Do you speak what your great grandfather did?


The General Administration of Press and Publication in China recently banned the use of English words and phrases in publications, for it was “abusing the language’ and putting its “purity” in jeopardy. The names of people and places and commonly used English abbreviations, all have to be translated to Chinese. Anyone can argue for or against this action on technical grounds, but I do salute the display of self-esteem and self-respect this nation has shown.
I feel a tinge of guilt writing in support of preservation of mother tongue in a language that isn’t my first language. Or is it? Considering that as far as I can remember, I have been speaking English as much as Urdu and that I can’t carry a casual conversation in Urdu without using English words/phrases/references, while I am fully capable of communicating in English through any medium, makes me wonder if I can even proclaim Urdu as my mother tongue. The fact that I was born in a Punjabi house and so technically my first language should have been Punjabi is a far cry. But am I the only one to be blamed? What about my parents who didn’t even bother speaking Punjabi to me because it wasn’t the norm anymore? Or the teachers who would fine us if we spoke Urdu? Or the society which holds people in awe who speak ‘fur-fur angrezi’?
In English-medium schools, all subjects except Urdu and Islamic studies are taught in English; the purpose obviously being to make the generation more fluent than would be possible by having only one ‘English’ course. I do remember distinctly that even in my Urdu class we frequently used English words; one for there was no Urdu translation, secondly the Urdu translation was not a part of our commonly used vocabulary and we were definitely not adamant on making it so because … who cares? Well to be fair there was a chapter in my Urdu textbook which talked at length about the differences in Urdu and Hindi and how it was the language of the Muslims and a key motif behind the attainment of a separate country for the Indian Muslims. Ironic how only 60 years later we gladly abandon that very language in favour of the language of the then rulers of India we sought freedom from.
This is another perfect topic for highlighting the shortcomings of our leaderships but since our government is notorious for everything imaginable, I am going to spare them this bashing.Low or rather lack of self-esteem and respect for culture is evident by individual attitudes, such as parents not conversing with their children in their ethnic languages, or even if they do so limiting it to homely conversations and not coaching them on the history and literature of the language (because we already contended that the government fails at anything intelligent), and by harboring a sense of pride, I would even say arrogance, for being fluent in English. Disregard of cultural identity cannot be emphasized more than by disowning your own language – an element that distinguishes human beings from rest of the creatures. Instead of changing our attitudes and focusing on scientific, technological and economic faculties to prosper, which would lead to a global recognition and awareness of our language, we think that adopting foreign cultures would make us more progressive. We have the entire logic upside down!

This negligent attitude towards our national and ethnic languages is a big contributor towards our poor understanding of our own history. We all have heard of names of Baba Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, but how many of us have actually had first-hand experience with their writings?

Let’s not even go that far. My grandmother once watched a talk show where both the host and the guest spoke English interspersed with some Urdu, and she questioned the use of a language which the majority of people couldn’t understand. Isn’t a broken connection with history just an amplified effect of generations coexisting at the same time yet not being able to understand each other?
Such attitudes will also broaden the communication gap between cities and rural areas of Pakistan. Language is not just a way of telling someone you need rice and not roti. It in turn affects the way human beings think. How do you think an English-speaking afsar will treat a farmer speaking a language he is proud to have gotten rid of? Which language are you thinking in?

Published at The Pak Tea House on December 25, 2010

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