Language Puzzles

By Anjum Altaf

On November 14 I participated in an event jointly organized by the Ma Boli Centre of the Institute for Art and Culture and the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) at the latter’s serene premises in Lahore to discuss various aspects of native languages including their contribution to the creative process as also their future in Pakistan.

The event, besides being informative and entertaining, succeeded in its objective by provoking many thoughts and raising many questions. I explore some of them to include those who might be interested in the issues but were unable to join for one reason or another.

To start on an incongruous note, I was struck by the fact that in an event aiming to highlight native languages the opening addresses leaned on English with forays into Urdu when emotions welled over. This recalled Khaled Ahmed’s claim that English is the language of reason and Urdu of emotion. I don’t subscribe to this hypothesis but I confess that I did have twinge of doubt. I felt the addresses could easily have been entirely in Urdu which is decidedly more native than English and also because there was no one in the audience unfamiliar with it.

I do know there are many who speak Urdu well but are unable to communicate abstract or academic ideas in it although I don’t believe that was at all the case with those who delivered the opening addresses. As dean of humanities and social sciences at LUMS I urged faculty members to speak on their subjects in Urdu to college students in smaller cities and was often told they lacked the vocabulary to do so. One teacher of economics said there was no equivalent in Urdu of ‘rationality,’ a fundamental concept in the subject. This is something that requires conscious deliberation and effort if we wish to include the majority of our public in discussions at the frontiers of knowledge.

The flip side of this is even more problematic. I have in mind all the development workshops and conferences where one or two representatives of donor organizations are in attendance for whose benefit the entire proceedings are conducted in English. At one stroke, all the beneficiaries for whom development is ostensibly being planned are excluded from the deliberations. 

The first part of the event, highlighting the importance of native languages for the creative process, made the case well but also threw up a conundrum. Three of the four presentations were related to the visual arts; they were all of exceptional quality and the artists were able to argue convincingly that conceiving and executing them in their respective native languages had added to the appeal and effectiveness of the outputs.

The fourth presentation was an oral reflection in Punjabi which was excellent in its own right, but whose nuances were lost on those who were not fully familiar with the language. This highlighted the dilemma of native languages — how does one communicate their aesthetic pleasure to those who are unfamiliar with them? As one participant observed later, if he were to communicate in his native tongue no one in the entire audience except his collaborator would follow the argument. The author of the oral reflection was conscious of this dilemma and went to some length to argue why, although he had an English version of the text, he wanted to communicate in his own language, even at the cost of losing a part of the audience. After listening to the reading, one could empathise with his feelings. In the face of such barriers, the second-best recourse is to have a vigorous programme of translation from native languages into a cognate language like Urdu that shares their sensibilities much more than English and is also accessible to a wider audience.

Watching the visual presentations, which were mostly by alumni of the National College of Arts (NCA), I was prompted once again by an observation I have harboured for some time — that of all the academic institutions in Pakistan, NCA has been the one that has produced by far the most graduates that have achieved international recognition in recent years. This could be because of the diversity of its student body admitted on the basis of portfolios of recognizable talent and a highly qualified faculty. But could it also be because the visual arts are much less dependent on alien languages for their pedagogy unlike most other domains in Pakistan where English is dominant? Is it this environment, where almost the entire discourse can be in native, near-native or universal languages, that provides the critical difference in the flowering of talent? If so, this would constitute a very strong affirmation for pedagogy in native languages. 

An argument made in subsequent discussion that stressed the relationship of the native language to the creative process needs to be teased out a little. Without denying the existence of the relationship, it should not be misconstrued to imply that artists cannot be creative in languages other than their own. Rather, the more subtle point being made was that the absence of a deep foundation in a native language could inhibit the creative process. This seems to be quite obvious in the case of the vast majority of those in Pakistan who receive their early education in English and are creative neither in it nor in their own language because they have been severed from the intellectual and aesthetic nourishment that emanates from the latter. The counterexamples are poets like Faiz and Faraz whose early education was in native languages but whose creativity blossomed in Urdu.

The second half of the programme focused on the plight of native languages and asked if they were dying in Pakistan and what might be done to arrest that. There was agreement that many languages were indeed under threat with a spectrum of opinion on what might be done. I suggested that allowing applicants to answer entrance tests in languages of their choice would help. It would signal a recognition of native languages and encourage competence in them. As a bonus, we would tap a talent pool that lacks mastery of English but could attain it if needed with an year of intensive immersion. Using English as a filter for selection makes little sense when access to it is so inequitable and its teaching so inadequate.

Native languages would also be boosted by mandating early childhood education in them, a practice with much supporting evidence. The real question is how to sequence the learning of languages and the transitions among them in a multilingual country like Pakistan. Again, there is no shortage of experience from studies on Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education. Such a switch would also set in motion the preparation of teaching materials in native languages.

There were inevitable remarks about the danger of our children being left behind if they do not begin their education in English from day one. This apprehension is refuted by the experience of countries using native languages for early education that have moved far ahead of Pakistan. For some reason this strange obsession refuses to go away.

There was also an interesting Darwinian perspective arguing that only the fittest languages would survive except for the fact there has been so much intervention for and against languages that it can in no way be equated to a natural process. A contemporary example is the Single National Curriculum that arbitrarily favours Urdu over regional languages.

The discussion of Urdu triggered contrary perspectives. It was recognized as a link language although some challenged the need for one with the argument that people of different regions interacted with each other even before Urdu or English entered the subcontinent and would find a way of doing so again without the imposition of Urdu. With the quite different nature of interaction and mobility in present times this rejection of the need for a link language warrants more discussion. 

Urdu was also labelled hegemonic for suffocating regional languages although this seems harsh since a language by itself cannot be hegemonic or have a religion for that matter going back to an earlier controversy. There are many in Pakistan not born to Urdu who speak and write it without feeling oppressed. Once again, Faiz can be cited as an example.

The above notwithstanding, Urdu has indeed been used for political purposes though without its acquiescence. The compulsion in Pakistan to concentrate power using language and religion has led to it being used as a tool despite the tragic fallout in East Pakistan. It is ironic that it is non-Urdu speaking elites that have misused Urdu for this purpose. 

While recognizing the claim of regional languages for their rightful places, the above observation has interesting and sensitive aspects that merit attention if only for intellectual reasons. There is angst about the hegemony of Urdu among a certain subsection in the Punjab but that does not seem to exercise the emotions of the majority — there hasn’t been a language movement on the scale of East Pakistan in the 1950s. Why that is the case is not obvious and worth exploring.

In this connection there was a passing comparison with the alleged imposition of Persian in India by the Mughals. An aspect that bears reflection is that Persian was not the language of the Mughals so this cannot be classified a case of linguistic nationalism. A plausible explanation could be that opting for any of the regional languages would have privileged one community over others leading to resentment and strife. Persian was a neutral imposition that did not disadvantage any community disproportionately and left a level playing field. Granted the motives in Pakistan are nowhere as enlightened but in abstract terms the role of Urdu today could be considered comparable to that of Persian in Mughal India.   

The generally complacent attitude towards Urdu in the Punjab leads to broader questions about varying attitudes to language without passing any judgement on them. For example, the Kashmiri diaspora has almost entirely abandoned its language and adopted local dialects. In contrast, the Jeswish diaspora has sustained and promoted its linguistic heritage. It was mentioned that the Sikh population in Pakistan has also transmitted Gurmukhi to succeeding generations.

Is it possible that languages or scripts that are the carriers of scared texts, like Hebrew and Gurmukhi, have an advantage in this regard over others that are not, like Kashmiri and Shahmukhi? If true, left to its own devices Urdu itself might see a similar decline as a literary language. Its survival would depend only on its utility as a link language and for that purpose it would evolve as a mongrel of many languages with English being the dominant one. That would be an ironic fate because Urdu came into being as a mongrel link language for communication. Its brief period of glory during the eclipse of Mughal rule was an accident of history and there is nothing now that can trigger a similar efflorescence.

I left the event with some clear conclusions: not much is to be gained by being emotional about languages nor by preserving them as museum pieces. Native languages need to be valued because they provide the best foundation for the cognitive development of children being the most readily accessible repositories of ideas and knowledge which makes them potent sources for creative expression. The displacement of native languages by English or Urdu filters out a huge talent pool and replaces it with a narrow elite that is inadequately equipped in any language and is therefore intellectually and aesthetically impoverished. This does not mean there is no place for Urdu or English. Every language adds value and additional ones can and should be learnt at the discretion of individuals to meet their needs and desires. 

The event was a major contribution by the Institute of Art and Culture and THAAP and more are needed to pursue the ideas that emerged during a long day that passed all too quickly because it was so enjoyable and exciting. 

This reflection was published in The News in two parts on November 22 and 23, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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