LAST Monday was International Mother Language Day. In Pakistan some seminars were held but they had no impact on the national discourse. Few in this country consider language a significant element of life. Nor are they interested. The day should have been an occasion for celebrations and some solemn soul-searching to remind us of the many tragic moments in our language and political history. We have wiped them out from our collective memory.
On Feb 21, 1952, five young men were killed in Dhaka, then capital of Pakistan’s eastern wing, at the hands of the police. Their crime? They were demanding their language rights. Today, the Shaheed Minar in Dhaka is a stark reminder of an authoritatarian oligarchy trying to use language to control the majority.
It all began in March 1948 when Mr Jinnah declared in Dhaka that the people of East Pakistan would be allowed to decide what language they would use in their province, but the “state language of Pakistan … [would be] Urdu and no other language”. Earlier, a member of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, Dhirenranath Datta, had demanded that Bengali be recognised as one of the national languages. This issue triggered the language movement which, along with other political and economic issues led to Pakistan’s break-up in 1971.
It was several decades later in 1999 that Unesco took a major decision in response to a communication from two Bangladeshi migrants in Canada. Feb 21 would be observed as Mother Language Day to save the world’s vulnerable languages from extinction. Thus the language martyrs of 1952 were vindicated. This serves to remind us that language is a sensitive issue and should be treated as such by those in office as well as all people interacting with others speaking another language. In contrast to the general belief, language does matter and there is need to understand its importance not just in daily people-to-people communication but also in the working of the government, the media and in education.
Our language policy is shrouded in ambiguity.
It is the duty of the state as well as the people to promote a sense of ownership of all languages and take measures to develop them. The most harmful is the lack of sensitivity shown by the powers that be, commercial interests, the people themselves and school systems towards mother languages.
A multilingual society faces many challenges especially when the language issue is politicised. We have failed to learn from other states which have managed their language challenges pretty well. Canada has English and French as its official languages, though the country is preponderantly English-speaking while the French speakers of Quebec form less than a quarter of Canada’s population. Belgium with three official languages and Switzerland with four are quite peaceful and politically accommodating.
Pakistan brushes its problems under the carpet by shrouding its language policy in ambiguity. As a result, sporadic attempts to promote mother languages have failed. The list of failures is long: the 1972 Sindh language policy that required good Sindhi and Urdu teachers to make schoolchildren truly bilingual; now retired chief justice Jawwad Khawaja’s judgement on Urdu as the official language; the ANP government’s language bill of 2011 introducing the various regional languages of KP in education; Dr Malik’s government making Balochi the language of education in Balochistan; and Marvi Memon’s bill seeking constitutional recognition for the provincial languages as the official languages alongside Urdu.
English has steamrolled all other languages enhancing the inequities in society. No attempt has ever been made to set up a language commission to discuss and obtain a consensus on the language issue in official dealings and in education.
The major loser in this language tussle is school education and the child. Urdu is on paper the national language, though it is the mother tongue of only 7pc and does not enjoy any privileges as is evident from the state of the language in use generally. Paradoxically, English, the language of power, is spoken fluently by only 4pc of the population. But the status it enjoys in Pakistan would do any champion of English proud.
In this bleak language situation, the arrival of an Urdu pedagogy trainer from New York to observe Urdu classroom practices and conduct some workshops here came as a breath of fresh air. Rumeena Kureishy told me that she found the Urdu teachers good and “solid” in their language though they taught as “stereotypical Urdu teachers”. That confirms my belief that Urdu is taken for granted. Since all ‘educated’ Pakistani adults can communicate in Urdu in Pakistan it is assumed that teachers know how to teach the language.
As for the “so-called English medium schools”, Rumeena feels they should not try to teach concepts in English when teachers are themselves struggling with the language.
Then one may well ask, who will teach?
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2022