Some are dead, some are moribund. Some of us are aware of it, some of us are not. Some of us are trying to help in the situation, others are blissfully ignorant. This gradual fading of various regional languages in the country is bound to have a repercussion and we are to witness it in the inevitable future.
What will happen if one fine morning you wake up to realize that the language you speak is not understood by anyone anymore and you are not being able to convey your thoughts to others? We may soon see such situations in the coming years. Many languages our ancestors spoke and which orchestrated our rich culture and history existing in the various pockets of this polyglot country are breathing their last.
A four-member tribal family living in Jorethang, south of the Sikkim capital, Gangtok, use their native language called Majhi only during a 16-day death ritual and the extended family no longer uses it. In 2010, the death of an 85-year-old woman named Boa Senior in Andaman signified the end of the last living speaker of the tribal language called Aka-Bo.
Maithili, which is used by the senior people in eastern part of Bihar is almost 1000 years old, but is not being passed on to the next generation.
The number of speakers of the Kutchi language in the Kutch region of Gujarat was drastically decreased when 30,000 lives were lost due to an earthquake in the area.
Chaimal language in Tripura which has only four to five speakers is another such example.
Every state has about four or five languages that are critically close to extinction such as Mehali in Maharashtra, Sidi in Gujarat, Dimasa in Assam, Hmar in Manipur and Tripura, Khasi in Meghalaya, Mahali in Odisha and many more.
We do not even know about many other languages which are already extinct or are about to get obsolete because government denies the existence of any language having less than 10,000 speakers.
Back in 1996 G.N. Devy, a professor at the University of Baroda, brought out 11 magazines in those languages which were on a verge of getting obsolete. He printed 1000 copies and on the first day itself 700 copies were sold. After such an incentive experience, Devy decided to document the moribund languages. He travelled across the country, made contacts, trained and summoned volunteers and finally set up a team to anchor the work formally.
Under his initiative The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) was established in Vadodara in 2010. Then with the publication of the latest 11 volume of its proposed 50 volume survey in 2013 on the country’s languages, this grave problem gained public attention. We were enlightened with the fact that about 400 languages are at a risk of getting wiped out in the coming years among the 780 recognized Indian languages. Some 250 languages have already been extinguished with its corresponding culture getting killed.
The main reasons for the disappearance of these languages are lack of recognition, political marginalization, displacement of communities, absence of livelihood, the world becoming more homogenous and definitely the absence of any policy on language conservation.
The coastal regionS in India have lost more languages because of the change in the fishing technology. Local people lost their livelihood and they migrated inwards, consequently they migrated out of their language zone. These people carried their language, but for a while, a shift took place with the second and third generation. Other than the coastal region tribal communities also face the same problem. But India’s linguistic problem does not stop here it is way more deeply rooted.
Tracing history we find that there was a terrible law brought in by the British Government known as the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. Under this act various communities were categorized as criminals by birth. These people mainly belonged to the tribal communities and today they are trying to break free from that age old burdened identity. Some of them do not wish to give up their identity; others are not getting any alternate. Children from these communities either get no education or are educated in one of the 22 officially recognized Indian languages. Thus, they are compelled to give up their ancestral tongue.
Then comes the marginalization of languages which started in the year 1926. The idea of organizing India on the basis of linguistic states came up. Languages which had scripts were counted for making states, while the ones which did not have any scripts were not considered and hence they did not get their own state. The unwritten languages also had no place in the education system since schools and colleges were established only in the officially recognized languages. As a result of this division tribal clans and their languages started to lag behind. Today the schools focus mainly on training students only in the global language. Again, establishing one single language in the country has weakened the regional languages even further.
Another reason for this problem started in the year 1968 when the government proposed the three-language program in schools. Apart from English and Hindi, students were asked to take up a third language, preferably a regional one.
Unfortunately, instead of promoting regional dialects that move popularized the global dialect. Sometimes we forget that suppressing certain communities and their languages can backfire and destroy social harmony. The vandalism created by the Pro-Kannada activists in Bangalore was a burning example.
People may say that there’s no harm in losing regional languages. But we tend to forget that every language is unique and is a storehouse of traditional knowledge. We should also acknowledge that linguistic citizenship is as important as political citizenship.
The lack of a common language between a local administrator and the citizens will affect both sides. For example, in Maoist-struck Chhattisgarh many lives are lost due to the clashes between local tribes and the administrative forces who speak in Hindi. If much attention was paid on the tribal languages the drop-out rate among the Adivasi students would have decreased, who after leaving education in most cases end up joining the Maoists.
Languages are also lost because of migration and loss of livelihood. So, to preserve languages we need to look after the well-being of the people who use those languages, we need a ground-level planning of developing and reviving the occupation of those people, which in turn may help them to revive their language.
Attempts are on to preserve languages at different levels. Anup Kumar Nath, a linguistic scholar at Tezpur University, is documenting the endangered languages in the north-east of India and in the Andamans.
Various other initiatives are also taken, like, the one by Anundaram Institute of Language, Art and Culture, Assam. They are making dictionaries of a trilingual kind, where the users can refer to the indigenous languages while looking for English words. Such dictionaries have come out in Bodo.
It is advisable to have more such books published in these languages. The government should have policies regarding regional dialects and tribal language conservation. Schools should make the study of regional languages compulsory, if not in the higher classes, at least among the middle school students. People who are not aware of the global tongue should not be looked down upon rather there should be equal opportunity for talented people, equal scope for everyone, no matter what language they speak.
Preserving one’s ancestral tongue is very crucial in today’s times. On the social and political level, by ignoring a language, we are ignoring the existence of the whole community. By marginalizing a certain group of people, we are not only suppressing them but also depriving them of their identity.
This may lead to disputes between majority and minority disrupting social harmony. On a personal level, language preservation is important. We all remain very busy with our individual work and lives. In this tech-driven world many prefer virtual company over the real ones, and in this situation if we lose the languages or dialects used by our previous generations, we will not be able to communicate to them.
A recent incident which I witnessed few days back stands as a testimony to this. One of my friends who is from Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, was talking to her grandmother over phone. The language she was speaking though sounded familiar was not comprehensible to me. Later I got to know from her that it’s the Pahari dialect and is the only language her grandmother knows. Now imagine if she was not aware of that particular dialect, how was she supposed to communicate to her grandmother? And since I am not aware of the existence of that particular dialect, it still remained unintelligible to me.
We cannot afford to lose the wealth of our regional languages and dialects. We must save them for our own sake.