There is a fascinating episode in Anna Karenina, featuring two upper class Russian women, who are shown having a curious linguistic interaction with a young girl. One of the women, Dolly, who is also Anna’s sister-in-law, reprimands her little daughter for corrupting her otherwise pure French speech by using a Russian word. The little girl is struggling to remember the French for a relatively obscure word (spade). The mother, who is not impressed by this episode of amnesia, keeps encouraging her to remember the word as speaking Russian would be a faux pas in the aristocratic society of nineteenth century Petersburg. The scene is all the more significant since we are observing it through the eyes of Konstantin Levin, whose character is widely thought to be based on Tolstoy himself, and who thus far enchanted of the urban charms of Dolly’s household, feels dismayed by this “affected and unnatural” episode. “Learning French and unlearning sincerity,” he concludes.
Revisiting this scene recently made me think of something that had been on my mind for quite a while, namely parents teaching their children colonial languages in third world countries at the cost of the children being able to express themselves in their own languages. For clarification the term ‘national’ instead of ‘local’ or ‘regional’ has been used in reference to languages spoken in Pakistan.
In fact, I have seen very similar episodes like the one from Anna Karenina being played in real life many times when a friend or relative, say in Punjab, is painstakingly teaching their toddler to say ‘flower’ instead of ‘phull’ or ‘wall’ instead of ‘divar’ or ‘kandh’. The same attitude is adopted even in situations of concern where a child ends up feeling embarrassed in front of his friends as his father, complaining about his chronic stomachache, uses the Punjabi words ‘dhidd di peerh’.
This makes one wonder on the widely prevalent attitudes, which unlike Tsarist Russia are not just limited to certain classes, towards seeing stomach or other English words as more sophisticated or cultured than ‘payt’ or similar local words, with some words such as ‘dhidd’ being avoided like the plague because, for some reason, they are considered crude or vulgar.
Why do we assume one language is better than another and what are the criteria to impose these values on different languages?
There are many reasons for these cultural attitudes towards national languages, some more nefarious than the others, and in my opinion, not always organic. A lot of this attitude may come from deliberate efforts from the colonisers, going all the way back to Macaulay’s notorious Minute on Indian Education and to the ideas propagated during the Raj that native ‘vernaculars’ are not worthy to be taken seriously or used as a medium of education.
But even after the end of the colonial era, the ruling classes have institutionally encouraged the erasure and suppression of national languages in order to consolidate their own power. Except Urdu and Sindhi, none of the national languages are taught in any parts of Pakistan and higher and scientific are only taught in English.
This brings me to reflect on some self-defeating arguments, claiming that Urdu or other national languages are not capable of being used for administrative or scientific purposes and thus we are doomed to keep using English as borrowed clutches. This trickles down in the communal psyche in the form of attitudes of inferiority towards the ‘vernacular’ – that it is something only good enough for sentimental poetry (as often thought or stated about Urdu) or for talking to one’s grandparents, a generation on the move.
A reason usually presented for the readily assumed incompetence or inability of the national languages for scientific or technical expression is the alleged lack of equivalent technical terms to communicate an idea, or that we cannot coin new words or neologisms apt for expressing a thought.
Often the debate is already lost over the choice of the source of such neologisms before other aspects of the issue could be considered: if we are to create new words, would they be coined from Perso-Arabic or local sources, or whether the technical terms should simply be transliterated from English into Urdu or another local script. These should be secondary concerns.
The truth of the matter is that it often comes down to the non-existence of language academies or similar institutions to take necessary steps and lack of effort or willingness on the part of the speakers themselves to equip these languages for such subjects.
As someone with some exposure to scientific and philosophical works written or translated into Persian and Turkish, I am not prepared to accept the argument that any language lacks the ability to express any idea. It might take some time to equip it for technical expression, but it is not impossible, as some would like you to believe. There exists, moreover, a corpus of scientific works produced in Urdu itself until very recent times. Just because there are no more current scientific works being written in Saraiki or Balochi does not mean that these languages are intrinsically inferior to English in their expression.
To be clear, as a global language, learning and speaking English have huge benefits and ignorance of it would only be detrimental in both an individual and a general sense. It should not, however, stop us from working for the preservation and promotion of our languages and introducing them to a child from an early stage in their life so that they grow without any complexes towards their own languages and culture. Evidence has shown that learning more languages is only beneficial to a child’s development.
One is aware that one is not completely innocent of some of the attitudes expressed above, saying all this in borrowed words. But do you not think that on the 75th anniversary of the end of colonialism and the independence of Pakistan, we can at least start by teaching our child the words for spade in our languages, that it is not just spade but also بیلچہ bailcha? We owe them their language.