The language controversy

There are many ways and tools a community can use for preserving and promoting its culture besides language

M Zeb Khan January 30, 2021
The writer is a PhD in Administrative Sciences and associated with SZABIST, Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

Like many unresolved perennial issues in Pakistan, the question of which language to use as a medium of instruction during the formative years of school-going kids remains unaddressed. For some ordinary folks, language is a cultural artefact — a symbol of identity and carrier of a community’s unique way of life — which has to be preserved by all means. For others, language is no one’s property — just a means of communication — and so a community can adopt any language it deems fit.

The two perspectives, cultural and instrumental, have almost dominated every forum. Those believing in the unchanging character of a nation’s identity (fixed culture) advocate Urdu as the lingua franca with reasonable space reserved for local languages in academic and official communication. They abhor English as an alien language which the British Empire used as a strategic weapon to deprive Muslims of their cultural heritage. The British, they contend, did everything to relegate Arabic, Persian, and Urdu to second-class languages with no role to play in one’s career advancement and other opportunities.

Those subscribing to the notion of cultural dynamism (fluid culture) accord no special status to any language; they prefer to be seen as language-neutral. They think that language should be regarded as a ‘dress’ which looks good if it fits the occasion. For them, knowledge rather than a language should override individual and collective concern. They would advise you to translate books literature in local languages (as was done during the Abbassid rule in Bait Al Hikmah) or learn the requisite foreign language (English, now) if you do not have repositories of knowledge available in native languages. Insisting on deficient local languages, they contend, is not only myopic but also catastrophic for intellectual and social development.

For Michael Foucault, however, language is not value neutral and is central to any discourse system which controls how we think and what we know. It provides a mental map that one uses to navigate through complicated pathways. The words and how they are structured convey tacit meanings and emotions that unconsciously penetrate the collective psyche of a people. This diffusion of language either becomes a liberating force or the source of social division and oppression. George Orwell also believed in the thought-controlling power of language and elucidated the linguistic tricks (rhetoric, narratives, slogans) that governments employ to conceal and reveal ‘reality’ as and when political conditions demand.

And there is the crucial question of how language affects creativity. It is widely believed that individuals tend to be more creative when they learn about things in their native language. But it is also empirically established that children learning in a bilingual environment are qualitatively better in high order thinking and innovation. The reason for this seems to be the compensatory role of a different language — the deficiency of one language in conveying certain feelings/ideas is compensated by another. Moreover, ideas cannot be created in vacuum. If one does not have access to the repository of knowledge (books/journal and experts) available in a foreign language, one would have nothing original to contribute. Whether we like it or not, English provides the key to modern sciences.

There are many ways and tools a community can use for preserving and promoting its culture besides language. Media has a pivotal role to play in projecting the soft image of a country. Performing arts, drama, poetry, tourism, and co-curricular activities can be effectively used to create visual impacts of what a community believes and values. Culture is necessary for one to feel owned and loved in where one lives but scapegoating a particular language (English in our case) for moral degeneration and an identity crisis is a disservice to the cause of both knowledge and culture.



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