To Pashto or not?

Recently I realised I am not just bilingual but multilingual. I grew up speaking Pahari, then I learnt Urdu. Later, upon arriving in the UK as a teenager, I learnt English. I still speak the first and the third, read the second and third but write only in the third.

Having experienced the British education, first as a student and then as an educationalist, I can say it is a monolingual system, with a sole focus on English. Moreover, it is a monolingualising system.

It talks about valuing bilingualism, but its approach is not additive but subtractive. So, children enter school speaking their mother tongue. By the time they leave they usually only speak English. Their teachers, explicitly or implicitly, will have told them ‘only English matters’. The wider society also sends a clear message to people, especially if they are from migrant communities, that their mother tongue is worthless.

Fortunately, I continued to read and speak my mother tongues and have managed to keep them alive. They are a central part of my identity. Whenever I have the opportunity, I encourage people to become or at least stay bilingual.

So, it was very interesting and encouraging to see a discussion amongst the members of the Pashtun Community, on the Facebook page of the Pashtun Trust (5.7.20). So, my thanks to everyone who has contributed to the discussion. I hope it will encourage others to have similar discussion.

The discussion began with the key question:

Is it important to teach your children to read and write Pashto? Why?

In response there were several extremely helpful contributions:

Because the language will die out

It’s important, but unfortunately even speaking it is dying out

It’s deliberately being wiped; the national language (of Pakistan) takes precedence

People said the language was dying out: “half of us brits can’t speak the language never mind read and write it”. We should be teaching our kids Pashto! The language (of lions) will die out if we don’t.

People thought speaking the language was “more important than to read and write it”.

One said when their family went to Pakistan they realised what a mistake it had been not teaching Pashto to the children when they were young. Another said: “Stur sari shu…they don’t want to learn it now”. Another said he has tried but the children find the language funny and don’t take it seriously.

One contributor commented that it was beneficial to speak the language even if one could not read or write it. “I suppose if you’re Welsh it would still be beneficial to learn Welsh even if it’s just to keep the language going. It’s part of who you are, who your parents are.” Another contributor pointed out that speaking in different languages was an asset, a message that should come from the education system but sadly does not. This has the support from academic research:

Bilingualism is a cognitive, social, and economic asset for all people, and schools can play a significant role in helping students develop full academic bilingualism.

Others have also argued that bilingualism is indeed an asset.

One comment reminded us that learning about Pashtun history, heritage, values, principles, and religion took precedent over the language. Also, that, within a European context, other languages were dominant and were replacing Pashto.

Ethnic Retention

This is a term coined by academics to refer to immigrants or people of colour “embracing the characteristics of their original culture, such as language, value priorities, daily routines, social networks and ethnic identity”.

There was discussion about how one’s language was interlinked with one’s overall identity:

it is who you are… losing your language is the first stage of losing your culture.. lose your culture; well then you are lost…

In all reality l don’t think the next generation will be as much Pashtun as they will be British.

The role of parents and grandparents was crucial:

My parents and grandparents would insist on us speaking Pashto at home and that’s how we learned and preserved it. With this next generation, you have to make the effort to speak it with them and encourage it and if they make mistakes, help them but don’t take the mick otherwise that will make them go back into their shell. I do it with my own, I have half Irish nieces and nephew who are learning it, so it just requires effort and consistency.

People raised the importance of teaching, which in their view was essential to keeping a language alive. One person suggested how to keep the language alive: by practising it i.e. writing, reading, and socialising and speaking with others. Internet resources such as Youtube were recommended.

I follow Kristie Prada, who has experience of bringing up her children bilingually. She provides sound advice.

My thanks to the members of the Pashtun community. I hope their discussion and work will continue. I hope to continue to learn from them and others who may follow their example.