Tuesday October 19, 2021

Talking language

January 28, 2021

Like many other unresolved perennial issues in Pakistan, the question of which language to use as medium of instruction during the formative years of school-going kids remains unpacked and hence unaddressed.

For some ordinary folks, language is a cultural artefact, a symbol of identity and carrier of a community’s unique way of life, which has to be preserved at all costs and by all means. For others, language is no one’s property, just a means of communication, and so a community can adopt any language that it deems fit for a given purpose.

The two perspectives – cultural and instrumental – have almost dominated every forum with almost equal number of proponents on both sides fighting the perpetual turf war. Those believing in the unchanging character of a nation’s identity (fixed culture) advocate Urdu as lingua franca with reasonable space reserved for local languages in academic sphere and official communication.

They abhor English as an alien language of the then British Empire which they used as a strategic weapon to deprive Muslims of their cultural heritage. The British, they contend, did everything to relegate Arabic, Persian, and Urdu to second-class languages with no role to play in one’s career advancement and availing other opportunities.

Those subscribing to the notion of cultural dynamism (fluid culture) accord no special status to any language; they prefer to be seen as language-neutral. They think that language should be regarded as a form of ‘dress’ which looks good if it is fit for the occasion. For them, knowledge rather than any particular language, should be the overriding individual and collective concern.

They would advise you to translate books/journals in local languages (as was done during Abbasside rule in Bait-al-Hikmah) or learn the requisite foreign language (English in modern times) if you do not have books and journals (repositories of knowledge) available in native languages. Insisting on deficient local languages, they contend, is not only myopic but also catastrophic for intellectual and social development.

For Michael Foucault, however, language is not value neutral and is central to any discourse system which controls how we think and what we know. It provides a kind of mental map that one uses to navigate through the web of complicated pathways. The words and how they are structured convey tacit meanings and emotions that unconsciously penetrate into the collective psyche of a people. This diffusion of language either becomes a liberating force or the source of social division and oppression.

George Orwell also believed in the thought-controlling power of language and elucidated with different instances the linguistic tricks (rhetoric, narratives, slogans) that governments employ to conceal and reveal ‘reality’ as and when political conditions demand.

And there is the crucial question of how language affects creativity. It is widely believed that individuals tend to be more creative when they learn about things in their native language. But it is also an empirically established truth that children learning in a bilingual environment are qualitatively better in high-order thinking and innovation.

The reason for this seems to be the compensatory role of a different language – deficiency of one language in conveying certain feelings/ideas is compensated by another one. Moreover, ideas cannot be created in a vacuum. If one does not have access to the repository of knowledge (books/journal and experts in a field) available in a foreign language, one would have nothing original to contribute. We may like it or not but English provides the key to modern sciences (scientific knowledge in particular).

There are so many ways and tools a community can use to preserve and promote its culture besides language. The media has a pivotal role to play in projecting the soft image of a country. Performing arts, drama, poetry, tourism, and co-curricular activities can be effectively used to create visual impact of what a community believes and values.

Culture is necessary for one to feel owned and loved where one lives but scapegoating a particular language (English in our case) for moral degeneration and identity crisis is a disservice to the cause of both knowledge and culture.

The writer teaches at SZABIST, Islamabad.

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