Sunday February 25, 2024

Language and identity

February 11, 2017

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his mother language that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

The age of globalisation has seen thousands of people emigrate to other countries in search of better employment and educational opportunities. Sometimes people migrate in order to escape conflicts at home and to find safer and more stable living conditions abroad. This movement from one place to another affects peoples’ mother tongue.

Language is not simply an assortment of words but an entity that connects an individual to his family, identity, culture, music, beliefs and wisdom. It is the carrier of history, traditions, customs and folklore from one generation to another. Without language, no culture can sustain its existence. Our language is actually our identity.

The mother language plays a crucial role in shaping an individual’s personality as well as his or her psychological development, thoughts and emotions. Our childhood is the most important stage of our lives and children can comprehend concepts and skills that are taught to them in their mother tongue quite fast.

Many psychologists believe that a strong bond between a child and his or her parents (especially the mother) is established through exhibition of love, compassion, body language and verbal communication; language.

According to education specialist, Hurisa Guvercin, “When a person speaks his mother tongue, a direct connection is established between heart, brain and tongue. Our personality, character, modesty, shyness, defects, skills, and all other hidden characteristics become truly revealed through the mother tongue because the sound of the mother tongue in the ear and its meaning in the heart give us trust and confidence”.

Unesco Director General Irina Bokova believes that, “mother languages in a multilingual world are essential components of quality education, which in itself is the foundation for empowering women, men and their societies”.

There is no harm in learning another language for it opens up new windows of opportunities and helps us understand life better. A new language gives us a new worldview and makes us more aware of the cultures, lifestyles, customs and beliefs of other people.

The 200 million people in Pakistan speak 72 different provincial and regional tongues, including the official languages, Urdu and English. According to the Parliamentary Paper 2014, 10 out of these 72 languages are either “in trouble” or “near extinction”. The provincial languages of Pakistan are spoken and used in the four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. However, these languages, with the exception of Sindhi, have no official status in Pakistan.

Since the most crucial factor is the attitude of those who speak a particular language, it is essential that the state creates a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages. It should enact laws that recognise and protect minority languages, encourage an education system that promotes mother-tongue instruction and create creative collaboration between community members and linguists to develop a writing system and introduce formal instruction in these languages.

Lok Virsa’s stance in terms of mother languages is very clear. It considers all the languages spoken in Pakistan as national languages. For the last two years, Lok Virsa has been actively promoting cultural diversity and celebrating mother languages.

To commemorate the UN’s Mother Language Day, a two-day festival titled ‘Our Languages – Our Identity’ will be held in Islamabad on February 18 and 19, 2017. The event will provide a unique opportunity to experience Pakistan’s linguistic and cultural diversity: more than 150 writers, poets and cultural activists will represent Pakistan’s mother languages. This will be followed by a musical evening and poetic night where sessions and mushairas will be held in various national languages.

The aim of the festival is to promote Pakistan’s linguistic and cultural diversity as an instrument of social harmony, peace and tolerance. It also aims to enlighten the new generation of Pakistan by showcasing a wide range of literary works in these languages.

In addition, Lok Virsa has been organising summer camps for children over the last two years to familiarise them with different regional languages and give them an idea about today’s multicultural world with pluralistic identities. Lok Virsa, through regional exhibitions, also promotes the music of regional languages.

It is time all regional languages are given the status of national languages which will bring their speakers from the fringes to the mainstream. If we want to empower our people, we need to give them the opportunity to communicate in their mother language so that they do not feel disenfranchised.


The writer is the media adviser of Lok Virsa.