WASHINGTON DIARY: Power of language
by Dr Manzur Ejaz, USA
Courtesy: Wichaar.com, September 15th, 2009
Several studies have shown that children who have a good grounding in their mother tongue have an edge in learning new languages. They can be good writers in other languages because they have already experienced how different states of mind are captured through words.
Nowadays, the United States is giving high priority to different languages. Special emphasis is being placed on learning languages of Muslim countries, including Urdu, Persian, Pashto, Dari and Punjabi written in the Shahmukhi (Persian) script. A special section of the US State Department teaches all these languages and holds examinations for all those officers of the Foreign Service, army or intelligence services who are appointed to Pakistan or Afghanistan. Educational institutions are also giving special consideration to the learning of foreign languages at the entry level.
Last week, a college-bound student approached me for help in writing an essay on the relationship between language and society. The young lady’s mother tongue is Urdu but she has been brought up in the US and has been taught in English. She was confused whether she should approach the subject through her mother tongue, Urdu, or her language of schooling, English. Most of us in or from Pakistan would share her confusion because our mother tongues are different from our medium of education. Probably, Punjabis in Pakistan would be the most conflicted on this subject. Therefore, the young lady’s query was of special interest to me.
My own view — which I shared with the young lady — is that language is the main link through which human beings relate to each other. Language relates individuals of a particular society at various levels. Therefore, every language has thousands of layers of expression. The words of a language are not merely fixed symbols for definitive expressions. Words may change their meanings and connotations in varying situations. Furthermore, there are many expressions buried between the words. In the words of Pablo Neruda, “Something goes dying between the lips and the voice.”
However, one can only experience and explore the society through language in one’s own mother tongue, be it oral or written. The emotive, deeper and unsaid expressions are only conceived through one’s mother tongue. The other languages, used as tools of learning, can never facilitate the subjective layers of human relations. One employs experience of the mother tongue to make use of other languages. Therefore, if one has a good grounding in one’s mother tongue, learning and mastering other languages is easier.
Several studies have shown that children who have a good grounding in their mother tongue have an edge in learning new languages. They can be good writers in other languages because they have already experienced how different states of mind are captured through words. They can appreciate the subtleties and intricacies of words and their usage. Conversely, children who are alienated from their mother tongue in their childhood remain weak in other languages as well.
The case of South Indians comes to mind where the mother tongues have a strong hold. No wonder that South Indians are known for a better command of English in India. On the other hand, the entire northern subcontinent has a linguistic confusion. Be they Urdu-Hindi speakers or Punjabis, they develop an inferiority complex about their mother tongues. Therefore, Punjabis, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus try to become civilised by substituting their mother tongues with Urdu, Hindi or English. Consequently, their linguistic comprehension and articulation remain deficient.
The older generations of North Indians, who could not avoid having good grounding in their mother tongues, were better writers in Urdu, Hindi and English. With erosion and downgrading of mother tongues, the new generation of North Indians has no successors to the likes of greats like Manto and Faiz.
Living in the US for the last 30 years, I have observed that immigrant children who speak their mother tongue at home become better English writers. I have seen such children becoming editors of their school or college magazines, editing and correcting native English speakers. Probably their capacity to understand the intricacies of language is enhanced through their solid base in their mother tongues.
Pakistani elites and the government should learn from the research in this field and induct mother tongues as a medium of education at the elementary level. They should set aside the ideological misconceptions and long held biases, and adopt pragmatic measures to produce better and enlightened individuals. The NWFP has taken a good step by making Pashto as a compulsory subject up to high school. This is a good start, which should be emulated in Punjab and other provinces as well.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org