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ONE-FIFTH of the 30 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will die out in the next couple of years because there are only several hundred persons left speaking these languages.

These dying languages - Yidgha, Ushojo, Gawro, Kalasha, Gawarbati and Badeshi - are spoken in the hilly areas of Kohistan, Chitral and Swat districts, which are already lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of social service delivery. This was revealed at a two-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Languages and Cultural Conference organised last week in Peshawar by the Gandhara Hindko Board, a literary-cum-welfare organisation involved in the preservation of the Hindko language and culture since the 1990s. The conference coincided with the 31st National Games in Peshawar, a major event highlighting the soft and cultural image of militancy-struck Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A colourful musical evening followed the two-day proceedings of the conference, but the most depressing and serious sessions of the moot were the presentations on the small and endangered languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

As the linguistics expert, Dr Tariq Rehman of Quaid-i-Azam University once wrote, language represents the identity of a nation or an ethnic group, but this identity gets eroded when a language is dead or dying out.

This is exactly what is going to happen to many languages in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because the people left speaking and understanding them are dwindling fast, Fakhruddin Akhunzada, a linguist, tells Dawn .

Yidgha language of Chitral is among the 23 languages of Pakistan which have recently been declared endangered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

It is spoken in Lutkoh Valley in Western Chitral. However, the people speaking the language - believed to number less than 2,000 - are gradually giving it up for Khowar, the lingua franca of Chitral. Parabek is the biggest village in Chitral, where a population of around 1,250 people speak Yidgha.

Ushojo is another dying language, in which the number of people speaking it is less than 200, mostly living in Kalam, Behrain and in Indus Kohistan.

Another language in Chitral, Kalasha, has been reduced to only a few thousand people speaking it because they have started using Khowar, the lingua franca of Chitral. The Kalasha language is drawing its last breaths in the village of Kalkatak. The remaining people who speak Kalasha in the village are in their seventies. When these people pass on, the last symbol of the Kalasha tradition will disappear from the village forever, says Mr Akhunzada.

The purpose of the conference, as explained by its convener Dr Adnan Mehmud Gul, was to bring together people from different ethnic groups and provide them a platform for interaction.

But it also provided an opportunity to review the government decisions and policies, which many believe are focused on Pashto, the most widely spoken language in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Education in the mother language, of which the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has taken a decision, was the issue of focus during the two-day moot.

According to the decision, students will have to study the mother language as a compulsory subject from grade 1 to intermediate level. The problem, however, is with the limited options given to the people speaking the smaller, endangered languages.

The entire province has been divided into different zones where Pashto and Hindko - the two major languages - will be taught in public sector schools. In Peshawar's rural areas Pashto will be the subject, while Hindko will be taught in urban areas.

“The decision of selecting one language for the entire district is irrational,” remarks Ziauddin, general secretary of the Gandhara Hindko Board.

“For example, five languages are spoken in Swat, whereas the government has selected Pashto as the compulsory subject,” says Mr Zia.

Opposing the plan to introduce the teaching of mother tongue on district basis, Mr Zia stressed that primary education should be imparted in schools on the basis of mother tongue keeping in view the population in the districts where a mix of populations speaking different languages is a common feature.

Similarly, he argues, children in all bilingual and multilingual districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should be given the right of option at the time of introducing the teaching of regional languages.

Officials in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government argue that teaching in the language a student speaks at home is a gigantic task because it involves enormous resources in developing text books and training human resource.

However, Mr Zia argues that nothing is impossible, saying: “If the government exhibits political will, it can be achieved”.

In his opinion, the government can help by creating policies to teach children - all children including those in the private elitist schools - in their mother tongues.

“Schools can help because it was the schooling system which made Hebrew the living language of Israel,” he opines.

The moot adopted a couple of resolutions, which stressed upon the government to set up a languages and cultures authority to work for the preservation and promotion of the 30 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Similarly, a demand was also made for establishing a Department for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Languages Studies in all public sector universities of the province to facilitate research in native languages and literatures.

In addition to preserving languages, the conference also called upon the government to promote the cultural heritage linked to the languages spoken in the province and evolve a cultural policy that protected all the cultures of the province. The experts called for inclusion of all languages in the mother tongue column in the next population census so that the exact number of people speaking them can be ascertained. They also suggested that Nadra should introduce all languages in the mother tongue column in the application forms for acquiring national identity cards. Such a provision does not exist at present.

The moot also called upon the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government to comply with the principles of Unesco and other international bodies calling for the preservation and promotion of mother languages and local cultures.