SOCIETY: ARE DYING LANGUAGES WORTH PRESERVING?

Published January 8, 2023
Illustration by Sheece Khan
Illustration by Sheece Khan

Many of us speak or know more than one language, yet we are either not cognisant of the significance of these languages or their sonorous role in our lives.

We assume that language is only a means of communication and forget that our identity, culture and history are also rooted in it. It is the language with which we define our identity and defend our rights and take part in social actions.

Our lack of interest in preserving our languages or low understanding of such multifaceted issues, combined with the increasing effects of globalisation, endanger the existence of our culture, especially the local languages. Thus, with each passing day, the threats to regional and local languages are increasing manifold.

Linguists’ prediction that 90 percent of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years and only six languages will remain in the world, is a clear indication of the importance of the subject and the gravity of the situation.

In a globalised world where efforts have been concentrated in developing a horizontal culture with a unified language, it is essential to recognise the importance of diversity and preserving local vernaculars

If this prediction turns out to be true, what will happen to those people who speak only one language and whose history, cultural heritage, traditions and values are all connected with this one language?

Even now, 40 percent of people in the world can only speak their inherited mother tongue, while statistics tell us that half of the world’s population can speak or understand at least two languages.

Some people may term the idea of being able to communicate in one language with everyone as ‘fascinating’, but to me the idea of a less diverse world, without multiple languages, is frightening, even absurd.

PLETHORA OF LANGUAGUES TODAY

Languages are not equivalently distributed in continents or nations. Some regions have more lingual diversity and some too little. The best example is Papua New Guinea which, according to the World Atlas, is the most linguistically diverse country in the world. It has around 840 languages, even though some of them are spoken by very few people, with less than 1,000 speakers in some cases.

According to the latest edition of the world’s most comprehensive catalogue of languages, known as Ethnologue, out of 6,909 languages worldwide, only 291 are being spoken in Europe, while 2,197 are being spoken in Asia.

Interestingly, Asia is considered the continent with the most spoken languages, followed by Africa, with around 2,000, America and Oceania each with 1,000, and finally Europe with around 291.

The number of established languages listed for Pakistan is 77, and all of these are living languages that are spoken by persons still alive. Out of these, 68 are indigenous and nine are non-indigenous languages.

Apart from the provincial languages, these languages ​​include Balti, Shina, Marwari, Khowar and others. At least two languages ​​have been declared critically endangered, while about nine others are considered endangered due to the decline in the number of speakers of these languages.

It is worth mentioning here that, according to the 2017 census, there are threats to a major language like Punjabi as well, because of the lack of effective strategies to develop, promote and document this language in Pakistan.

I first realised the significance of a language and its role in the development of any society back in 2009, when I was assigned the task to organise a state-level conference titled ‘Kashmiri Vernaculars: Development and Identity’ on local languages being spoken by diverse population groups in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

The host organisation, the Institute for Development Studies and Practices Pakistan (IDSPP), invited prominent linguists from across the country, including Dr Tariq Rehman, the late Dr Syed Yousaf Bukhari and many others to present their latest research work in the field of linguistics. I compiled and published it in the form of a book titled Kashmiri Boliyan: Taraqi Aur Shanakhat [Kashmiri Vernaculars: Culture and Identity] in the year 2010.

I also presented my article which explored the strong relationship between local languages, culture and identity. Hence, I urged policymakers and organisations working on preserving indigenous cultures to channelise their coordinated efforts in the right direction, and first protect and promote local languages to achieve the goal of cultural identity preservation.

Since that time, I have developed a keen interest in initiatives towards the promotion, preservation and documentation of local and regional languages.

EFFORTS TO PRESERVE LANGUAGES IN KASHMIR, GILGIT-BALTISTAN

Most recently, I had the opportunity to study a project primarily designed to develop an intensive capacity-building training programme, to preserve the endangered languages being spoken by minority groups in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) regions, in addition to transferring knowledge and basic skills about the methods and practices of language documentation.

The programme targeted public universities in AJK and GB. Under this project, 27 persons were trained with skills in basic linguistic analysis, essential language documentation methods, use of language documentation software and management of the linguistic data, and later they were provided the opportunity to practise these skills in the field.

These trained faculty members and consultants visited the Hunza, Nagar and Skardu districts of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) to spend sufficient time with the language community for collecting and analysing the data, and worked closely with Shina, Khowar, Wakhi, Balti, Burushaski and Domaaki language-speakers.

After their field assignments, they annotated the collected data and conducted a series of activities, such as workshops, seminars and even an awareness walk on language documentation in their respective universities and communities.

A total of 35 faculty members and 180 students and language activists were trained through cascading workshops in seven concerned universities, according to Project Director Dr Abdul Qadir Khan. Two five-day workshops were conducted, one at the UAJK for Kashmir-based participants and the other one at the Karakoram International University (KIU) for the GB region. Besides this, three awareness seminars were also held for students and the local community under this programme.

Quoting the findings of the study, UAJK Registrar and Co-Principal Investigator of the Project Dr Ayesha Sohail says that most of the languages being spoken in these territories are under-documented and have no grammar or dictionaries and are not even taught in schools. Speakers of these languages are shifting to Urdu and English languages, resulting in a big loss to our precious culture, traditions and local values.

Keeping in view the imminent dangers to the regional languages, such initiatives must be encouraged and expanded to other regions as well.

AJK and GB particularly seek government patronage to preserve their rich heritage, abundant manifestations of nature and cultural diversity through the promotion and documentation of their vernaculars. They need to be supported and similar efforts should be initiated in other provinces as well.

The writer is a PhD scholar in Media Studies and a Muzaffarabad-based freelancer.

He tweets @SMubasharNaqvi

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 8th, 2023

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