The existential crises which Bulleh Shah was grappling with in his famous kafi, ‘Bullah, ki jana main kaun’ seems to have an everlasting echo. The fundamental question of identity imbued with agnosticism has always been essential and would remain brutally relevant and real in the times to come. Amongst multiple patterns and layers of complex evolutionary theories, philosophies and impenetrable scientific predictions, the most original, organic and irrefutable relationship between identity and language cannot be suspected. Finding your voice is finding your identity. It’s simply unquestionable and validated through a massive body of research evidence testifying it. All the unmoving uproar, shallow claims and sloganeering of building socially cohesive and peaceful societies will remain unavailing unless, the language as the first and foremost marker of identity is placed at the heart of such agendas, strategic discussions and sustainable development initiatives.
Yesterday on February 21, International Mother Language Day 2021 was observed across the world with the theme of “fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society.” It recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion and the Sustainable Development Goals focus on leaving no one behind. Credit goes to Bangladesh for igniting and spearheading the language-based movement in 1948. It was on February 21 when the fight for their Bangla language gained momentum which inspired UNESCO in 1999 to officially make the announcement in the UN General Assembly. In Pakistan, the day was formally celebrated by a couple of public and private entities, civil society, community-based organizations, academia and media. Festivals, consultations, seminars and multiple engaging activities were carried out. However, there was a large majority of the population who had no clue of this very significant day nor they were aware of the World Day of Social Justice which was globally observed a day before yesterday on 20th February.
Pakistan is at a very critical juncture. On one hand, a continuous advancement is being witnessed in developing technological resources which are being extensively capitalized upon by the young entrepreneurs who are leading some of the best startups. Digital and social media platforms have opened up an array of personal and social spaces for the communication of all kinds of content. One can find pure humor, political and social satire, philosophy, slapstick comedy, farcical sitcoms, selfies, animations and so on. Just a randomly developed meme can go viral in a few seconds and influence millions. On the other hand, a substantial number of the population especially our children who are naturally but hesitantly inquisitive are unable to keep pace with these disruptive innovations. They represent a much bigger intellectually marginalized community that is constantly grappling with their learning crisis which is getting exacerbated with each passing day.
Whilst there are some heartening trends in Pakistan in a couple of social indicators which must be acknowledged, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) which is one of the biggest household level nationwide survey, still reveals staggering figures. ASER 2019 illustrates that 41% of children in grade 5 cannot read a simple story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto. More importantly, if we look at learning at grade 8 or lower secondary 14% of children are still unable to read a grade 2 level story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto. The learning crisis in these grades indicates a foundational learning gap for early years in the country’s education system (ECE and Grades 1 and 2). These trends corroborate the recent global term “Learning Poverty” coined by the World Bank (2019).
A few years back, I started learning about the indispensable linkage between the cognitive developments of a child and his relationship with parents, balanced nutrition, health and overall wellbeing of the family. It was startling to find out that the first thousand days of life – the time spanning roughly between the days of conception to the 2nd birthday of a child is considered to be a unique period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established. This is the time when a mother’s language both verbal and nonverbal, her physical and emotional health, her pangs of pain and fear, her songs of gratitude and soothing lullabies directly affect the child even in the womb. The child naturally imbibes all the bits and pieces and all the sights and sounds of this most comforting and melodious language and carries it forward with pride as the most precious legacy that shapes thoughts, personalities, cultures, values and societies.
The observance and celebrations of such days are immensely crucial but this time we need to take a practical step in the right direction. Through balanced and more enabling strategies, parents, teachers, peers, political leaders, legislatures, influencers, opinion makers in media must take conscious and collective efforts to address this “cognitive conflict” specifically in the early years of a child’s life. The world can certainly become a more unified, better connected and peaceful place if there is a natural and unimpeded relationship between the brain, heart and tongue to communicate with freedom, pride, pleasure and dignity. With the acceptance and promotion of diversity and multilingualism, we can foresee a more integrated, globally coherent, sustainable and dignified future ahead.