The others living among us

By Iqra Sarfaraz
Tue, 09, 19

The multilingual society system in the country demands a wider use of regional languages along with English and Urdu as medium of instruction. You! takes a look...

Pakistan is a multilingual country with six major and over fifty-nine regional languages. However, the languages of the domains of power - government, corporate sector, media, and education - are English and Urdu. The state’s policies have favoured these two languages at the expense of others. This has affected the expression of ethnic identity through languages. It has also resulted in English becoming a symbol of upper class, sophistication and power. On the other hand, the indigenous languages of Pakistan are becoming markers of lower status and cultural shame. Some small languages are on the verge of extinction. It is only by promoting additive multilingualism that Pakistani languages will gain vitality and survive as a cultural capital hub.

Unfortunately in Pakistan, it has become prerequisite to be fluent in English to get into a reputed institute while Urdu is mandatory to enter a national forum. However, we tend to ignore the importance of multilingualism. As a matter of fact, it is also the ‘gora complex’ that is acting as a hurdle in the promotion of multilingualism in our country. 

Before pursuing journalism, I used to teach at a local school in Karachi and the entire institute was obsessed with the idea of developing fluent English language skills among kids. The ‘gora complex’ is so deep-rooted in our culture that we have been carrying it on our shoulders since the inception of Pakistan. I felt funny when my sister scolded her son to speak in English at home too. Even when I was a kid, I always used to be in a constant struggle to write good essays in the class and take part in English debate competitions. It intrigued me how my Sindhi and Punjabi friends used to converse in their regional languages with their families. Unfortunately, no one ever emphasised on our precious local languages.

Every year, World Literacy Day is observed across the world on 8th September. This year, International Literacy Day focused on ‘Literacy and Multilingualism’. Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist, distributed unevenly across countries and populations. Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is central to addressing these literacy challenges and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

On the occasion of International Literacy Day 2019, the main characteristics of multilingualism in today’s globalised and digitalised world were discussed, together with their implications for literacy in policies and practice in order to achieve greater inclusion in multilingual contexts.

One of the reasons that Pakistan is still struggling with its literacy level is because there is a lack of support in promoting multilingualism in the school curriculum. According to UNESCO, Pakistan was targeted to reach 80 per cent of its literacy rate by 2015, which is unachievable so far. The multilingual society system in the country demands a wider use of regional languages along with English and Urdu as medium of instruction. The big challenge posed by the country’s education system for education aspirants is language barrier in reaching the standards of required literacy rate. The story doesn’t end here. These people also feel marginalised because of this imbalance in the education system which is at a certain level different for those who can read and write in English/Urdu as for those who can’t.

Dr. Shumaila Shafket Ali, Assistant Professor Department of English and Foreign Students’ Advisor at the University of Karachi shares, “Supporting multilingualism in education means acknowledging and celebrating diversity. In a country like Pakistan which is linguistically and culturally diverse, one should not only advocate but also take practical steps to promote multilingualism so that the indigenous language speakers do not feel marginalised.”

Unfortunately in Pakistan, it has become prerequisite to be fluent in English to get into a reputed institute while Urdu is mandatory to enter a national forum. However, we tend to ignore the importance of multilingualism. As a matter of fact, it is also the gora complex that is acting as a hurdle in the promotion of multilingualism in our country. Furthermore, we often see parents stressing over teaching children English rather than inculcating the importance of their mother tongue - be it Urdu or other regional languages. “There is a need to bring attitudinal transformation through running awareness campaigns. I think it is not just the government’s responsibility. Parents need to transmit their heritage language to their children as it is not just language but also culture that the language embodies and the children will ultimately acquire. Media and educational institutes can play a major role in spreading awareness among the masses. As far as the government is concerned, what it needs to do is to provide job opportunities to those who are literate in their mother tongue. Through instrumental motivation, parents will also be encouraged to transfer the indigenous language to the next generation,” backs Dr Shumaila.

Given the demand of English and the impact it holds, the concept of multilingualism has taken a back seat not in Pakistan but throughout the world. Due to this, we have also become tuned for incorporating English in our educational institutes, workplaces and day-to-day communication. While commenting on this notion, Zareen Shah, a Linguistics grad of Karachi University enunciates, “It’s true. Since English is one of the most common and widely spoken languages in the world, not overlooking the fact that international organisations and businesses favour it as their official language, it is easy to believe learning English is enough to get by. When everything from school education to professional opportunities has English language as its main form of communication, it would take a great deal of passion and genuine interest in this fast-paced world to use multiple languages at any point in our lives.”

Apparently, people in Pakistan are also facing great cultural change and identity crisis because they don’t have the liberty to read and write in their own native language. “Well, being a multilingual country, one cannot afford to ignore the presence of diverse languages and cultures in Pakistan. In case of neglecting multilingualism, one is likely to encounter ethnolinguistic conflicts. We have already witnessed such conflicts in the form of Urdu-Bengali controversy and Urdu-Sindhi controversy. There is a need to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity instead of perceiving it as a threat and this can be done through designing effective language and education policy in Pakistan,” enthuses Dr Shumaila Shafket. “Our identity is strongly tied to our native language. Those who are not exposed to their native language or who are reluctant to use their native language often become victims of identity crisis,” she adds.

Dr Shafket also suggests that school authorities must stop imposing restrictions on students with regard to the use of their mother tongue at least outside the classroom. They should stop pressurising the parents to speak in English with children at home. Moreover, different programmes should be organised to provide opportunities to students to promote their language and culture. Such activities will not only help children develop a positive self-image but will also promote respect for all ethnolinguistic groups.

On the other hand, Zareen enlightens that educational institutes can play a very important role in this regard with their safe environment and policies to encourage learners to discover new things and acquire new skills. “One of the advantages of introducing a young impressionable minds to multilingual contexts is they develop proficiency in L2, L3 and so on. It’s imperative that schools supporting bilingual/multilingual learners recognise the language needs of their teachers and learners so that using different languages as a medium of teaching and learning do not become a reason to punish/bully in classrooms. It can be one project or module; or one or two content subjects over a time period; or a greater part of curriculum that is taught through L2 over a time period once schools decide to start bilingual/multilingual education. A simple activity like playing short rhymes in a foreign language can make a multilingual child feel proud of his/her language, especially if they’re asked to assume the role of a teacher, familiarising their class/peers with the basic features/sound+form of the language. It’s not just the differences but also the similarities which should be highlighted for the sake of pupils’ linguistic, cognitive, and social growth,” she explains.

When asked if there are any formal organisations or programmes for the promotion of multilingualism in Pakistan, Shafket informs, “I think because of a large number of studies on multilingualism and its impact on indigenous language speakers in different contexts, linguists are trying to spread awareness among people regarding the importance of maintaining one’s native language. There are a few non-profit organisations, like, Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI), Burushaski Research Academy, and Idaara Baraae Taaliim-o-Taraqqi to name a few, where a great deal of work is being done with regard to mother tongue literacy in Pakistan.”

Last but not least, Zareen Shah sheds light on what can be done to promote multilingualism, “It is important to ensure people on an individual level and societies

as whole not to feel alienated, which many of them do unfortunately even in this era of globalisation. It is no secret that we either fear or hate what we do not understand; learning different languages enables us to overcome cultural barriers and be more respectful towards ‘the others’ living amongst us,” she concludes.