On hegemony of language and linguistic diversity

The Pashto speakers, who cannot pronounce certain words of Urdu in a correct way, are always laughed at in the media. Today, almost all the comic text messages circulated via mobile phones are related to Pathans and Sikhs

On hegemony of language and linguistic diversity

The gradual decadence of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Pakistan is being overshadowed by the menace of terrorism, bad governance and dirty politics. In fact, the cultural and linguistic diversity of Pakistan has never been a favourite subject in the channels of national discourse either in the media, education or academia. Instead of being proud of the beautiful linguistic diversity, Pakistani policy and decision makers have always been afraid of it. Despite the ostrich approach, events like the secession of former East Pakistan and national wounds related to that are haunting us and will definitely do so for an indefinite amount of time unless we craft policies ensuring the due share of this diversity in national policies.

Few know that in Pakistan over 65 different languages are spoken along with the so-called provincial languages. The policy of enforcing a single language through educational and security policies in order to achieve an imagined national cohesion is like a Trojan horse that strikes down the very objectives for which it was created while, 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 because language is the most effective driver of culture. This also accelerates the language and culture shift within society, ends with more chaos and an unending identity crisis. The most detrimental among the factors for linguistic and cultural chaos is the national policy of education.

“I do not want to learn Torwali as I understand it. I will attend the Women Education Centre when Urdu starts there,” an illiterate Torwali woman told this scribe when asked to attend the women literacy centres established in the community by Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) with the financial support of USAID. “Our children are ‘forced’ to learn Pashto at the early stages. We, the teachers, cannot write or read it well,” said a Pashto-speaking teacher during a survey called the Annual Educational Status Report (ASER). “You are not allowed to speak Khowar (Chitrali) inside the classroom because it is ‘forbidden’ here,” says a Khowar-speaking teacher in central Chitral.

“Out, out. He speaks Punjabi,” the principal of a private school in Lahore drove away a student whose father, a lover of his language, brought him to the school. “Friend, look he drags us back by starting schools in Torwali,” a teacher told his colleague while 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. However, one should not jump to conclusions. The above ‘linguistic attitudes’ towards languages by native speakers are the direct outcomes of the policies the state has been holding dear for decades.

When a particular language is given advantage over others through the means of education, media and governance, the speakers of the less developed languages tend to look down upon their own languages and cultures and regard them as 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 and educated person is regarded as one who speaks English well. Second comes the one who speaks Urdu well. If somebody speaks either English or Urdu in his own accent he is regarded as less educated. The Pashto speakers, who cannot pronounce certain words of Urdu in a correct way, are always laughed at in the media. Today, almost all the comic text messages circulated via mobile phones are related to Pathans and Sikhs. This is the result of a particular kind of education we have been experiencing in Pakistan. In order to cope with the hegemony of a single language, educational polices need to be revised and adapted to the requirements of linguistic diversity.

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, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s former government adopted Pashto as the medium of instruction in primary education. Furthermore, it resolved to incorporate four other languages (Hindko, Khowar, Saraiki and Indus Kohistani) to be gradually incorporated in 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 standardisation of the orthographies of these languages. Many of the hindrances in the way of reading and writing a language rest in its orthography or writing system. Take the example of Pashto. With its multiple varieties in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, Pashto is written differently. For a certain phoneme there are different symbols, which make it difficult for the reader to articulate. Varieties are no threat to a language — rather they enrich it. Pashto today needs a central standard form similar to that of English. The centre for this standard can either be Peshawar or Kabul.

Similarly, community researchers in ‘minority languages’ who do some excellent jobs of diglossic importance need to sit together when devising orthographies for their languages. For instance, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, all 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, community researchers have not realised this and have been writing the same sounds with different letters.

Language activists in these communities may know that they, more or less, share the same ancestor and same culture. A standardisation in the orthographies with more commonalities will not only make their job easier but will also integrate the speakers and enhance their political and social powers. Urdu is imposed at the cost of others as it has always been deemed a tool to unnaturally homogenise the diverse cultural landscape of Pakistan.

The recent resolution by the National Assembly Standing Committee for Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage to have a commission on the language issues in Pakistan, though it is a forward step but it in no way a solution to meet the need of preserving and promoting linguistic diversity, and consequently a peaceful Pakistan. Instead of a commission, the government needs to declare all the languages spoken in Pakistan as being national languages and set up an authority in order to carry out research on these languages and cultures.


The writer is based in Swat where he heads IBT, an independent civil society organisation on education and development. He can be reached at ztorwali@gmail.com