Is Punjabi A Foreign Language In Canada?

Is Punjabi A Foreign Language In Canada?


Sadhu Binning

Several aspects of Punjabi language’s place and future in Canada need to be discussed. Like the general population of any language group, a great majority of Punjabis love their mother tongue and wish well for its future. However, they are preoccupied with their day-to-day life problems and don’t make an effort to sit and think about the issues of their mother tongue. In other words, the language is not on their list of immediate priorities. This is common behavior among all people everywhere and should not be a cause of alarm. What is worrisome is the attitude found among those Punjabis who do make an effort to think about these issues. They hold various different views, often very negative ones, especially about the place of Punjabi language in Canada and whether it should be taught to younger generations.

Many genuine well wishers of Punjabi consider it a waste of time to teach it to the next generation. They believe that their kids will be more successful in life if they were to spend time on learning something more useful than Punjabi language. This is erroneous and is already having a negative affect on the next generations and can lead to even more serious problems in the future as far as the development of our community in Canada is concerned. This is a cause of alarm and should be discussed from various aspects.

One reason for such a view – no benefit in teaching kids Punjabi in Canada – is that many people are not very clear about the place and what should be the future of Punjabi language in Canada. People who feel this way about their language are quite clear about many other aspects of their culture. For example, people are proud of the fact that Sikh religion is now recognized by powers that are in Victoria, Ottawa, Washington and other such important places. And they have every reason to be proud of their achievement. In Vancouver, BC or in other parts of Canada Sikh religion is not a foreign religion anymore. It is a Canadian religion practiced by people who are full-fledged Canadian citizens. When they get up early in the morning to read Gurbani or go to the gurdwara to listen to the keertan, they are not involved in some foreign activity, rather as Canadians they are practicing a religion that is recognized as Canadian religion. In order to make sure that their religion is fully recognized, respected and appreciated in Canada they lobby political leaders and often ask and receive financial support. As Canadian citizens it is their right and they take advantage of it.

When Punjabis prepare praunthas for their lunch, make dahiN – yogurt – at home, cook saag, enjoy samossey, gol gapey and chaat in restaurants or parties, they are not eating some foreign food. These are Canadian dishes now and they have become Canadians because people love them and need them. Similarly, when they wear colorful saris and suit shalwaars and tie different styles of turbans on their heads they are not wearing any foreign dress. The respect and care shown to these dresses have made them Canadians.

Whenever anyone tries to suggest that any of the above is not Canadian, Punjabis try to educate that person and make every effort to show that things that they do and love are Canadian. Punjabis consider themselves full-fledged Canadians now and they consider their religion, dress, food and many other things Canadian as well and they are always anxious to convince others. This is how it should be.

But in the case of Punjabi language, many people have different views. The Canadian establishment due to numerous historical, political, social and economic reasons continue to officially view Punjabi and other languages as foreign. One can at least understand this. However, what is hard to understand is that many Punjabis themselves express same view. They don’t dare say this very loudly, but feel quite strongly that Punjabi is not a Canadian language. It is important for us to examine this attitude. We need to work as hard to make Punjabi a Canadian language as we try to make other aspects of our culture. In fact we should be stressing the language more since it is the language that carries cultural values in it. Without the Punjabi language we will not have Punjabi culture. Granted that it will not be an easy task to gain recognition for the language in Canada since it involves bigger issues at the national level. However this should not mean that we ourselves come to the conclusion that it is impossible. Canada is a place where things are possible. We should never forget that it took our elders forty years to gain the right to vote in this country. They never gave up.

The only way to successfully achieve the recognition for the language is to first believe it ourselves that Punjabi is a Canadian language. This language has contributed in the development of this society for more than a century now. It is not only spoken in the homes, there are thousands of workplaces across the country where Punjabi is spoken. Punjabi is number six in Canada and it has been number three in BC for decades. Since 1994 it has been given the right to be taught in BC school as a second language. Punjabi writers living and writing here since the days of ‘Gadar dia Goonjan’ have produced huge amount of literature. This literature is Canadian in every way. In fact it can be argued that this literature is more Canadian than much celebrated Canadian literature by big names like Rohintan Mistry or Margaret Atwood. They mainly write about other times and other places, while Punjabis write mainly about their experience here as new Canadians. Yet this literature is not officially recognized as Canadian and neither is the language it is written in. And for some unseen fear we ourselves are not able to demand that it should be recognized as Canadian.

(This article was written in 2004 for PLEA - Punjabi Language Education Association)
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