Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tariq Rahman and the Concept of Language Rights

While the idea of human rights and women rights are fairly established, most people have not heard of language rights. Between 16 to 20th of April a conference was organized in the ancient city of Barcelona (Spain) to discuss language rights and the issue of language policies which either promote or restrict these rights. As the present author read out a paper in this conference, it might be useful to introduce the reader to the kind of thinking which is going on among language planners about language rights.

Language Maintenance and prevention
            The basic idea is that in a world of globalization, powerful languages used by the world media will squeeze out the weaker languages. An important point which all linguists agree upon is that languages are not ‘weak’ because of some intrinsic defect i.e. grammar, sounds, tone etc. They may, however, lack a vocabulary for referring to modern concepts but this vocabulary can be created. They may also lack books on modern subjects but these too can be translated and written. The ‘weakness’ comes from the fact that they are not used in the domains of power which are the government itself, the bureaucracy, the military, the judiciary, commerce, media, research, education and technology. Once a language is not used in these domains of power people do not want to spend time and money to acquire it because it does not empower them. What people do is to spend their resources on acquiring jobs because jobs give them wealth, power, influence and a sense of self-worth.
            As modernity spread, weaker languages died. Or, according to the famous linguist Dr. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, they were ‘killed’. The formation of the modern state itself killed languages because the state recognized some languages, or some variety of a language, thus condemning the others to oblivion. The schooling system killed languages because the teachers made children ashamed of their mother-tongues and, obviously, the children had to qualify for jobs which required the languages which the school taught. Now globalization, being even more forceful a phenomenon than nationalism, is threatening the world’s languages.

The death of language and the question: Why?

            At this juncture the question arises: ‘why should we lament the death of languages?’. There are a number of answers to this. According to Dr. Kangas, linguistic diversity is like biological diversity. We lose a precious part of human world heritage when a language dies. Another answer is that a language is a repository of a world view, a certain culture, a specific way of life. When a language dies, a culture too dies with it. Some aspects of it might survive, of course, but the spirit will be dead. For instance, when we see the American Africans we find that, although they do have distinguishing cultural features and speak Ebonics, they look like imitation products of American Western culture. They lack cultural authenticity. This, then, is a fate which most communities would wish to avoid. Thus communities, especially small communities, are waking up to the idea of not becoming ‘globalized’ in the sense of losing their distinctive cultural identity altogether. And, of course, perhaps the most essential point to preserve identity is to prevent the language from dying out or losing prestige in the eyes of the younger generation.
            Europe has awakened to the threat of globalization more than Asia and Africa. The European Union promotes the languages of its members despite the costs which are sometimes rather excessive. But what is remarkable is how the supporters of language rights are asserting the importance of the smaller languages of Europe. For instance Frisian, a language spoken in Holland, is now being promoted. It was used widely up to the 16th century but then lost out to Dutch. Now, it has been given an official status again and is used in the area in which it is spoken in the judiciary, administration, radio, television and education. Catalan, which is the language of Cataluniya with Barcelona as the main city, is used in schools, government and the media. It is also the official language of Andorra. Catalan is a large language, spoken by about 10.8 million people, but it had been suppressed by General Franco during his military rule over Spain. After Franco’s rule ended Cataluniya asserted itself and has now established its language as a living idiom along with Castilian Spanish. Even small language groups are waking up. The small languages of Europe are: Galician, Occitan, Sardinian, Gaelic, Basque, Welsh, Friulian, Luxembourgish, Breton, Corsican, Aranese etc. Efforts are being made to protect them and make their speakers feel proud of them.

Linguistic Situation in Pakistan
            The situation in Pakistan, on the other hand, is that even the language of the majority of our people---Punjabi---is considered a marker of rustic upbringing, lack of sophistication and low socio-economic origins. We have always used outsiders’ languages---Sanskrit, Persian, English---in our domains of power so much that our own languages are associated with the powerless and the uneducated. Even Urdu, national language though we may call it, does not open the doors of drawing rooms as does English. The language activists of Sindhi, Baluchi, Brahvi and Pashto have done much to make the speakers of these language proud of their mother tongues but even these languages are not sufficient for getting the best jobs and interacting on equal terms with the English-using elite of Pakistan. This collective sense of linguistic inferiority makes us all look down upon our values, our culture, our forms of address, our table manners---everything we do and everything we feel. We not only do not have our language rights but, even more alarmingly, we do not want to have them at all.


            This, is my opinion, is a shame. We should, of course, learn the language of global power i.e. English. But we should add it to our repertoire of languages. This is what nations with dignity do. In Scandinavian countries, for instance, schools do teach English as a subject but it is not a medium of instruction. When one goes to an office one does not normally hear a foreign tongue being spoken by the officials nor does one give ones’ letters and receives replies in a foreign tongue. All the major languages of Europe are languages of jobs and power but, it is true, the minor languages are not. As I said before, even they have realized that they should not die; that they should be proud of their distinctive heritage. We have not added English or Urdu to our mother-tongue; we have subtracted our mother-tongue from our repertoire of linguistic skills. What we need is a new pride in our languages and a new way of valuing them. And this will never happen till our schools do not teach all subjects in at least the main mother tongues of our people. Moreover, we would have to make our languages the languages of state and private jobs. This is crucial because language-learning is governed by market forces and people do not learn even their mother tongues if they do not find employment in them. Of course, we should continue to teach Urdu and English to all children but not the way we do now. Now we make the children ashamed of their mother tongues. This is wrong. We should make them proud of them. We should make them conscious of their language rights and then go on to teach them other languages. This is the way we will avoid the culture-shame which has made urban and educated Pakistani the biggest snobs one can ever find.

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