Why only one national language?

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Zubair Torwali

As per media reports, the cabinet division has issued a letter to federal departments directing them to use Urdu in their public and official correspondence. The directive also states that the president, prime minister and his cabinet ministers have to make speeches in Urdu in Pakistan and abroad. The media also reported this move as making Urdu the official language of Pakistan and consequently fulfilling the obligation made by the 1973 Constitution wherein it is suggested that English would be replaced by Urdu within 15 years. On May 14 this year, the federal cabinet decided that Urdu would be the official language as per Article 251 of the Constitution.

One must feel jubilant at the new initiative by the PML-N government as Urdu has now, to a great extent, become the lingua franca of Pakistani society despite the fact that it is the first language (mother language) of not more than seven percent Pakistanis. Urdu immersion programmes have been in our educational policies for decades. It is used dominantly in our mass media; the emergence of private television channels during the past decade has popularised Urdu besides the massive production of books, booklets and pamphlets — mostly on religion and poetry — each year. Given the ‘vibrant’ Urdu television channels in Pakistan, Urdu has become an effective means of access to consumers in Pakistan.

This ‘shift’ to Urdu was, however, not a direct outcome of any policy. It was based on commercial and religious pragmatism, as a majority of Pakistanis could not learn English despite being taught in schools from early childhood. What the federal government decided regarding Urdu is plausible. Yet, at the same time, the government’s bias is evident from its behaviour towards the so-called provincial and ‘minority languages’.

There are believed to be 70 living languages in the country, not including English and Urdu. The National Assembly’s standing committee on law and justice rejected a bill seeking national status for regional languages in July last year. The bill, presented by the ruling party lawmaker, Ms Marvi Memon, got only one vote in favour out of five in the said committee. Another bill demanding national status for 14 Pakistani languages is still lying somewhere in the drawers of the National Assembly.

Pakistanis are linguistically compound bilinguals, referring to speakers who have learnt their native language and then another language later in life. With ‘another language’ later in life, Pakistanis are usually immersed in a second language completely. Eventually, they abandon their native language, as it is not taught in schools. This is more common among the elite but the ordinary majority of Pakistanis languishes as it cannot become fully proficient in the native language nor can it learn the second language, whether it is Urdu or English.

On the educational, social and cultural utility of local and indigenous languages, the Pakistani state’s mindset seems ambivalent. This ambivalence about local language education is found among local community members in Pakistan as well, which, in its essence, is the impact of the non-acceptance of linguistic diversity on the part of the state of Pakistan. In Pakistan, parents and communities as well as policy makers are often more confident about the importance of English and to a great extent of Urdu as well, and of the culture associated with these languages than they are of the mother tongue and home culture.

Since religion and the Urdu language have been given a pivotal role in the political ideology of Pakistan, it becomes almost impossible for other expressions of pluralism or multiculturalism to survive within the typical Pakistani mindset. Apparently, ‘images’ of religion and Urdu are produced and reproduced in order to maintain internal unity. The recent official recognition of Urdu is seen by many as a gesture to appease an ethnic political party that was recently in the dock. But contrarily this practice is counterproductive in terms of national cohesion and internal security. On the one end it has directly given rise to extreme political religiosity whereas on the other it has fostered a sense of deprivation and marginalisation within the federating units. In Pakistan, what the power wielders have been doing on every front, whether against extremism, terrorism or separatism, is largely ideological indoctrination so that internal conflicts remain concealed or dormant. No permanent solution to these conflicts is sought.

Very often in Pakistan the argument against the inclusion of the mother tongue in education is given on the pretext that this paradigm has no empirical research behind it. They ignore the fact that in the world’s research, confirming the educational and cultural effectiveness of mother tongue instruction certainly exists. These decision makers are not convinced other than about the pedagogical aspects of mother tongue instruction. It is not the pedagogical factors of mother tongue education that impede its national level adoption. Political and social aspects come powerfully into play when language-in-education issues come under consideration. The working of national language policy is significantly influenced by these political attitudes towards using local language and culture for educational purposes and nation building.

Pakistan is still in search of national cohesion. And for national unity a certain kind of ‘discourse’ is needed. In Pakistan, this discourse changes its shape with the passage of time but never its essence. It exclusively revolves around religion and the existence of an essential enemy.

An elite, which has successfully abandoned its language and culture, wields power in Pakistan. Since this power is naturally not static and changes its centre, ruptures can be seen in the national fabric in the shape of separatism or extremism. In our context, the elite never allows this power to slip away from them, and hence they try to replace ethnic conflicts with religious ones because they think religion is more centripetal. In order to build a nation, the state must accommodate all languages, cultures, religions and sects irrespective of their size and numbers.

Along with making Urdu the official language, the government needs to give national status to regional and minority languages. It must enact measures for the promotion and safeguarding of these languages by including them in education and in the media.

Zubair Torwali, “Why only one national language?,” in Daily Times, July 28, 2015. Accessed on July 28, 2015, at: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/opinion/28-Jul-2015/why-only-one-national-language

The item above written by Zubair Torwali and published in Daily Times on July 28, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 28, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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