WHEN people move out from their ancestral settlements, and settle outside their language zone, it often leads to a paradigm shift including in cultural capital. These changes include, but are not limited to, learning new languages, assuming new lifestyles, and adopting new cultures. These people and their offspring tend to forget their ancestral means of communication (primarily language), and adopt new ones — a process which leads to ‘cultural rupture’. ‘Rupture’, a Latin word, means ‘to break’, implying a break in continuity of the past. Culture includes many dimensions, but here, we will focus only on language.
With increasing migration from rural to urban and urban to technologically advanced societies, life has become quite complicated. This lifestyle, while throwing out enormous choices, has deprived people of many of the sweet things of traditional life, such as ancestral villages and towns, and, more importantly, languages with their semantic profundity, literary idiosyncrasies, and idiomatic subtleties.
Swiss scholar Hofstede tells us that language is a filter through which data is sifted into our memory. With the loss of a language, the data contained in it is also lost. Sadly, the speakers of many languages are losing touch with the immense body of knowledge and wisdom contained in them. They “lose even the sense of loss” — to borrow an expression from Iqbal. Increasingly, the speakers of many rich languages, such as Arabic or Persian, are now being de-skilled, ie, unable to speak or write their ‘own’ languages, and thus cut off from their ancestral wisdom and overall cultural literacy.
Many migrants learn new languages. But literacy in a new language does not necessarily compensate for this loss as it is rooted in another culture. If it is a religiously important language, this loss becomes more serious, as the rituals and practices enacted on a daily basis become increasingly incomprehensible. Those languages cannot even be replaced with another language. Sadly, translations done for essential communication never replace the original.
With the loss of a language, the data in it is also lost.
Some languages are particularly rich such as Persian in which so much wisdom, sweetness (as in the poetry of Rumi, Sa’adi, Hafiz and even Iqbal and Ghalib) is contained. Notable poets and scholars of the subcontinent, such as Ghalib and Iqbal, used Persian as their language of preferred expression. Sadly, such literary figures and their thoughts are increasingly cast aside and their memory is being lost due to the radically altered situation of modern life.
On the other hand, learning a new language is a true privilege; it strengthens the abilities of comprehension and interpretation of another culture through that language. If that language happens to be the language of science and technology, it empowers one to live successfully in its context. In the global village, languages such as English, French, German, Chinese and Japanese have become a literary, scientific and technologically vital means of communication and learning. Learning one or many of these languages can help in accessing the economically utopian world.
Meanwhile, their zeal for English or some other tongue shows that parents are anxious to make their offspring efficient as early as possible due to the language’s economic, educational, and intellectual value. There is no doubt that efficiency in the English language is a passport for upward mobility on the social and technological ladder.
The question is: how can one continue to benefit from the traditional wisdom of the language of one’s ancestors, and at the same time, learn new languages that give access through the gates of academic, scientific, and cultural richness?
While I suggest some ways here, I urge all those concerned to think of their own ways.
First, let’s continue to speak at home in multiple languages, not restricting ourselves to just one. Each language is unique and the more languages we learn or know, the more vocabulary we have to understand ourselves, others and the world around us. Many families are privileged to have their grandparents with them, and they should continue to speak in their mother tongues with the grandchildren. Sometimes, grandparents and parents can continue to tell stories or poems, or songs, in these languages, to help youngsters develop a taste for them.
Second, many schools, colleges and universities offer language choices as part of their academics, so students may be encouraged to select a rich ancestral language. Third, movies and songs are the best way to teach a language. The amazing literacy in Hindi/Urdu songs among the youth of the subcontinent in many overseas countries is simply mind-boggling. So, let us make an effort to decrease and slow down the ever-widening rupture that we experience today.
The writer is an educationist.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2023