KARACHI: You can kill a language because it is ‘gavaar’ or it does not have an alphabet. Or because it is not sophisticated enough to provide a difference between ‘tum’ and ‘aap’. But these are all outdated excuses.
BBC Urdu columnist Wusatullah Khan said this during a panel discussion on ‘The Future of Our Languages’ on the last day of the three-day Khudi Festival of Ideas on Sunday. The discussion was held at the Husein Ebrahim Jamal auditorium of the Karachi University and started an hour later than was scheduled.
Besides Khan, novelist Muhammad Hanif and French Urdu short story writer Julien Columeau were part of the panel. Writer Asif Aslam Farrukhi moderated the session. The topics discussed by the panel focused on the extinction of languages, the reasons contributing to the extinction and the steps required to preserve a language.
“There are only two reasons that I think will make a person learn a language,” said Khan. “Either it is for monetary benefits or for the sake of passion.”
While talking about the importance of teaching native languages to children, Khan shared an experience. “I have a daughter in England,” he said. “Once, her teacher asked me what language do I speak to her in. I said Urdu. She said that speak to her only in Urdu because if she learns the proper structure of her mother tongue, then she will be able to learn any other language in the world.”
During his introductory note, Hanif said that the future of our languages was an important and difficult question and that he had ‘no knowledge’ about the topic. He spoke about the general perception towards the different languages spoken in our country. He levelled the age-old, rhetorical criticism against founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah that he told the Bengalis that ‘you will talk in Urdu.’
The trend these days suggests that discussions on Pakistan’s languages are incomplete without bashing Urdu for the lack of literature and recognition the regional languages suffer from.
“It was not a problem when Pakistan was created that so many nationalities are becoming part of the country,” said Khan. “But when you talk about languages then the issue of ideology of Pakistan arises.”
In an attempt to explain that no language is superior over the other, Khan touched the subject of alphabet. “Did we have a standard Urdu alphabet before the establishment of Fort William College? And how long has it been that we decided how many letters the Sindhi alphabet should have?”
Nonetheless, he lauded the efforts of the Sindhis who fought for their language to be made a medium of education. “When a language becomes the medium of education, it lives.”
Khan also spoke about intolerance towards different languages. “Sometimes, I write for BBC Hindi. Once, I got a call and the person asked me: ‘aap ko sharam nahin ati?’ [Do you have no shame?] I asked why. He said ‘Musalmaan ho ke Hindi mein khabrain parhtay hain!’ [You read news in Hindi despite being a Muslim!].”
Talking about dead languages, Khan said that there is one language that had become extinct but was brought back to life. Hanif seemed to agree. “With money and guns, you can even revive a dead language.”
Expressing his concerns on dead languages, Columeau said that he feels sympathetic and sad about Pakistan’s linguistic issues. “One language died in India,” he said. “Some more are dying here. When people stop talking to their children in their native languages, the language eventually dies. This is not something the government can implement.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2014.