme of my own book Language and Politics in Pakistan (Oxford University Press, 1996 and reprinted several times including 2003) and scores of other books about language and ethnicity in the world.

Besides countering secessionist ethnic demands by conceding linguistic and other rights, languages are important in themselves. The mother tongue helps the child enjoy school because it is seen as an extension of the home. A school operating in alien languages is threatening. It makes real learning difficult and leaves rote learning as the only viable alternative. Moreover, one learns to devalue one’s mother tongue and holds one’s group, one’s culture and one’s real self in contempt. Eventually, one joins in to kill one’s own mother tongue by not teaching it to one’s children. This is a sad affair - the suicide of a people of a world-view, of a certain way of living and feeling. And this is just what is happening in the world, and in Pakistan too, because we do not teach our mother tongues because of which we start looking at them with contempt.

In Pakistan, the hierarchy of languages follows an order based on power. It is English, Urdu, the major languages of the region, and lastly one’s mother tongue (if the last mentioned is not the major language of the region). The majority of Pakistanis, who are speakers of Punjabi, have an affectionate contempt for their language. Indeed, professional Punjabi families teach Urdu and speak only Urdu and English to their children. However, Punjabi is the language of songs, jokes and intimacy and, therefore, is in no danger of dying. Yet, in Pakistan, it is not the medium of instruction even for very small children in contradiction to the UNESCO’s recommendations. In East Punjab, on the other hand, it is used in the domains of power and is the medium of instruction at various levels in state educational institutions.

Sindhi is the most developed of the languages of Pakistan after Urdu. A sense of Sindhi ethnic identity has made Sindhis proud of their language but they learn Urdu and English if they are affluent and urban people. The Pashtuns, though proud of Pashto, are generally taught in Urdu in their schools so they cannot read and write Pashto. The same applies to Balochi and Brahvi speakers, though these languages, being smaller, are much less powerful than Pashto. Moreover, while there are schools teaching in Pashto up to class 5, there are no schools with Balochi and Brahvi as media of instruction. The experiment of using both these languages as media of instruction was started in 1990 but discontinued in 1992.

And even when it did run, only non-elitist children were taught through Balochi and Brahvi. Thus the parents knew they would only be burdening their children with an extra language, while elitist children studied only the languages of power. This brings us to the central dilemma of mother tongue teaching. It is often seen as an extra burden by the parents, the students and the teachers.

The other problem is that it is ghettoising - it confines people to a ghetto; it keeps them underprivileged; it keeps them at a disadvantage vis-‡-vis those who learn the languages of power. What can be done to change this? In my opinion what can be done is to make the mother tongue compulsory for all children, and not only non-elitist one. Secondly, jobs must be provided in the mother tongue. For instance, the municipal community should use the local language for all jobs. If Switzerland can use four languages, surely we too can use five of ours. In Spain, in the Catalonia area where Catalan is spoken, one cannot get a job without knowing Catalan. Thus, even Spanish speakers (Castilian Spanish) learn Catalan. Such a step would also go with the spirit of decentralisation, which lies at the root of the vision of the district governments in Pakistan.

Even if the only thing we manage to do is to teach small children in their mother tongues, this will be no mean achievement. We will make these children internalise concepts better. We will provide jobs to teachers - and indeed create teachers - of many Pakistani languages. We will give due recognition to our languages. We will give the message that our languages, and by extension our cultures and real selves, are not contemptible. We will perhaps save our languages from the forces of globalisation, neo-imperialism and elitism, which threaten to kill our languages and force us to operate only in elitist languages (English and Urdu) or become marginalized, powerless and contemptible even in our own eyes.

Back to Articles Page"; php ?>