Unlearn ‘language’

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Unlearn ‘language

I along with dozens of colleagues with a diverse range of expertise and from different parts of the world have started working on a project, ‘Profiling & Promoting the Languages of Pakistan’, that aims to develop a publicly available (open access) profile of language use across Pakistan. As you can imagine, this is a ginormous undertaking. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before.

This is an extremely important project as the Government of Pakistan does not collect or provide any detailed information on language use in its census. Consequently, there is little reliable or valid information about language use in Pakistan. Without such information, our economic, educational, health, security, and social policies – amongst others – are unlikely to be locally relevant or implementable.

In an absence of local knowledge, we are dependent on imported knowledge. Theories and practices in social sciences – unlike material and physical sciences – are very context sensitive. They are not generalizable; generalization may result in damage to our peoples, societies, and our environment.

Without appropriate knowledge and information, it is difficult to develop policies that can empower people. Understanding and encouraging respect for diversity is critical for the very existence of our country. At the moment, violence has become a norm; ignorance is forced on people; poverty is everywhere, even the “rich” are poor as they cannot drive to the next suburb without security and/or weapons; and, there is no coherent or shared public vision or direction in the country. Two reasons for this are: 1) Pakistan has never invested in profiling her own peoples; 2) we are still colonized.

While the material and resources that this project will generate will be useful for a number of purposes, our initial goals for doing this work include (these will be revised and updated at intervals):

1) to create an open-access repository of resources and information about language use across Pakistan;

2) use the material to develop educational material, policies, and practices;

3) create resources to help regain our heritage of respect for diversity of beliefs, traditions, and practices.

The project poses multiple challenges. These challenges include developing and implementing valid and reliable methods of collecting and analyzing language use, as well as securing funding for the project. But, perhaps, the most urgent challenges are those related to ways in which we name and classify languages.

‘Language’ in its everyday use is seen as an identity marker: we identify people based on the languages they speak. In English, the word ‘language’ is seen as a distinct entity that can be counted and categorized based on a set of structural features. ‘Language’, in English, is a singular word. The plural of ‘language’ is ‘languages’.

Language – as understood in and through a monolingual English perspective – can be defined, described, codified, added, subtracted, and counted.

However, not all languages or communities understand language in the same way.

In parts of South Asia, a region with thousands of languages, locals understood language through a multilingual lens, not a monolingual one. This led to different ways of understanding and referring to language in South Asia. For example, one term for language in Urdu, my mother tongue, is بولی (boli); please note that بولی is NOT the only word for language in Urdu. بولی is a collective noun. بولی are diverse, situated, contextual, and connect us to different people in different ways. Derivatives of بولی include words like ‘bol’ (utterance), ‘bolna’ (to speak), ‘bolt-a/i/ay’ (verb, with gender markings).

بولی is also used to refer to non-human speech. This reflects an inherent respect for non-human lives in our languages: our languages do not differentiate between human “language” and non-human “communication” (like English and other western languages do). Humans have بولی, just like elephants and whales and cats have بولی, even the wind and the leaves have their بولی. Variations of forms and functions of بولی exist across many South Asian languages, each with its own way of viewing language.

Other languages across South Asia use different terms for language. For example, in the Torwali language, one of the languages spoken in the high mountain country of Swat, the local word for language is جیب (jeeb). According to Zubair Torwali, author and language activist, جیب is used for both language and tongue. Torwali does not differentiate between language and tongue; from a Torwali perspective, language is about what is spoken, not identity (like Urdu).

The multilingualism and diversity in our communities reflects the network of relationships (and intermarriages) in and across our communities as well as our respect for other life forms and natural environment. Unfortunately, at present, the respect for life and diversity that we see encoded within the deep grammars of our languages has been suppressed because we have no real information or knowledge about ourselves. Much of the mainstream information that we have about our own communities today was produced by or under the patronage of our colonial masters. It was grounded in monolingual and monocultural perspectives that saw British as the best; other western nations as good; and the rest of the world as savage, primitive, and/or tribal.

In our communities there were and are at least two types of multilingualism: 1) where people can speak multiple languages; 2) where people can understand more languages than they can speak.

This second type of multilingualism exists in other parts of the world too. For example, the 500 members of the Warruwi Community on South Goulburn Island, Australia, are receptive multilinguals in nine languages. They all understand the nine languages but may choose not to speak all for various reasons, include as a sign of respect for other speakers.

In South Asia, we also classify بولی in relation to the network of relationships (as well as location and style). For example, if our parents come from different lands (note, that there were no “countries” prior to colonization), then they probably spoke a different بولی. Children grew up in multilingual environment and developed multiple languages – without having particular names (proper nouns) for “languages”. بولی served us well. بولی united us.

In communities that were inherently multilingual and multicultural, naming languages created divisions. Where people had بولی, they now have languages (with a plural ‘s’). In poor countries, where resources are limited and we have huge populations, language becomes a tool for creating political divisions, leading to ethno-linguistic conflicts – people across Pakistan (and many other parts of the colonized world) have experienced (and continue to experience) the consequences of ethno-linguistic conflicts.

Most of us are aware that the colonials used a divide-and-rule strategy to weaken and dominate us.

What we often fail to realize is: naming languages and creating a strong relationship between language and identity/community is one of the most powerful tools of dividing people. We were (and are) people who speak many languages, not just one language that defines our identity.

Using variations in sounds, symbols, and structures, western (trained) linguists create labels and divisions (through linking language to identity) in communities. These divisions are based on procedures developed by western linguists. Encouraging language-based identities may lead to ethno-linguistic divisions, disagreements, and conflict.

To promote respect and diversity, we need a respectful way of classifying and naming languages. One that is not grounded in identity and not exploitable for political purposes by the elites and those in power. One that respects and promotes diversity.

Our ecology of languages (like the ecology of natural environment) is under severe stress as a consequence of western greed – seen in the shape of colonization, globalization, corporatization, and development. This needs to be reversed by creating alternatives that serve our goals and reflect our contexts.

What can an alternative classificatory system and nomenclature for language look like?

We are currently working on addressing this question. Please do share your thoughts with us – and, if you are interested, join the group. We need a diverse group of people to develop ways of profiling diversity.

Once we have developed an approach (or a set of approaches) to resolving this challenge, we will have many more to address. For example: What kind of language use do we need to identify and collect? How will we collect it? How will we code it? How will we analyze it? How will we use those analyses to achieve our goals?

While we don’t have answers for these questions at the moment, we plan to develop our responses based on the goals of our project. And, we hope that we can attract good will and support of diverse groups of people in proceeding with this work.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Mona Mamac, Kousar P. Shaikh, Shari Lughmani, and Michael Medley for useful comments and tips on an earlier draft. I am responsible for all short comings in the article.

About the author:

Prof Nomad (Ahmar Mahboob) is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney and Fellow of the National Talent Pool; President of Pakistan’s Programme for Highly Qualified Overseas Pakistanis. He can be reached at ahmar.mahboob@sydney.edu.au


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