[lg policy] Power of language
haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Feb 19 10:04:37 EST 2018
Power of language
Dr Tariq Rahman <http://tns.thenews.com.pk/writers/dr-tariq-rahman/> February
18, 2018 1 Comment <http://tns.thenews.com.pk/power-language/#comments>
The greatest harm we are doing to our people is that by not respecting
their languages we insult their authentic beings; their identity as members
of linguistic groups and carriers of tradition. This was the message of
Salzburg Global Seminar
[image: Power of language]
How to revive dying languages?
The Global Salzburg Seminar is housed in one of the world’s most beautiful
locations: a medieval palace (the Schloss Leopoldskron) next to a lake with
the snow-capped Austrian Alps rising in towering majesty. On the top of the
mountain on the other side is a castle and below it is the town of Salzburg.
This picturesque castle was built by the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg,
Leopold Freiherr von Firmian (1679-1744) in 1736. The Archbishop was like
the other great princes of the period i.e not particularly holy (he
exploited peasant labour and also had a mistress). But he was a connoisseur
of art and the palace is living testimony to his good taste in art and
The Salzburg Global Seminar was housed in this palace in 1947 two years
after the end of World War 2. It was meant to revive intellectual dialogue
in Europe and the world. But, being funded by the capitalist Western block,
it was also meant to steer that dialogue against the communist line.
However, those who are chosen to meet here as fellows are distinguished in
their fields and there is no coercion or paradigm which is imposed upon
them so they can conduct their work in an atmosphere of freedom. The
fellows discuss all sorts of subjects — health, education, economy,
politics, justice, migration, peace etc. — and come up with a statement
which is disseminated all over the world.
*Even Urdu, otherwise dignified as the national language, does not fare
much better. It is used much in the media, the lower judiciary, schools and
colleges but it does not compete with English which is the currency used in
elite jobs, exclusive clubs and posh drawing rooms.*
I was lucky to be selected for the seminar from 12 till 17 December 2017 on
language policy (*Spring for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in
Globalized World).* The statement the fellows came up with will be launched
all over the world on February 21, 2018, the International Language Day.
This article is meant to make Pakistani readers aware of its salient
The statement begins with some hard hitting statistical facts: that most,
if not all, of the 193 members of the United Nations are multilingual. This
does not refer to their official languages which may be just one but to
their reality on the ground which is that there are speakers of many
languages who are temporarily or permanently resident in them. Even tiny
states like Monaco, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Bhutan and the Vatican have
people speaking languages other than the official languages of these
countries. Indeed, in the Vatican the official language, Latin, is actually
nobody’s mother-tongue at all.
Then we find the statement that 130 million children reach grade 4 but do
not learn to read (Unicef 2016). This can be understood with reference to
the fact that 2 billion people do not have access to education in a
language they understand. Their languages are disgraced, ignored and
laughed out of schools. This bewilders and confuses the children who give
up on reading altogether. That is why out of the 9,097 languages currently
spoken in the world one-third are endangered. This means they will die
unless they are revived. Indeed, powerful languages — the ones used in jobs
and given prestige socially such as English — are killing off the less
powerful languages so that half the world speaks one or more of only 23
With this in mind the statement goes on to recommend multilingualism. This
means that linguistic diversity, instead of being regarded as a problem,
should be seen as a kind of cultural wealth. Children should be taught in
the languages they use at home at least in the first few years of their
education. This is not a new recommendation at all since the Unesco has
been saying it repeatedly since the 1950s.
[image: Participants of the seminar.]
Participants of the seminar.
Indeed, the experiments made by Unesco and its partners in many parts of
the world were successful. Children who were taught in their mother-tongues
first learned the languages of wider communication (LWC) of their countries
as well as English better. They also had a more positive self-image of
their communities and their selves. Since this research has not sunk into
the minds of parents, policy makers, school principals and owners of
schools, it is imperative that they should be persuaded through the
imaginative dissemination of such research — films, songs, skits and other
cultural means — to abandon monolingual policies. Unless all stakeholders
are not on board nothing can be achieved and to have them on board they
need to be exposed to new research in support of multilingualism.
The statement ends by calling on all, including employers, educational
managers, politicians and bureaucrats, to respect and promote linguistic
diversity in the workplace and reward it instead of punishing it.
Now let us apply this statement to Pakistan. Linguistic surveys tell us
that we have about 73 languages. Even if some varieties of the same
language have been counted twice or thrice as I contend, we do have more
than sixty languages. But how many of them are used in jobs and education?
Only two — Urdu and Sindhi.
One may point out that Pashto is taught up to Class 5 in some parts of
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Swat and Fata but that is not much. Not many jobs open
if you have a degree in Pashto though you can work in some universities but
how many can find such academic jobs? Similarly, some academic jobs open
with Siraiki, Balochi, Brahvi and Punjabi but only a few.
Moreover, since students regard degrees in these subjects as easy options
as teachers give them high grades to attract them, the languages are not
given the academic respect they would have got had they been academically
rigorous. But that would have scared away students so the catch-22 remains,
degrading the indigenous languages of Pakistan. Even Urdu, otherwise
dignified as the national language, does not fare much better. It is used
much in the media, the lower judiciary, schools and colleges but it does
not compete with English which is the currency used in elite jobs,
exclusive clubs and posh drawing rooms.
The greatest harm we are doing to our people, at least in my view, is that
by not respecting their languages we insult their authentic beings; their
identity as members of linguistic groups and carriers of tradition. The
languages of our people become marks of shame which they cannot use in
formal settings. They are punished when they speak them in school and, of
course, they are shut out of jobs if they carry the accent of their
mother-tongue in English and even Urdu. This is a heavy psychological price
to pay. Let us, therefore, heed the message of the Salzburg Global Seminar
and actively promote and value linguistic diversity in Pakistan.
Dr Tariq Rahman
[image: tariq rahman]
The author is a linguistic historian.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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