One of the most distinguishing marks that defines us is our ability to use language as a tool of communication and expression. Our use of language and tool making ability has made us what we are in an incredibly long evolutionary process.

The Hebrew religious myth regarding language and its power is well-known: And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they propose to do will be impossible’. ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand on another’s speech’. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth.” [Genesis 11: 6-9 New American Standard Bible].

Scattering ‘one people’ was intended to create multiple languages which would make it impossible for them to understand one another’s speech. But even the Lord’s act had unintended consequences; the multiplicity of languages thus created made mankind more powerful. Since each language apart from being a tool, encapsulates a specific world view, linguistic diversity has emerged as an immense source of human development and empowerment. The Lord perhaps didn’t care to visualise the structural commonality between different human languages facilitating the role of the translation that would bring the diverse peoples together who he scattered. That’s what we see in the course of history but being unique the people in Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab, are an exception. Being God-fearing lot they prove the Hebrew god was absolutely right in his assessment of future of humans as far as they are concerned: with their confused speech they would not be able to understand one another.

Click for any prime time talk show on any news channel and carefully listen to what the host called anchor says. The anchor, apparently educated and suave, would not say three straight sentences in one language. He or she while pretending to talk in Urdu preface his intro with an Arabic verse, half way would use English phrases and words, and conclude it by spicing it up with Punjabi words. No one who knows only one language whether it’s Urdu, English or Punjabi or any other Pakistani language, can fully understand what is being said.

Same is the case with the guests/panelists who generally are politicians and experts usually introduced with the epithet ‘senior’. Mind you they are supposedly talking to the people i.e. the ordinary mortals with a professed view of enlightening them on a plethora of important national and local issues that concern them. Remember they are the leading lights who uphold the much flaunted ideal of one nation one language.

Incessant mixing of phrases and words of different languages shows a shallow understanding of several languages but command over none. Such sordidness isn’t confined to media but can also be seen in schools, colleges and university campuses across the Punjab.

Students generally have only a smattering of English, Urdu and their mother language which is in most cases Punjabi. They appear close to being functionally illiterate. It can somehow work in a way in conversations and speech but when it comes to writing, the situation becomes abysmally pathetic in academic terms. Most of the students don’t know even the basic language they are required to write in or choose for self-expression. Only two segments generally know language better: students from upper class are able to converse and write in English while students from rural working class have a good exposure to their mother language. The former’s disdain for their mother language is rooted in colonial legacy. The latter come to know their mother language by default rather than by design. They treat their own language no differently the moment they get socially uplifted. The reason apart from colonial conditioning is that in this land of rivers mother language is disparaged and demonised in the name of one nation one language. The mess created by state’s language policy has produced a kind of linguistic black hole; all language assets get sucked into it but nothing comes out.

The official language policy has upended reason; it wants our children to be taught in languages other than their mother language in the name of national cohesion and development when all the experts across the globe state categorically that early education at least must be imparted to students in their natural language i.e. mother tongue. The language policy driven by ill-conceived ideological imperatives produces nothing but students with stunted intellectual and cultural growth which renders them unfit to move ahead and tackle the complex needs of contemporary society. The situation has led to a colossal wastage of intellectual and material resources over the last seven decades. The state has been so incapacitated that it’s not even able to have a sense of loss and measure the damage it has done to its own people’s potential. It’s encouraging to note that some corrective measures are being undertaken though belatedly by some private and public educational institutions to stop the rot which has now overpowering intellectual stench. Some English medium schools have begun familiarising their students with Punjabi through plays and music. The Punjab University, the Sargodha University and the Government College University, Lahore, and Lahore College for Women University for example have full-fledged Punjabi departments that offer master degrees in Punjabi language and literature.

Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) through some of its academic activities support the promotion of the Punjabi literature. The Institute of Art and Culture (IAC), which is comparatively a new educational body of higher learning, has taken the lead by its bold initiative of making the teaching of mother languages/ Pakistani languages compulsory for its students. Punjabi and Pashto are currently being taught with a view to connecting the youth with our literary and cultural assets.

International Mother Language Day (Feb 21) should have been a reminder for all of us especially the policy makers to reflect on the follies of the past. Have we forgotten that it was the conflict over the choice of national language that shook the very foundations of our new state in the wake of independence? We must lay to rest the spectre of language issue that has been threatening the state since its inception in 1947 by finding a simple and rational solution: accept the linguistic diversity and what it entails. Such diversity is as old as our rivers. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2021

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