Muhammad Najm Akbar
By 2012, the number of French citizens of Pakistani origin was on the rise. The children in Pakistani immigrant families like other diaspora communities had a greater role in communication, decision-making, and integration. If they were Trojan Horses, they worked both ways. They became mediators between a less literate first generation and a new culture. The language was their principal asset and power in this generational process of resistance and assimilation into a new world. The French language was new to the Pakistani parents but the immigrant, diaspora children had an edge in language learning universally. Outre Manche or in the world that began beyond Nord Pas de Calais, children had a bigger advantage as well. I asked a dear friend’s fresh-of-the-boat little daughter if she liked her new home in France. She had only one complaint. Her friendly, nice, cute, and loving teacher in France did not know Punjabi. In that charming school in the area that she had been attending for a week immediately after her arrival, she was not scared though. She confidently affirmed to have started helping her sweet teacher with Punjabi so that they could talk to each other. She opened my eyes to a fascinating process diaspora children go through. It was years before my teachers at a graduate school in Monterey, California would begin to unravel the intricacies of second language acquisition and define the critical age of language learning. In retrospect, that is where the little kid was. Just a few weeks later, brimming with confidence, she told me that her teacher finally spoke fluent Punjabi. She said so in the perfect French accent every second language learner would envy. She had stepped ahead of every other member of her family within weeks and at such a young age. Her elder siblings were not far behind.
Notably, she did not say Urdu when she engaged in her first intercultural dialogue with her French teacher. She would teach her Punjabi, not Urdu because she began her schooling in France. She would have learned Urdu only if she had begun her education in Pakistan. So, the diaspora children explained another simple, fundamental linguistic fact to me before I learned its secrets at a graduate school of second language learning in America: Mother Tongues Matter.
I learned from a visiting North African delegation member that the language situation in the British and French colonies had been vastly different. While English was Pakistan’s official language, regional languages existed and progressed. Under British rule, English gained prominence as the language of prestige and as the official language, but the British encouraged the learning and growth of vernaculars in the empire. The French rulers, however, sought learning of language within the hexagon and colonies as indispensable means of integration and assimilation. The Pakistani little princess glided into that universe like many other diaspora children. She was not alone. Outre Manche children of the families I knew had also moved along that path. Urdu had disappeared from their lexicon, but they retained native skills in both Punjabi and English.
Language had been a difficult issue for Pakistan since its creation in 1947. Political, economic, and cultural injustice severed Jinnah’s Pakistan of 1947 into Bangladesh and Pakistan in 1971. The language issue was a prime symptom of a crumbling federal structure that Pakistani leadership demolished within twenty-six years of the tragic and blood-soaked partition of British India. Muslim League leadership failed to understand how much mother tongues mattered. Bengalis refused to accept the denigration of their mother tongue and culture. They revolted against the founder of Pakistan for being part of that unacceptable disregard, probably unknowingly, for their centuries-old culture. In the remainder of Jinnah’s Pakistan, mother tongues continued to have a poor deal.
The state in Pakistan used mechanisms of the medium of instruction and language to perpetuate state-managed inequality. Millions of Pakistanis continued to experience this injustice. English was and continues to be Pakistan’s official language. Public schools, however, made little effort to utilize the critical age of second language acquisition and teach students Pakistan’s official language in those prime years of language learning. Only private schools and educational institutions like Aitchison College the British Raj had bequeathed to the ruling class made that effort. In the public schools where I completed my education, there was another second language to learn, Urdu. It was neither the mother tongue of the majority nor the official language of Pakistan. The second language millions of Pakistani students learned at public schools was not English.
English, Pakistan’s official language which offered the key to prestige and the public and private job markets, had no presence in the learners’ most critical years in the public school system of Pakistan. Through the school system, the Pakistani decision-making elite ensured that an overwhelming number of public school students should never be able to compete with the privileged minority whose offspring studied in English medium private schools in big cities that prepared them to run the public, private and services sectors in the country. Public schools had to be patriotic and loyal to Jinnah’s decision to adopt Urdu as Pakistan’s national language disregarding the ethnic and linguistic realities of the country he had created. France was in a different situation. French had become the language of the majority, prestige, medium of instruction, and job markets, although grievances from some constituents of the Republic persisted. French constitution defined sovereignty in terms of language. Articles 2-4 enunciating French sovereignty began with sub-article one stipulating “La langue de la République est le français.” Diaspora children imbibed that spirit in their new classrooms and playgrounds.