Why mother tongues matter

Published February 19, 2022

“It’s too confusing,” exclaimed Dua, pushing her books aside. Dua was studying in one of the best schools in Dubai, where she resided with her parents. The language of instruction at the school was obviously English.

In the second grade, Arabic was introduced as a subject under government’s policy. Almost simultaneously, her mother bought a few Urdu books in order to help Dua learn to read Urdu, the family’s mother tongue. Urdu was spoken at home and the parents wanted the child to learn to read their mother tongue as well. And this is where the child got upset — there were just too many languages to learn at the same time.

The child was right. But the parents were also right. Every child should learn their mother tongue.

A compromise had to be made as the child had a valid point of feeling overburdening, which is not good at this age. So the parents relented and gave up on tutoring her in Urdu. They would speak Urdu at home, but not make her read and write for some time, but would later gradually introduce her to the written word.

A couple of years later, the class was given the option to choose between French and the student’s mother tongue. Dua wanted to study French. However, her mother convinced her to study Urdu, explaining that it was a beautiful language with a rich literature. She promised that she would let Dua learn French, even if it had to be through private tuitions. The mother not only wanted to fulfil her child’s wish, but she also knew that learning one more language would be good in the long run.

Why was Dua’s mother insistent on having her learn Urdu? Any guesses?

Whatever the other reasons, one good reason was that everyone should learn their mother tongue, as it is one way to keep the language alive. Yes, you didn’t misread me. A language has to be kept alive consciously, otherwise it would get extinct like the poor ‘dodo’ and many other animal species.

Do you know that of the 6,000 plus languages spoken in the world today, more than 40 percent are endangered, i.e. they are on the verge of going extinct? It is a sad fact that of all those thousands of languages only a few hundred are employed as part of the education systems around the world, and only less than a hundred are used in the digital world. Most of the communication on the internet is in English, Chinese Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Indonesian, Malayan, Japanese, Russian and German.

It is believed that children learn best when they are taught in their mother tongue — the language in which a child hears and utters his/her first words — during their first year at school. However, in the present-day modern set-up, globally about 40 percent of the population does not get the chance to study in their mother tongue.

For instance, a child’s mother tongue may be Sindhi or Punjabi and that is the only language he/she is used to and understands, but when he/she starts going to school he/she may be taught in English or Urdu or any other language. Though, as the importance of teaching in one’s mother tongue is increasing, attempts are being made to adopt mother tongue-based multilingual education system, particularly in the early years at school.

Learning languages that are used as means of communication at the international level is important, and if you do not do so, you will have difficulty communicating with others, especially when you go abroad either for studies or travel. But at the same time, one should learn their language and should not be ashamed of speaking it.

Citizens of many countries are so proud of their languages that they prefer to speak in their language even with tourists in their country and one has to ask them to communicate in English, so they are understood.

To save a language from dying, it is important that people continue to at least speak it, if not write and produce literature in it, though such an activity would greatly benefit a language. Do not be ashamed of speaking your mother tongue even if it is not understood by most people around you, you can continue to speak it at home. If your mother tongue is not the medium of instruction at school, since the medium of instruction is either English or Urdu or other major regional languages, I would say that you should insist that your parents teach you your mother tongue and you speak it at home.

Learning and speaking your mother language is all the more important because if you don’t learn your language, who else would? And once people stop speaking their language, the language dies as it is not passed on from one generation to another.

Though language is considered a means of communication, it is much more than that. Every language is associated with a particular culture and is a source of preserving our heritage, both material and immaterial. It would not be wrong to say that our mother tongue is an important part of our culture. It is important that everyone uses their own mother tongue, so as to keep alive the language and its culture and traditions.

When many languages are spoken in any country or region, they give rise to cultural and linguistic diversity. It also helps people speaking various different languages to learn languages other than their own, as well as cultures of the other languages. It also increases understanding, tolerance and intercultural dialogue.

For instance, if your neighbours speak Sindhi and your mother tongue is Urdu, you both can learn each other’s language and culture. This will help preserve both the languages.

Do you know there are somewhere between 70 to 80 languages spoken in Pakistan? Urdu is the national language, while Urdu and English are the two official languages. The most spoken primary languages are Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Saraiki, Urdu and Balochi. Besides these, there are several regional languages that are spoken by linguistic minorities; these include Kashmiri, Hindko, Brahui, Thari, Shina, Balti, Khowar, Dhatki, Haryanvi, Marwari, Wakhi and Burushski, to name a few. The number of people speaking these languages range from tens of thousands to a few hundreds, and, unfortunately, a few are highly endangered and may soon have no speakers at all.

To promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, Unesco in 1999, declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to be observed every year. It has been observed throughout the world since February 21, 2000.

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh, where February 21 is the anniversary of the day when the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan, the former eastern wing of our country) fought for the recognition of the Bangla language. It is now part of the broader initiative “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages by the peoples of the world” as declared by the UN General Assembly on May 16, 2007.

Published in Dawn, Young World, February 19th, 2022

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