International Mother Language Day: How many languages can you speak?

Published: February 22, 2013
According to some experts, there are around 60 languages spoken in Pakistan, 30 of which are spoken in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. LAYOUT: MAHA HAIDER

According to some experts, there are around 60 languages spoken in Pakistan, 30 of which are spoken in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. LAYOUT: MAHA HAIDER


Regional languages get left behind in an era where everything is about instant and rapid global exchanges. Perhaps such shifts alienate populations which desire to preserve their indigenous traditions and values, especially in countries such as Pakistan which is fractured along ethnocentric lines.

Linguists, researchers, writers and activists all stressed the need to recognise native languages, as International Mother Language Day was observed worldwide on February 21. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) initiated this annual celebration of linguistic and cultural diversity in 1999.

According to some experts, there are around 60 languages spoken in Pakistan, 30 of which are spoken in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan.

“It is a good omen that after the passage of the 18th Amendment, the government decided to provide primary education in the mother language,” former chairman of the Pashto Department, University of Peshawar and researcher Raj Wali Khattak told The Express Tribune.

He added there was a need to fill the gap and protect minority languages in order to “safeguard indigenous wisdom of the nation”.

“It is a tough challenge and this is a critical stage to implement the move, in letter and spirit, as we live in a mixed society,” he stressed. “The government will have to make drastic changes in government institutions.”

Khattak said there was a lack of research centres to study and promote Pashto and other languages. “This is not a matter of concern for just one language – all languages are special and are our cultural assets.”

“Such centres will document and promote languages for the restoration of peace, cultural diversity and national harmony.”

Regional languages are rapidly disappearing, which is a matter of concern, noted Khattak. “Even most educated parents do not speak to their children in their mother tongues, which is contributing to the swift extinction of these languages.”

Speaking about the internal displacement of people from Swat and Waziristan to the settled regions, Khattak said: “We cannot ignore the positive aspects of this displacement as the people who came across knew a variety of regional dialects.”

Historical perspective

The day is commemorated in memory of February 21, 1952 when students demonstrated for the recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of Pakistan. Many of these students were shot and killed by the police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

“We need to learn from the past and concentrate on measures to preserve our languages, especially the less-spoken ones, to avoid any further disintegration,” Khattak added.

“Pakistan came into being on the basis of religion and disintegrated due to the clash on languages,” said researcher Aqeel Yousafzai.

Yousafzai opposed the idea of teaching the academic curriculum in Pashto. According to him, such a move would make it hard for the region’s youth to compete internationally.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2013.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Bill Chapman
    Feb 22, 2013 - 12:55PM

    I hope that in all the support given (rightly) to the world’s rich array of languages, the need for a common tongue for us all will not be forgotten. I recommend wider use of Esperanto.


  • raj786
    Feb 22, 2013 - 1:13PM

    60 languages in pakistan its great.

    I thought only in hv many language as 35.

    I cn speak 5 language n cn understand alomst all indian language.

    Kannda(south i ndian)


  • Basar ali
    Feb 22, 2013 - 2:12PM

    Yes! If Pashto became a medium of the schools, it will suffer the students in the international run of knowledge; but we must have a compulsory course of it, upto the intermediate.


  • kHaN
    Feb 22, 2013 - 2:36PM

    Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi are dialects and could be considered ONE language.


  • Razi
    Feb 22, 2013 - 3:44PM

    I can more or less speak 5 languages


  • Educated Punjabi
    Feb 22, 2013 - 6:19PM

    @kHaN Mr Khan there should be a limit to the Sarcasm and Despising of other languages and Cultures and I consider your statement racist as well as this is a pet statement of many Pukhtun nationalists who despise Urdu and Punjabi speakers and undermine their culture and identity. I have heard this same Statement from many Pukhtons in the past and they make this statement to undermine other languages. Urdu have its own identity and so does Punjabi and Hindi. For your information Punjabi is the most versatile language and it is no way any Dialect of Urdu or Hindi and kindly keep your ignorance to yourself. Also I am meeting Many Pukhtoons in Rawalpindi on a daily basis and the pride i see in them will definitely create Ethnic tensions in future and many cities of Pakistan will become a Melting Pot of Ethnic Phenomena where Locals will go against the so called Aryan Blood of yours.
    Now I can understand in what situation Karachites ( Urdu Speakers ) are living where they face this type of Sarcasm from Pukhtons on a daily basis and infact now i think if someone call MQM as violent then they are lying as When someone will despise some group to a limit then there comes the time that you became violent to protect your identity from the Infiltrating so called proud people who want to earn from your land but want to despise you at the same time.Recommend

  • Cheema
    Feb 22, 2013 - 7:30PM

    @Educated Punjabi Sir i live in Islamabad and i have seen the same Phenomena among young Pushto speakers Pathans and they are very much vocal when it comes the time to make fun of Urdu and Punjabis and people are getting sick of this actually. Especially with the advent of Twitter Pushto Nationalists now situation is turning more violent where Pushto speakers are resorting to abuses as well. The same nationalistic nuts told me the same thing like Urdu and Punjabi have no importance since they are nothing but offshoots of Hindi and Migrants speak this language but only Pushto could be considered a Language along with Balochi and Sindhi. Many Puhsto Nationalists said these same stories to so called Seraikis that Urdu Speakers are descendants from Gujarat, Mumbai regions and Punjabi speakers are descendants of Sikh invaders and these Seraikis are now having the same ignorant rhetoric where they state Punjabis as immigrants in Punjab and Seraikis dont know that Sikhism was born in Punjab and Urdu was evolved and turned into a Very Developed language with its poetry and literature in UP India and calling them dialect is like giving disrespect to all of these languages and nothing else.


  • Rajesh
    Feb 22, 2013 - 9:08PM

    In India children in the Hindi-speaking states are to be taught three languages, namely Hindi, English and one of the South Indian languages. The children in non-Hindi-speaking states are to be taught the local language, English and Hindi.

    Pakistan is an ethnically diverse nation. I think Arabic should have been the national language of Pakistan instead of Mohajir language of Urdu, which was only spoken by less than 7% of population at the time of formation of Pakistan. There were resentment among other ethnic group against the dominance of Urdu and I think Arabic would have solved this problem.


  • zulfiqar Khan
    Feb 23, 2013 - 12:12AM



  • Nishant
    Feb 23, 2013 - 12:45AM

    pakistan killed two languages
    punjabi and sindhi
    they tried killing bengali as well but the rest is history

    Punjabi is a distinct langauge, complete with its own script and grammer


  • BlackJack
    Feb 23, 2013 - 2:01AM

    Strange logic. Urdu is spoken by 7%, and Arabic is spoken by what per cent? Also, what is the South Indian language that is taught in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh etc, pls let me know. Pls also note that Hindi is not taught in govt institutions in TN.


  • Raj
    Feb 23, 2013 - 5:04AM

    I will blame the Punjabis in India and Pakistan for the state of their language. I have observed they converse more in Hindi(in India) and in Urdu(in Pakistan) or a mix of everything rather than in their mother tongue. That’s a real shame since Punjabi is a very rich language with a rich heritage and Punjabis should try their best to preserve it.

    This is not to say that Hindi and Urdu are any less but they are equally great languages. My point is that if native speakers don;t speak their own language and give weight-age to a different one , then there is chance that you will be mocked at irrespective of whether it is rational or not.


  • raj786
    Feb 23, 2013 - 10:26AM

    @Educated Punjabi: i do agree with u dear.

    AS I m frm LUCKNOW so i know diff bt HINDI n URDU n PUNJABI


  • Sulaiman
    Mar 13, 2013 - 2:41PM

    Hindi and Urdu are dialects of the same Language. Punjabi is a completely different language but it is closely related to them nevertheless.

    Before you go calling me a Pashtun Nationalist, just give it a quick google and you’ll find that academic opinion agrees with what I’m saying. Hindi and Urdu are called different languages for political reasons.

    I think most nationalists are a bunch of nut-jobs it’s sad that there are people here who let a couple of nationalists define their perception of a whole race. Well done!


  • Javaid Pakistan
    Apr 6, 2013 - 4:59PM

    in china..thera are 54 ethnic groups.. with totally different languages.. they speak it but all education is imparted in standard chinese . this makes them one nation instead of ethnic groups.. so saying this that education should be imparted in mother tongue limits your boundaries of wide-area dialogue.. while lingua franca enables this dialogue and widens the range. it makes a nation rather than a cluster of ethnic groups quarreling at every time.Same applie for pakistan.. Urdu binds you other wise a person in Gwadar is unable to understand a person in Gilgit.
    I can speak Urdu,Punjabi,English and Chinese and enables me to converse in my province, country, another contry and internationaly. I am writing this in english but thinking in Urdu.. it doesnt mean i render my mother tongue Punjabi low-valued.Recommend

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