Language is the characteristic that most distinguishes us from other living species. There are approximately 6,000 languages spoken around the world, and many of these languages face the danger of extinction and abandonment by the end of the 21st century. Many factors will contribute to the end of almost half of the world’s languages in the next 100 years or so; one of these factors, which will play a crucial role in this imminent abandonment, is the attitude of speakers towards their own languages. The speakers of some languages will be responsible for the death of their own language due to their negative attitudes towards that language. This is a serious and irreversible danger to many languages of the world and, once a language dies, it is very difficult — almost impossible — to revive and resurrect it.
The causes of negative attitudes towards mother tongues are many and vary in their nature depending on the context. Most languages are being abandoned by their own speakers due to the ruthless onslaught of linguistic hegemony, which extends over regional and national borders. The socio-economic pressures of modern society are also compelling people to give up their own languages and adapt the so-called ‘more prestigious’ and marketable languages. Another reason for language change and language death is the so-called nation building process and ideologies behind it. Slogans such as ‘one nation, one people, and one language’ have harmed the linguistic diversity of many places and people. Pakistan, which claims to be an ideological state — although no one knows where this ideology comes from — is in the list of those countries that have sacrificed their great linguistic and cultural diversity in the temples of national ideology.
According to lists compiled by linguists, 72 languages are spoken in Pakistan and Punjabi is at the top of the list because of the number of speakers it has — almost 45 percent Pakistanis claim Punjabi to be their mother tongue. Punjabi is also considered the 10th most spoken language in the world by the number of its native speakers. In spite of being the most spoken language in Pakistan, Punjabi is on a downhill slope and many middle-class parents are opting to drop Punjabi and teach their children Urdu as their first language. Although this phenomenon is only limited to middle-class families and does not pose any imminent threat to the Punjabi language in Pakistan, usually trends and conventions spread very fast in speech communities and within a few generations languages can die a tragic death.
The abandonment of the Punjabi language among the Punjabi middle-class has its roots in a negative perception and attitudes towards this great language. The factors that have caused these negative attitudes towards Punjabi stem from the false ideological assumption of nationhood, which is based on the notion that one nation has to speak one language and follow one religion. The media and deliberate linguistic engineering by subsequent governments have also played their role in the creation of these negative attitudes. Due to these perceptions and attitudes we have arrived at a point in history where the major language of the country is under threat.
The process of attitude building is slow and gradual, and once the attitudes are formed it is not easy to change them. However, there is still hope and a change in attitudes is taking place. Contrary to the studies done previously, the author’s recent research shows significant changes in the attitudes of young Punjabi adults towards the Punjabi language. Young Punjabis seem to be aware of the fact that the Punjabi language is their ancestral, cultural and historical heritage, and needs to be preserved, prospered and transferred to the next generations. The respondents in the study also agreed that Punjabi needs to be taught at least as a subject in schools as this will help the cause of the language and people will not feel ashamed or embarrassed speaking and affiliating with Punjabi.
The question that arises is: what can be done to capture the moment and take practical measures to further the cause of the Punjabi language? Declaring Punjabi, with other major languages of Pakistan, one of the national languages will be a good start towards the goal of keeping our languages alive and growing. Punjabi can also be introduced as a school subject in all the elementary schools across Punjabi-speaking districts of Punjab province. This will provide the language with currency and it will become more valued. Radio and television channels in Punjabi will make a huge difference in the perceptions and attitudes of the common people towards their own language. The promotion and teaching of the Punjabi language will also spread the message of love, tolerance and critical thinking that is found in abundance in classic Punjabi literature. Our governments need to realise that, as all of us cannot be of exactly the same height, weight and colour, in the same way we cannot and do not have to speak the same language and follow the same religion. The beauty is in diversity and wisdom lies in acknowledging that diversity and enjoying and celebrating it. So let’s, on this Mother Tongue Day, celebrate all our mother tongues.
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