[lg policy] Pakistan: Language has no ethnicity

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Dec 13 22:08:21 UTC 2015

Language has no ethnicity
By Dr Ahmar Mahboob <http://tribune.com.pk/author/6136/dr-ahmar-mahboob/>
Published: December 12, 2015
[image: The writer earned his PhD at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is
currently Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney and has worked in the
areas of language policy development and issues surrounding minority
languages in South Asia]

The writer earned his PhD at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is
currently Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney and has worked in the
areas of language policy development and issues surrounding minority
languages in South Asia

It is not uncommon for people to associate a particular language with an
ethnic or a regional group. People often relate a language to the group of
people who speak it as a mother tongue; for example, Balochi is associated
with the Baloch; Sindhi with Sindhis; Shina with people from Gilgit and
Baltistan and so on. While labelling languages based on ethnic or
geographical groups is convenient, we need to note that language itself
does not have any ethnicity or nationality.

This observation is useful, particularly important in contexts where
language has become a political issue e.g., in Pakistan. We often hear calls
for recognition of certain languages
as provincial, national or official languages. Some people start believing
that their community is under-privileged because they speak a local
language as their mother tongue and not the ‘provincial’, ‘national’ or
‘official’ language. Others start believing that their language is under
attack by the dominant linguistic community and that they need to defend
it. Based on such beliefs, they may abandon their language (leading to
language death), or may become activists striving for language equity.
While the experiences that lead people into taking such positions may be
real, language is not the key issue here. Recognition of a language by
itself does not give status to or bring socioeconomic benefits to a
community. For example, while Urdu is one of the officially recognised
languages in India, this recognition by itself does not empower the
Urdu-speaking population in India. Socioeconomic and political imbalances
are perpetuated by those in power to maintain their own interests and to
change these imbalances we need a different set of strategies. Changing the
status of a language may carry symbolic value, but will not on its own
change the socioeconomic or political status of people who speak that
language. In fact, in some ways, learning the language of power can give
people more access to resources than trying to make their language
(nominally) recognised. Once a community has these resources, it can take
actions to protect and enhance its language.

In order to understand this better, we need to clarify what language is and
what language is not. Language is a semiotic system: it helps create,
represent and mediate meaning. Without language (whether spoken, written or
signed), humans would not be able to develop the societies that we live in
today. Language is a key tool that enables us to do things that other
living beings are not able to accomplish. All human communities, regardless
of where they are, use language to develop an understanding of themselves
and their surroundings and transmit these to other members of their
community (and potentially to people outside their community). The actual
forms used and meanings construed through language in different
communities, in different places and at different times can vary greatly
and may or may not be mutually intelligible. We often (but not always)
label mutually intelligible ways of communicating as a particular language,
e.g., Gujarati is a language that is mutually intelligible to all people
who speak that language. While a language may be given names based on an
ethnic, regional or national community that uses that language, language
itself does not have any ethnicity or nationality. The ethnic indexing of a
language is a result of socio-political and historical processes; there is
nothing intrinsically ethnic about a language.

All languages are the same in that they are all semiotic systems. However,
not all languages are equal. All languages have the same potential, i.e.,
any language can be used to create and represent any meaning; however, this
doesn’t mean that it does so at a given point in time. Languages that can
be used to do more things can be considered more developed than others. So,
while we are able to use English to write fiction and poetry, to carry out
research and write legal texts, and to communicate with people around the
world, etc., we are not currently able to perform all these functions in,
say, Seraiki. This is not to say that Seraiki cannot do all this, it can;
but the language has not yet been developed to do so. Both Seraiki and
English have the same potential, but one is currently more developed than
the other in that it can be used to do more things. It needs to be noted
that the extent of a language’s development, or lack thereof, does not
imply that speakers of one language or the other are better, smarter, or
more developed — we are all essentially the same.

Furthermore, people who speak multiple languages, e.g., Seraiki, Urdu and
English, will use these languages in different domains: they will more
likely use Seraiki at home and in their everyday contexts; Urdu when
interacting with other Pakistanis who don’t speak Seraiki and in some
educational and work contexts; and English predominantly in educational,
academic, professional and international contexts. Thus, people who are
multilingual in Pakistan typically use different languages in different

This exemplifies that languages, because they are differently developed and
used, supplement each other (instead of being in conflict): each one allows
us to create and negotiate a different set of meanings with different
groups of people, in different contexts. All languages and dialects in a
country are equally important and need equal recognition because they
together allow us to live our lives, where we interact with all kinds of
people (locally, nationally and internationally) and use language for all
types of different purposes. Thinking of language as an ethnic or a
national entity restricts our ability to understand it properly or to use
it as a resource for national and socioeconomic development. We need to
think of language as a semiotic resource and understand how language
creates meaning and relates to human society. By doing this, we can harness
the power of language and create a better society to live in.

In Pakistan, we need to consider what spread of languages we have, how they
function in society, what each one of these languages is able to do for us
(as individuals and as a country) and then develop strategies that can
enable us to support all languages in a way that satisfies the communities
that speak them while at the same time giving them access to languages of
power and socioeconomic mobility. Language policy is not just a political
act; it is intrinsically bound to national and socioeconomic development.
If Pakistan continues to ignore the importance of language policy, then
language will continue to be used for political battles rather than as a
semiotic resource for development.

*Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2015.*


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