It is now a well-known fact that language is not only a tool of communication and does not only represent identity but it is also a reservoir of indigenous wisdom and history. Language carries and expresses diverse threads of a culture. Its complex structure signifies belief system and is indicative of a worldview. It is the tool through which discourse of power is constructed and perpetuated in a society. Language describes social relations, facilitates social institutions, builds socially supported dialogue and negotiations and creates social recognition.
Indigenous languages have been observed to facilitate understanding of natural environment and social structures. It is a tool for knowledge construction which leads to pro-people sustainable development paradigms. Linguists and researchers argue that indigenous and mother language has a direct relationship with understanding of resources, converting resources to products and distribution of resources. Language does not only have an intangible cultural value but it is also closely related to economic development, economic independence and political empowerment.
It is thus not a coincidence that imperial powers always consciously undermined the value of indigenous languages when they occupied and subjugated populations. The discourse constructed by the imperial powers always stigmatized indigenous languages. In the process, they not only deprived a nation of cultural continuity and indigenous wisdom but they also divested a nation from their economic resources and political power. Robert Phillipson in his monograph Linguistic Imperialism in 1992, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas in his Linguistic Genocide in 2000, and Netttle & Romaine in theirVanishing Voices: the Extinction of the World Languages in 2002 have convincingly established relationship of indigenous languages with indigenous wisdom, biological diversity, economic independence and political empowerment of a nation.
The political, social, cultural and economic context of indigenous languages has been thoroughly debated in the scholarly circles over the past several decades. As a result of debates and researches, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights on the eve of World Conference on Linguistic Rights in Barcelona, Spain, 9 June 1996. In its Preliminaries, the Declaration states:
Considering that invasion, colonization, occupation and other instances of political, economic or social subordination often involve the direct imposition of a foreign language or, at the very least, distort perceptions of the value of languages and give rise to hierarchical linguistic attitudes which undermine the language loyalty of speakers; and considering that the languages of some peoples which have attained sovereignty are consequently immersed in a process of language substitution as a result of a policy which favours the language of former colonial or imperial powers;
The UNESCO’s Declaration ‘considers that the collective rights of language groups may include the following,
the right for their own language and culture to be taught; the right of access to cultural services; the right to an equitable presence of their language and culture in the communications media;
the right to receive attention in their own language from government bodies and in socioeconomic relations.’
This Declaration settled down controversies surrounding the status of indigenous languages once and for all by adopting it as a fundamental human right. Research on languages had already buried dozens of myths regarding mother languages. One of the myths that continuously and consciously constructed by the powers who wished to usurp resources and political rights of indigenous communities was regarding ‘profitability’ and ‘marketability’.
This assumption has remained a favorite argument by the Pakistani ruling elite since the inception of the Pakistani state. According to this self-defeating theory, knowledge construction in indigenous languages is not possible and hence space for jobs in the market is limited for indigenous and mother languages. If this argument had any grain of validity, then perhaps Anglo-Saxons would have never developed English in the first place. Moreover, Scandinavians, Russians, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese would have been living in stone ages. The assumption of ‘profitability’ and ‘marketability’ has remained an all time favorite of the Pakistani ruling elite to the disastrous results for the state of Pakistan.
The assumption of profitability and marketability has led to another dangerous fallacy. It is argued in Pakistan, especially by the self-proclaiming change maker government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that as Pashto and other indigenous languages have no market, hence English and Urdu must be introduced right from the first grade at schools. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is also keen to see departments of Pashto language and literature in higher seats of learning disbanded.
Modern research on cognitive growth of a child has established that a child learns to observe, learns to create and learns to categorize and analyze when she is able to conceptualize information in the mother/first language at primary school. In addition to it, all research on language acquisition indicates that a child can learn more languages effectively when she is well-versed in mother/first language.
The tendencies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government towards indigenous languages, especially towards Pashto, and the consequent policies to do away with Pashto in primary and higher education is effective recipe for intellectual depletion, economic dependence and historical ruptures. The KP government’s tendencies are also evident in the non-implementation of Promotion of Languages Act passed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly in 2012.
Another fallacious argument presented by the ruling elite of Pakistan is related to the project of ‘nation building’. It is argued that Pakistan is a ‘nation’ and it must have Urdu as ‘national language’ and English as ‘official language’ for connectivity with the world. The fallacy lies in the fact that the ruling elite have yet to accept the reality that Pakistan is a multi-national country. Until the civil-military oligarchy acknowledges the reality, conditions will remain prone for the disasters like the one happened in 1971. While nobody has any problem with teaching and learning of Urdu and English at secondary schools, stigmatization and doing away with national and indigenous languages would always lead to dis-empowerment and backwardness.
Almost three dozen languages are spoken in the Pashtun lands with Pashto as major and connecting language. The horizontal and vertical ruptures in the Pashtun lands can only be mended when Pashto is adopted as language of learning at schools, language of communication in markets and language of correspondence in official domains. The ruptures in the Pashtun land created and perpetuated by the ruling oligarchies might not only dis-empower the Pashtun nation but will also continue providing space to destructive fascist squads like TTP, Al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State (IS). Indigenous languages other than Pashto must be given due space in teaching learning paradigms in the Pashtun land.
Writer: Dr. Khadim Hussain
The writer is a columnist with THE PASHTUN TIMES and Director Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation. He can be reached at
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