Language has no ethnicity

Thinking of language as an ethnic or a national entity restricts our ability to use it as a resource for development

Dr Ahmar Mahboob December 12, 2015
The writer earned his PhD at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is currently Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney and has worked in the areas of language policy development and issues surrounding minority languages in South Asia

It is not uncommon for people to associate a particular language with an ethnic or a regional group. People often relate a language to the group of people who speak it as a mother tongue; for example, Balochi is associated with the Baloch; Sindhi with Sindhis; Shina with people from Gilgit and Baltistan and so on. While labelling languages based on ethnic or geographical groups is convenient, we need to note that language itself does not have any ethnicity or nationality.

This observation is useful, particularly important in contexts where language has become a political issue e.g., in Pakistan. We often hear calls for recognition of certain languages as provincial, national or official languages. Some people start believing that their community is under-privileged because they speak a local language as their mother tongue and not the ‘provincial’, ‘national’ or ‘official’ language. Others start believing that their language is under attack by the dominant linguistic community and that they need to defend it. Based on such beliefs, they may abandon their language (leading to language death), or may become activists striving for language equity. While the experiences that lead people into taking such positions may be real, language is not the key issue here. Recognition of a language by itself does not give status to or bring socioeconomic benefits to a community. For example, while Urdu is one of the officially recognised languages in India, this recognition by itself does not empower the Urdu-speaking population in India. Socioeconomic and political imbalances are perpetuated by those in power to maintain their own interests and to change these imbalances we need a different set of strategies. Changing the status of a language may carry symbolic value, but will not on its own change the socioeconomic or political status of people who speak that language. In fact, in some ways, learning the language of power can give people more access to resources than trying to make their language (nominally) recognised. Once a community has these resources, it can take actions to protect and enhance its language.

In order to understand this better, we need to clarify what language is and what language is not. Language is a semiotic system: it helps create, represent and mediate meaning. Without language (whether spoken, written or signed), humans would not be able to develop the societies that we live in today. Language is a key tool that enables us to do things that other living beings are not able to accomplish. All human communities, regardless of where they are, use language to develop an understanding of themselves and their surroundings and transmit these to other members of their community (and potentially to people outside their community). The actual forms used and meanings construed through language in different communities, in different places and at different times can vary greatly and may or may not be mutually intelligible. We often (but not always) label mutually intelligible ways of communicating as a particular language, e.g., Gujarati is a language that is mutually intelligible to all people who speak that language. While a language may be given names based on an ethnic, regional or national community that uses that language, language itself does not have any ethnicity or nationality. The ethnic indexing of a language is a result of socio-political and historical processes; there is nothing intrinsically ethnic about a language.

All languages are the same in that they are all semiotic systems. However, not all languages are equal. All languages have the same potential, i.e., any language can be used to create and represent any meaning; however, this doesn’t mean that it does so at a given point in time. Languages that can be used to do more things can be considered more developed than others. So, while we are able to use English to write fiction and poetry, to carry out research and write legal texts, and to communicate with people around the world, etc., we are not currently able to perform all these functions in, say, Seraiki. This is not to say that Seraiki cannot do all this, it can; but the language has not yet been developed to do so. Both Seraiki and English have the same potential, but one is currently more developed than the other in that it can be used to do more things. It needs to be noted that the extent of a language’s development, or lack thereof, does not imply that speakers of one language or the other are better, smarter, or more developed — we are all essentially the same.

Furthermore, people who speak multiple languages, e.g., Seraiki, Urdu and English, will use these languages in different domains: they will more likely use Seraiki at home and in their everyday contexts; Urdu when interacting with other Pakistanis who don’t speak Seraiki and in some educational and work contexts; and English predominantly in educational, academic, professional and international contexts. Thus, people who are multilingual in Pakistan typically use different languages in different domains.

This exemplifies that languages, because they are differently developed and used, supplement each other (instead of being in conflict): each one allows us to create and negotiate a different set of meanings with different groups of people, in different contexts. All languages and dialects in a country are equally important and need equal recognition because they together allow us to live our lives, where we interact with all kinds of people (locally, nationally and internationally) and use language for all types of different purposes. Thinking of language as an ethnic or a national entity restricts our ability to understand it properly or to use it as a resource for national and socioeconomic development. We need to think of language as a semiotic resource and understand how language creates meaning and relates to human society. By doing this, we can harness the power of language and create a better society to live in.

In Pakistan, we need to consider what spread of languages we have, how they function in society, what each one of these languages is able to do for us (as individuals and as a country) and then develop strategies that can enable us to support all languages in a way that satisfies the communities that speak them while at the same time giving them access to languages of power and socioeconomic mobility. Language policy is not just a political act; it is intrinsically bound to national and socioeconomic development. If Pakistan continues to ignore the importance of language policy, then language will continue to be used for political battles rather than as a semiotic resource for development.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2015.

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Muslim Khan | 5 years ago | Reply @Hemin Hemini: A language being associated with an ethnic or other community is not the same thing as a language having ethnicity.
Muslim Khan | 5 years ago | Reply @Rex Minor: What do you mean by 'inferior language'? All languages and people who speak these languages are equal. The author clearly states: "It needs to be noted that the extent of a language’s development, or lack thereof, does not imply that speakers of one language or the other are better, smarter, or more developed — we are all essentially the same." Arabic (even classical Arabic) is not superior to any other language; it may be more developed compared to some languages in that it servers more functions than other languages, but that doesn't make it superior. English serves even more functions than Arabic; so, can we say English is superior to Arabic? Surely not. Similarly, local languages are not inferior either. If people can't read and understand Arabic, then the right thing to do is to translate it into a language that people can understand; otherwise 'mullahs' become the sole interpreter and can manipulate things in anyway that they like - as they do in Pakistan (and many other places).
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