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Why we must save India’s dying languages

Other than being a part of living heritage, languages convey unique culture; it also carries loads of traditional wisdom.

editorials Updated: Aug 06, 2017 23:56 IST
Dr GN Devy at the release of the ‘People's Linguistic Survey of Indian and celebrating Language diversity’ in New Delhi, on August 3, 2017.
Dr GN Devy at the release of the ‘People's Linguistic Survey of Indian and celebrating Language diversity’ in New Delhi, on August 3, 2017.(Sonu Mehta/HT File Photo)

India is a diverse country. This line has been drilled into our heads since the time we were in school. Unfortunately, we have been unable to protect that diversity, especially when it comes to language. In the 1961 census, there were 1,652 mother tongues. That came down to 808 mother tongues in the 1971 census. In those 10 years, what happened to the rest? This question prompted GN Devy, an academic, to do a comprehensive survey of all living languages of India. The result: The People’s Linguistic Survey of India report, which was released in Delhi last week.

It’s not just the Indian languages that have grabbed his attention. He is also working on a Global Language Status Report, which proposes to cover nearly 6,000 living languages spoken in all parts of the world. Beginning with the languages in Africa and Australia, covered in the first phase, it hopes to assess the viability and the future of every language. The study will be done in collaboration with a large number of research institutes and universities and with the help of an extensive team of experts and cultural activists drawn from all countries in the world. The results of this comprehensive study will start getting published from 2022 and the entire report running into 15 volumes will be out by 2025.

All this brings us to a basic question: Why must we preserve dying languages? Other than being a part of living heritage, languages convey our unique culture; it also carries so much traditional wisdom. And more importantly, each language has its own world view and can provide insights into the neurology, psychology and the linguistic capacities of our species. For people, language is also power. Take for example, the plight of tribals in Chhattisgarh. There is an acute disconnect between them and the administration and one key reason is that while they cannot speak Hindi, the administrators cannot speak their local language. And as they say, much gets lost in translation. At the release of the report, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that much more needs to be done to preserve languages. We agree wholeheartedly.