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February 26, 2018

Mother to child


February 26, 2018

Last week, International Mother Language Day was celebrated in Pakistan amidst some protest and a considerable degree of angst on the part of linguistic experts over the failure to protect languages and the cultural values attached to them. Experts in the country said that the recent census seemed to have found that only six languages were spoken in Pakistan, whereas the real number stands at over 60. The languages listed by enumerators were Urdu, the four provincial languages, and Saraiki. However, Hindko speakers concentrated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa point out that 18 to 21 percent of the province’s population speaks that language. Many other languages like Brahvi, Shina, Kashmiri and Balti also appear to have been completely ignored. The failure to protect our less well-established languages has been a concern for many years. Experts fear that 27 languages of the country may be extinct soon. In many cases, languages handed down from mother to child in cultures under threat, such as that of the Kalash people of Chitral, are most vulnerable. The problem involves the failure to embrace diversity and to give significance to the huge contributions languages can make in the lives of people by moulding ideas and beliefs, and helping them preserve often unique identities. Pakistan has traditionally failed to celebrate the differences which exist within it. Attempting to impose uniformity, as appears to have happened in the census exercise, is never wise. Once a language is lost, it will never again return.

But it is not just smaller languages which are under threat. Outside the Lahore Press Club on Wednesday, thousands of Punjabi speakers had gathered, many having travelled across the province, to demand the language be included in school curricula and be given far greater significance than is currently the case. Although Punjabi is the majority language of Pakistan, spoken by almost half of the country’s people, it has not been promoted effectively. Punjab is the only province that does not make the provincial compulsory at primary school level in its government schools. There are many other factors that have led to the stigmatisation of a language that has produced some of the world’s leading works of literature and poetry. And it is not just Punjabi; there has simply been far too little effort to preserve local languages. The media and other forums can be used to make the lesser known languages of Pakistan, many spoken in its remote northern areas, more accessible to others. It is also sad that languages spoken in one province are not offered even at degree level in others. This failure to accept the significance of the mother tongue in the development of children has affected our quality of education. A full-fledged movement is required to keep all languages spoken in Pakistan alive.

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