Pakistan’s Linguistic Diversity

Pakistan’s gradual decadence of cultural and linguistic diversity is overshadowed by terrorism, poor governance and dirty politics.

pakistan-diversityPakistan’s cultural and linguistic diversity has never been a favorite subject in the channels of national discourse either in media, education or academia. Instead of being proud of the beautiful linguistic diversity, Pakistani policy and decision makers have always been afraid of it.

But the reality is that despite an ostrich strategy, events like the cession of former East Pakistan and national wounds related to that are haunting us and will definitely do so for an indefinite future unless we craft policies ensuring the share of this diversity.

More than 65 different languages are spoken in Pakistan.

Enforcing a single language through educational and security policies to achieve an imagined national cohesion is like a Trojan Horse which strikes down the very objectives for which it was intended. On the other hand, this “one language-one religion-one nation” policy establishes the hegemony of a single language and consequently of an alien culture since language is the most effective driver of culture.

This accelerates the “language and culture shift” within society and ends with more chaos and an unending identity crisis. The most harmful among the factors for linguistic and cultural chaos is the national policies of education.

“I don’t want to learn Torwali as I understand it. I will attend the Women Education Center when Urdu starts there,” an illiterate Torwali woman told this scribe when asked to attend the women literacy centers established in the community by Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) with the financial support of USAID.

“Out, out. He speaks Punjabi,” said the principal of a private school in Lahore. The principal drove away a student whose father, a lover of his language, brought him to the school.

“Friend, look he (Zubair) drags us back by starting schools in Torwali,” a teacher told his colleague who were discussing the multilingual education initiative by IBT in Bahrain Swat.

Looking superficially at the above observations one tends to assume that the “speakers of the concerned languages” do not want their languages to be used in education or in media. But one shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The above “linguistic attitudes” towards the languages by the native speakers are the direct outcomes of the policies the state has held dear for decades.

When a particular language is given advantage over others speakers of the less developed languages tend to look down on their own languages and cultures and regard them as the barriers in their “development.”

Both English and Urdu are regarded as the languages of development; in a way they are made so. The most prestigious educated person is considered one who speaks English well. Next the one who speaks Urdu well. And if somebody speaks either English or Urdu in his own accent, he is regarded less educated.

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The Pashto speakers, who cannot pronounce certain words of Urdu in a correct way, are always laughed at in media. Today almost all the comic text messages are related to Pathans and Sikhs. This is the result of a particular kind of education we have experienced in Pakistan.

To cope with the hegemony of a single language educational polices need revision.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010 is a right step towards this goal. In the wake of the devolution of education to the provinces, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government adopted Pashto as medium of instruction in primary education. Furthermore it resolved to incorporate four other languages (Hinko, Khowar, Seriaki and Indus Kohistani) to be gradually incorporated in the education at the primary stages. Hopefully such initiatives for the remaining languages in the province will also be undertaken.

In addition to these policies extensive research is needed for the standardization of the orthographies of these languages. Many hindrances in reading and writing a language rest in the orthography or its writing system.

Pashto, for instance, with its multiple varieties in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, contains different symbols which make it difficult for the reader to articulate. Varieties are no threat to a language, rather it enriches it. Pashto needs a central standard form similar to that of English as BBC English. The center for this standard can either be Peshawar or Kabul.

Similarly, the community researchers in the “minority languages” who do some excellent jobs of diglossic importance need to sit together when creating orthographies for their languages. For example, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan all the languages other than Hindko and Brushaski are Dardic of the Indo-Aryan branch of languages.

Most of the sounds are identical in these languages but so far the community researchers haven’t realized this and have written the same sounds with different letters.

The language activists in these communities may know that they, more or less, share the same ancestor and same culture. A standardization in the orthographies with more commonalities not only will make their job easier but also integrate the speakers and enhance their political and social powers.

Zubair Torwali is a researcher, linguist and human rights activist. Born and raised in Bahrain Swat, Pakistan, he heads the Institute for Education and Development, a civil society organization working for the conservation of cultural, lingual and natural heritage among the linguistic communities in north Pakistan. Zubair was recently awarded the Prof. Anita Ghulam Ali Award of Teachers and Education in Emergencies. Read other articles by Zubair.