How not to lose a language

Dr Lubna Umar
Friday, Aug 05, 2022

Researchers at Harvard conducted a longitudinal study in which they found out that the two main factors essential for maintaining sound health and longevity are – much to our surprise – developing close relationships with family members and interaction with the people one encounters throughout the day.

Theoretically, that’s all very well, but what further needs to be explored here is the means through which these close associations can be developed and nurtured. Humans are born with the ability to learn and acquire a language. It is also believed that humans are born with the gift of knowledge. However, the process of learning and/or the acquisition of certain languages while sidelining others has a political dimension that we need to be aware of.

With an unnatural selection of languages that societies make for their children, much of the beneficial knowledge and wisdom that societies acquire over the course of time is lost, never to be retrieved along with the means through which communities associate and bond together.

A similar scenario can be experienced in Pakistan where more than a dozen languages are on the verge of being extinct. These dying languages, like any other prominent language such as Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, etc, are equally significant for the status they hold for their speakers. Since the language one speaks is the exact reflection of its speakers, the death of a language – however small the community of its speakers – is inevitably the death of a culture and consequently of individuals, considering the above study. Since our worldview is directly influenced by the language we use along with the lens with which we not only build up our personal identity but also evaluate ourselves, the lack of an indigenous lens may prove to be fatal for our national health in this backdrop. How fair will it be to use a borrowed lens to see ourselves through? Is the self-image we formalize truly representative of who we are? If not, what are we doing about it as a nation? These are the questions that we need to answer before it is too late.

Alongside being the lingua franca, English now enjoys the special status of being the language of technology, considering the continuous increase in its speakers worldwide. The privilege it experiences in Pakistan is multifold as the urbanized youth fashionably flaunt their fluency in English while proudly declaring their inability to understand the national language. This ill-begotten pride is a matter of great alarm not only for parents, but also for Pakistani authorities as its repercussions may cost us dearly – if it hasn’t already.

Since language carries culture, through orature and literature, speaking a foreign language is not a natural or neutral activity as most may believe. It will not be wrong to say that the foreign language that we consciously use is using us back on an unconscious level.

A language expresses what a community believes in – their behaviour and rituals – and thus builds a collective social consciousness that we live by and pass on to coming generations. The meaning that words and concepts are ascribed must be unpacked in context to the culture of its native people. For instance, the concept of individualism in both Western and Eastern societies activates the disparate schema of understanding.

The English language provides an interpretation in the backdrop of a postmodern corporate culture that is inherently without a moral compass. Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that the postmodern culture encourages us to realize our desires and to indulge in our craving as an ultimate goal of existence. This is done by re-cataloguing the system of meanings through which we interpret the world, professing superiority of the isolated self. On the contrary, the native concept of individualism derives interpretation from Islamic principles where the preoccupation with the individual/self is for its correction, enhancement and a continued growth that is pivotal for the collective communal good.

Keeping in mind the disparate culture, beliefs and ideologies offered by various languages in our environment, we inevitably subscribe to them – unconsciously and ignorantly – to be governed and manipulated by them. To see which medium our youth selects is our collective responsibility which – like most others – we are failing to fulfil.

Nations, especially in the developmental phase need to jealously guard their identity and culture and how they are being perceived. Take the case of the Turkish people, who have retained the significance of their own language through which they carry the legacy of integrity, strength and generosity of their predecessors as part of their national character. Moreover, the decision of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rename the country Turkiye exhibits their spirit of nationalism.

The sentiment of nationalism demands this from us: to develop a sense of loyalty and attachment to the group of people we identify ourselves with and to formulate a deep connection with the land and everything associated to it. This is possible only through a single medium that is a language that is deeply entrenched into the soil – a simple solution to a complex problem that has the tendency of spiralling out of proportions.

In Pakistan, a multipronged approach is needed where both teachers and parents need to be made aware of the significance of national and regional languages. The government machinery needs to work in two main domains: chalking out a clear policy regarding the use of local and regional languages and devising means of attaching some element of prestige to them, which may enhance their speakers’ self-esteem.

To understand the latter, take the case of the Domaaki language, spoken in the north of Pakistan, which was considered the language of the lower strata of society for a long time since most of its speakers worked as blacksmiths and musicians and did not enjoy any prestige in society. This situation, however, was reversed when some speakers while tracing the origin of the language realized that it was the offshoot of the language that Prophet Daud (a.s.) and his people spoke and so changed its name to Daudi. With this association the status of the language was exalted due to which not only did its speakers increase, but the dignity and self-respect of the speakers was also restored.

Since the significance we attach to our languages is low, most individuals revert to the use of a foreign language. As indigenous languages fall short in domains of technology and contemporary terminologies, Pakistan needs to support and mobilize language and computational experts to bridge this colossal gap by collaborating with various international groups to introduce and make available the writing scripts of all regional languages for use on computers.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Centre for Languages and Translation Studies AIOU, Islamabad. She can be reached at: