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Teachers and parents can reverse language shift

11 min read

By Ghulam Amin Beg

Global research into mother languages shows that changes in demography, migration, cross-culture marriages and the medium of teaching in schools impact minority ethnic languages severely. 

In Pakistan coupled with these trends, the apathy of the state, class consciousness, use of Urdu and English as lingua franca as well as means of jobs and businesses as well as electronic media — both radio and television — and film have also contributed to popularising Urdu and main regional languages in many rural and marginalised ethnic communities, at the expense of their mother tongue, which lost patronage from the state.

The use of the mother language is diminishing fast in many families in Pakistan, especially those who migrated to urban centres and living in mixed communities. 

With the current level of exposure to foreign languages through the digital world, social media and at schools, children and young people find Urdu, English, or any common dominant language in the vicinity as a communication tool for interaction and socialization. This has not only impacted families from minority ethnic groups migrating to urban areas, but also these groups back home. 

The emphasis on becoming competitive in education, job market and in business is forcing them to learn new languages, which in turn in the majority of cases results in loss of first language vocabulary as in a purely economic sense, it is not seen adding any value to their status and prestige in life.

The lesser the speakers of a mother language, the more mobile the families, the greater the risk of extinction of their first language. This also means, while they migrate, and gradually stop speaking their language, they lose the values contained in that language and are unable to transmit it to the next generation as they used to do in the past through joint families, remaining in the same community, sharing sad and happy moments and moving to high and lower pastures, farming together and mostly going to the same places of worship and community spaces that were shared in most cases by the same ethnic group or groups, that were dependent on each other and learned each other’s language without threatening the existence of the other.

Recently on International Mother Language Day, I followed some discussions on social media and read some articles and research papers related to reversing language shift. Out of curiosity, I randomly tested an online survey with a very small select group of family and friends and their friends from Gilgit-Baltistan (speaking Wakhi, Balti, Shina, Burushaski and Khowar languages) through messenger and WhatsApp. I wanted to know what they think and how they are coping with this anxiety of mother language loss by their child/children, while some of them are still based in their communities, others have migrated to cities and outside Pakistan. I also wanted to know what suggestions they make to reversing the language shift if any.

It was interesting to know, the influence of peers and neighbourhood was very prominent in learning a new language. According to the findings of the survey, 80% of the respondents is using Urdu as a second language in the family and only 15% is using English as a second language in the family. 

Similarly, 50% of the respondents replied that their child/children were using Urdu with friends in the neighbourhood and community, 20% replied their children were using the English language, while the remaining 30% replied they were using their mother language and other local languages, depending on the type of neighbourhood they live.

Similarly, schools as spaces for learning a new language was given much credence. Like 47.50% of respondents replied their child/children were learning Urdu as a second language in school while 45% mentioned the English language, 2.5% mentioned other international languages while 5% mentioned other local languages. 

The school’s language, as well as the language of the classmates, also influence learning a new language, which is carried to family and home environments and used through gaming and social media interactions, which influences the children even outside schools.

People were also very practical in discussing the challenges their children were facing in acquiring their mother language. For example, due to oral languages, the issue of non-availability of books in their mother language was highlighted as a key challenge. Secondly, it was also mentioned that schools generally discourage learning and using the mother language in classrooms. 

The other important challenge that underpins the above two challenges highlighted were, parents are generally uninterested in helping children learning mother language, majority of them see no economic value in acquiring their mother language. Despite these challenges, It was interesting to note, only half of the respondents were worried about their child/children might lose their mother language.

Recommendations for reversal

The two key recommendations for reversing language shift were: first, parents need to actively talk to their child/children in mother language and multi-languages; secondly, schools need to produce material in local languages and provide a time slot for mother language in early childhood education. While, acquiring mother language and transmitting it to the new generation is a voluntary choice of parents and children, yet it is a sacred duty of the parents, as duty bearers and notable continuers of the mother language as a family and community and global heritage, to transmit it to the next generation. Mother tongue is seen by academicians and researchers as a great influence on children, especially in learning second languages as it is considered a stimulus-response. It facilitates children in learning other languages faster and acquires more vocabulary in other languages.

Finally, the mother language is a repository of values, norms, history, heritage and legacy, if the children learn it. This shapes their personality and connects them to their roots, and as they transition from childhood to adulthood, they don’t feel lost or face an identity crisis. 

This is, therefore, important for parents, practically mothers, and the schools, especially in early childhood development stages, to provide the children with the opportunity to learn their mother language.

Ghulam Amin Beg is an international affairs commentator, development practitioner, policy analyst on youth, civil society and participatory governance with an eye on mountain areas in Pakistan and the Central Asian region.

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