What do you think is Imran Khan’s mother tongue?

What many people know about him is that he was born and brought up in Lahore; his father was from Mianwali, spoke Seraiki and belonged to the Burki caste; and his mother, or her ancestors, hailed from Urmuri, an area between South and North Waziristan. The language of the area also bears the same name and is different from Pashto, Hindko and Punjabi.

Recently the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, passed a resolution demanding that besides Pashto and Hindko, the other 15 languages of KP be mentioned in the census form to give the lesser known languages an identity. All the 15 languages are bundled into the ‘others’ column. The population census is scheduled to begin across the country in the middle of next month.

There are reportedly 72 languages in Pakistan — as many as the number of religious sects. Whereas the number of sects should be contained, there is a need to do whatever is humanly possible to preserve the languages. The census form mentions only nine languages — Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Brahvi, Kashmiri, Seraiki and Hinkdo.

While it’s true that Pashto and Hindko are the two most widely used languages in the province, with varying claims about the percentage of native speakers, the other languages also have tens of thousands of speakers in their own regions. Khowar, Gojri, Pahari, Wakhi, Kalami, Torwai, Kyrgyz, Palula, Lalkoti, and Seraiki are the other languages spoken in different regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“There are 30 languages in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” says Ziauddin, general secretary of the Gandhara Hindko Board, an organisation striving not only to preserve Hindko but also all other languages in the province. “Fourteen of them are spoken in Chitral district alone, for instance. Eight languages are spoken in the Swat valley. The four languages spoken in Mansehra district are Hindko, Pashto, Gojri and Pahari.”

The percentage of their users in the province may not be significant for the authorities, but for every individual his or her mother tongue is the sweetest language and worth respect.

‘Father tongue’

It is ironic that what is one’s “mother’s tongue” is rarely so in the literal sense of the term. In practice it is one’s father’s tongue that is regarded as the “mother tongue”. That apparently means the first language.

Dr Rauf Parekh, a Gujarati-speaking scholar of the Urdu language in Karachi, agrees with this assertion. Citing his own example, he says his children speak “very bad Gujarati, if at all they do”.

“Therefore, their mother tongue is Urdu.My own mother’s tongue was Pashto, but my father spoke Hindko. So I, and my siblings, grew up speaking Hindko and learnt bits of Pashto while visiting our maternal grandparents some 20 kilometres away.”

Worldly needs may drive one to some other language, but the love of one’s mother tongue never dies. There are many people in Karachi who speak to their children in Urdu, even though it’s not their ‘mother tongue’. They do so to ensure that the children speak Urdu as fluently as possible. So their mother tongue cannot be any language other than Urdu.

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

Well-off people across the country spend millions to ensure their children get an education in English. Naturally they grab top jobs both in the public and private sectors. Even poor parents, who have no other choice, are reluctant to have their children study in a local language. They are aware that for a white collar job their children must learn the English language. That’s why the so-called English-medium schools are flourishing in every nook and cranny of the country. Individual compulsions aside, the government should take steps for preservation of the 72 or so languages before they are eaten up by the bigger ones.

Mohammad Riaz, an Islamabad-based journalist, says even the inclusion of Hindko in the census form is the result of a long-drawn struggle by the Hindko Gandhara Board’s Mr Ziauddin. “Now the government has divided KP into six zones. Suppose that there are five jobs for the province in the federal government. Hindko speakers will get none under its quota. But, yes, the positive thing is that they can grab a sixth opportunity if it arises.”

He says people in almost all of Hazara division, parts of Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan and Peshawar speak Hindko. However, the board’s claim that Hindko speakers constitute 40 per cent of the province’s population is debatable. “Let the census settle once and for all which language has what percentage of speaker in KP.”

Dr Parekh admits that it is difficult to determine what Imran Khan’s mother tongue is as he is not supposed to be speaking Urmuri. “I think it can be either the language he spoke back in Mianwali or Punjabi as he was brought up in Lahore. “Why don’t you ring up Imran Khan to ask what his mother tongue is?”

Putting the curiosity about his mother tongue aside, it is reasonable to expect that since his party is at the helm in KP, he can order steps for saving the small languages from being gobbled up by their bigger sisters.

How can it be done?

Mr Ziauddin says the government can take measures to preserve them. “The government can preserve their literature, poetry and folklore for posterity.

“One language may have as few as 2,000 speakers while another may have as many as 200,000. The determination of their actual number is vital.”

Published in Dawn February 4th, 2017



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