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Is The Future of Punjabi Language In Danger?

By Dr. Bikkar Singh Lalli

“Mar rahihaimeribhasha, shabdshabd, vakvak.”(Surjit Patar)”.

A three part series of reports, appeared in The Tribune, under the heading: ”Disappearing students and teachers of Punjabi in colleges” , gave us a rude shock. “The abysmally low state to which the Punjabi language has fallen into reinforces the pain and anguish most self-respecting Punjabis feel about the language. In urban areas, it is rare to find a child speaking in the mother tongue with his family or friends. The only place the youngsters seek out the Punjabi language is the dance floor”, (Tribune Editorial).A language is at risk of being lost when it no longer is taught to younger generations, while fluent speakers of the language (usually the elderly) die.When a language dies, the knowledge of and ability to understand the culture who spoke it is threatened because the teachings, customs, oral traditions and other inherited knowledge are no longer transmitted among native speakers.

A language is not only a vehicle for the expression of thoughts, perceptions, sentiments, and values characteristic of a community; it also represents a fundamental expression of social identity. The dire situation the Punjabi language is in, may, in the long run, impact the future of Sikh Faith, and Sikh Identity.Language is a central element and expression of identity and of key importance in the preservation of group identity. ”Language is particularly important to linguistic minority communities seeking to maintain their distinct group and cultural identity, sometimes under conditions of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination. A language is a major aspect of the culture that speaks that language.  When the language dies, a major part of the culture dies.  By preserving languages, we preserve the cultures of those who speak them.”

As it is reported, fewer and fewer students are opting for Punjabi in schools, and the percentage of students studying Punjabi literature for graduate or post-graduate degrees down by nearly half in the past decade, hiring of regular teachers for the subject in colleges has been practically nil over the past 15 years. Punjabi University-affiliated colleges had approximately 13,725 students opting for Punjabi elective in 2007 for undergraduate studies. The figure today stands at 12,500. GNDU is down from 12,425 to 12,000; and PU from 14,000 to 13,035.These figures may suggest that the drop in students is small, but that is deceptive. That is because the percentage of students out of the total taking up Punjabi elective takes a drastic hit when we take into account the fact that colleges under PU increased from 182 in 2007 to 196 today; while those under Punjabi University increased from 110 to 278.

And what makes it a shockingly low percentage is the horde of private universities that have come up in the past decade, and which are drawing a significant share of students with their professional courses, almost none of which offer Punjabi literature. The reason for private colleges and universities not offering Punjabi elective is simple — students are looking only for courses that can possibly provide them jobs. And as we see, currently even the job of a Punjabi teacher is not available. A section of Punjab population assigns Punjabi language a  lowersocial status, and encourages the children to use the language used more often in society to distance themselves from the perceived lower class. .

In 1956, a Language Dept. was set up with an ambitious plan for promoting Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu literature. Based in Patiala. Its Hindi Section was headed by a colleague of mine- Dr. PermaNand from Govt. College Nabha. Now, The Language Dept. is headed for a complete closure, as 105 out of its total 135 posts have already gone vacant, with no fresh recruitments planned.

Punjabi is spoken by 13 crore people across the world and is the 10th most spoken language in the world. However, in Punjab it is being shunned by a significant proportion of the youth-the Net Generation. In the age of world corporate capitalism, English rules as the language of the global market. Not only Punjabi but all other languages, including Urdu and Hindi, are in dire straits. For Sikhs alone, this could be a great problem of an unprecedented nature, as without Punjabi mother tongue, the children may never remain connected to The Universal Truth -The Gurbaniwhich has been originally written by Gurus themselves in simple language of the day.

“The distinct sign that one’s mother language is slowly dying is excruciatingly evocative of a larger cultural loss. The onus of saving it is on every native Punjabi — whether Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or Christian — proud of his origins”. Political as well as religious leadership, must look at this tragic phenomenonof waning interest in Punjabi language, and adjust and adapt, if necessary, to the changing socio-economic environment to save it.For any people, their mother tongue is critical to their self-esteem, identity, creativity, human development, expression of though, feelings and passion. The Government’s role in the preservation and promotion of Punjabi cannot be underestimated.What a shame- after a prolonged struggle a “Punjabi Suba” was carved out in 1966. Now it is a suba for sure in which “Punjabi” is marginalized. In order to survive Punjabi language it must come under state patronage. The parents would do well to know that a bilingual child fares better in life, as per many studies. Without speaking Punjabi or writing and enriching it further, we cannot legitimately claim pride in our being the 10th most spoken language in the world, fourth in Asia and third in the sub-continent as also in the UK and Canada.

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