How nursery rhymes are expected to revive a declining language

  • Manoj R Nair, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Oct 23, 2015 20:32 IST

This month, a group of Sindhi speakers started a project which they think will preserve their language from disappearing in India.

The group wants teachers in schools run by Sindhi trusts to teach old nursery rhymes - set to new tunes - to their students. There are hundreds of such institutions in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Ajmer that received refugees during the country’s partition. Some of these schools still teach the language, but many have switched to English and Hindi, creating fears that the language is hurtling towards extinction.  

The Sindhi Sangat, a cultural organisation based in Mumbai, has used nursery rhymes by Koshi Lalvani and an adaptation of the Panchtantra for the language project. Many of these nursery rhymes are familiar to the older generation, but have been set to fresh tunes for the new generation of learners.

Earlier this month, Sindhi Sangat met school managements in Mumbai localities areas with a large concentration of Sindhi speakers, like Chembur and Ulhasnagar, to convince them to take up the programme.

In Chembur, the Vivekananda Education Society, which runs seven schools, said they will start the project in two of their institutions after the Diwali holidays. “Learning the language is already compulsory for our students who take admissions using the quota for Sindhi speakers. If we start teaching the spoken language in the nursery, these students will pick it up earlier,” said Padma Vaswani, trustee. “I have asked teachers to prepare for the classes.” The institution said it has enough teachers who understand the language. “We sent teachers who came from Sindhi-speaking families to a one-year certificate course in the language,” added Vaswani.         

Similarly, Hare Krishna NCT, which runs five schools in Ulhasnagar, plans to teach the language to kindergarten students. Prakash Choudhary of the group estimates that nearly 30% of the students in the schools come from Sindhi families. “But many of them now speak Hindi and English at homes. If the language is taught at a young age, it will survive in future generations.”      

Chand says there are other benefits of teaching children their mother tongue at a young age. “The Sindhi language has unique pronunciations that can be learnt only if it is picked up at a young age. These pronunciations are hard to learn when students learn the language in their teens,” said Chand. 

Without a state of their own that can promote their language, Sindhi speakers have been worrying about its future. After the only private television station in the language closed down a few years ago they have been campaigning for a Doordarshan-run channel. A few decades ago, as schools in the language started shutting down, they asked colleges run by the community to teach the language. 

“This is the only way in which we can bring a real change. People should understand that if we go through this process of teaching our children the language, we will be able to keep our identity alive,” said Chand.

After independence, one dispute among the speakers of the language was whether to use the Arabic script, which is used in their native Sind, or to promote the Devnagri alphabet. Chand’s group wants to promote the Arabic script – though they prefer to call it the Sindhi alphabet - because of some features absent in the original Arabic.

Others feel that this insistence on using the Arabic script was leading to the language’s decline in India. Siddh Bhauji, chairman of Shaheed Hemu Kalani Educational Society, Bhopal, which runs schools and colleges, said that the dispute over the script was killing the language. “People who understand the Arabic script are dying. If we teach the language in the Devnagri script, it will be possible to preserve it,” said Bhauji. “People who can read Sindhi in the Arabic script, like me, are few. It is a matter of shame that the language is dying because of this dispute over the script.”  

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