India has earned the dubious distinction of having the largest number of languages in danger of extinction. For instance, only 31 people in south Andaman Island speak Jarawa, while just 138 people in Himachal speak Handuri.
According to the UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger, released in February, more than 2.5 crore Indians stand to lose their linguistic heritage unless immediate measures are undertaken at a social and policy level.
The 196 Indian languages that face extinction include Dakpa from Arunachal Pradesh (with 1,000 speakers) and Byangsi (with 1,734 speakers), along the India-Nepal border.
Dr Udaya Narayan Singh, director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, said there are several reasons why languages become extinct. “The greatest threat most minor languages and dialects face is negative evaluation. People are shifting to languages of opportunity. Also, as certain populations — like tribes — decrease, their languages die out.”
In Maharashtra, Naiki — spoken in Chandrapur and Nanded — has been declared critically endangered, while Kolami — spoken in Yavatmal, Wardha and Nanded — is definitely endangered.
The Atlas lists levels of endangerment on the basis of who is capable of speaking the language in a family. A language is ‘critically endangered’ if the youngest speakers are grandparents, while it is ‘definitely endangered’ if children are no longer taught the language at home.
Worldwide, there are more than 2,000 languages that are facing different degrees of endangerment.
Singh, one of the contributers to the UNESCO Atlas, reccomends creating functions for indigenous dialects, to ensure they
do not become extinct. “When they are used in the market place or are taught in schools, languages remain alive,” he said.
Amit Khare, a Ministry of Human Resource and Development official, said the government does not recognise “endangered” as a category of languages. A scheme — the Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojna — to develop and promote minor languages, formulated in 2007, is yet to be implemented.
The 2001 census recognised 122 Indian languages, including 22 major ones (scheduled in the Constitution of India) and 100 – spoken by 10,000 people or more – as minor languages.