The Khojki script and Gondi lipi are being developed by Karambir Singh Rohilla, a New Delhi-based typeface designer who specialises in Indic and English language fonts. Banwang Losu, a school teacher in the Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh, is working on the Wancho script.(Illustration: Animesh Debnath)
The Khojki script and Gondi lipi are being developed by Karambir Singh Rohilla, a New Delhi-based typeface designer who specialises in Indic and English language fonts. Banwang Losu, a school teacher in the Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh, is working on the Wancho script.(Illustration: Animesh Debnath)

Gondi, Walmiki, Malhar, Korga: Mother tongues India risks losing

By KumKum Dasgupta | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON MAY 06, 2018 10:30 PM IST

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ is a fascinating book. Other than being a searing account of the marginalisation of tribals in Jharkhand, there is another reason to be effusive about it: Just below the title on the aquamarine-coloured cover, which has a sketch of a hand on a dhol, are four words in Santhali’s Ol-Chiki script: ‘Aale Hor Bale Eneja’ (‘We Santhals Will Not Dance’). “My mother tongue, Santhali, was my first medium of communication with my family. After having learnt at least three other languages, it is still my first medium of communication with my family. I cannot describe how important it is for me,” says Shekhar. “I put them [the Santhali words] on the cover because I felt they should’ve been there. It was for me”.

While Shekhar’s love and support for his language are touching, Santhali is lucky to have another strong supporter: the Indian State. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of the country. These lucky ones get State support for their development and dissemination, the Union Public Services Examination can be taken in them, and some even find a place on our currency notes.

Tower Of Babel

India, however, is home to more than 22 languages. It is, as the former University of Baroda English professor and the man behind the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Ganesh Devy, says, a “dense forest of voices”, a noisy Tower of Babel, with hundreds of languages and dialects. While languages are typically prestigious, official, written; dialects are spoken and unofficial. Russian Jewish linguist Max Weinreich summed up their relationship pithily: a language is a dialect with an army and navy.

Unfortunately, India’s diversity of languages (dialects included) is facing an existential crisis. In the last few decades, experts say, the country has lost a few hundred languages because of lack of government patronage, absence of credible data on them, dwindling numbers of speakers, poor primary education in local languages, migration of tribals from villages, and the lack of a cohesive national language policy.

Tech Extends A Helping Hand
Technology companies are showing great interest in endangered languages. This is because they are realising that content on the Internet is overwhelmingly English and that is stopping them from acquiring new non- English speaking users. So Google has an endangered languages project, a platform for interested people to share research and collaborate on endangered languages.
Microsoft too sees language technology as a vehicle to provide Internet access to speakers of endangered languages. "We can make the documentation less laborious by providing tools such as an interface on mobile phones to record and annotate the language, or input mechanisms such as language keyboards," says Kalika Bali, researcher, Microsoft Research India. They can also help to make web content available in these languages directly or through speech interfaces.

The loss of languages is a global phenomenon. “When languages are not transmitted to children, they become endangered and are likely to become extinct,” warns Mandana Seyfeddinipur, director, World Languages Institute, School of Languages, Cultures, and Linguistics, SOAS, University of London. “While throughout human history, speakers have shifted to other languages, the speed of this development has dramatically increased over the past century. It is estimated that the loss of language diversity is happening on the scale of the fifth mass extinction.”

Explaining why languages must be saved, she adds: “Each of these vanishing languages expresses a unique knowledge, history, and worldview of the speakers’ community. Each is a distinct evolved variation of the human capacity for language”. Many of these languages of the world have never been described or recorded, so the richness of human linguistic diversity is disappearing without a trace. Linguists estimate that there are around 7,000 languages spoken worldwide and at least half of those will be lost by the end of this century.

Dying A Slow Death

In India, many languages are dead or in the throes of extinction, thanks to their political marginalisation that started when state boundaries were drawn based on linguistic lines. Languages that had scripts were counted and the ones without a script (and therefore, without printed literature) lost out in the race. Schools and colleges were established only in the ‘official’ languages. The ones without scripts found no place in the education system.

Scheduled languages
The Constitution does not give any language the status of national language. It designates the official language as Standard Hindi, as well as English. The 22 scheduled languages are: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu.
Documenting lost languages
Linguists go to the chosen community and start with a pilot to check logistics, spend time with the community to build confidence; draw up word lists, questionnaires about their social practices. This is followed with video recordings, validation and figuring out the dialect. If the endangered language does not have a script, then the dominant language script is used.
State schemes
The Centre in 2014 initiated a scheme called "Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India". Under this scheme, the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysuru, works on the protection, preservation, and documentation of all the mother tongues/languages spoken by less than 10,000 people.

The maximum impact of such political and social marginalisation has been on languages spoken by poor communities such as tribals. Take, for example, Gondi. The language is spoken by nearly 12 million Gond adivasis, who live in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh. And yet, there is no one standardised Gondi language that unifies them all. Different versions and dialects exist, specific to the geographical areas that they live in, with influences of the regional languages seeping in.

Administrative oversight followed political sidelining. The 1961 Census recorded 1,652 languages. But since the 1971 Census, languages spoken by less than 10,000 people have been lumped as “others”. The language data of the 2011 Census, the most recent, has not even been made public. However, in a recent Press Trust of India report, a Census directorate official admitted that “40 languages and dialects are in danger of disappearing because they are spoken by less than 10,000 people”.

Such political and administrative omission has given rise to a caste system of sorts among languages. In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly, Hany Babu MT, associate professor, Department of English, University of Delhi, blames the Constitution for failing to “pay more than lip service to the linguistic plurality and multilingual ethos of the peoples of India”. He adds that the Constitution – even though it does not give any language the status of national language – has created a chaturvarna (four-tier order) of languages, with Sanskrit, Hindi, the scheduled, and the non-scheduled languages occupying various rungs of the ladder. English, of course, is outside the “chaturvarna system”, but carries a special position, thanks to its “emancipatory potential”.

Saving The Endangered

While the State is yet to release the full report on India’s language diversity (some claim this is because such a report will have political ramifications), there are several State-led, institutional and private efforts, albeit fragmented, to document endangered languages. For example, Devy has documented 780 living languages and claims that 400 of them are at risk of dying.

But there could be more than what Devy’s team documented. Recently, a linguistics professor at the University of Hyderabad, Panchanan Mohanty, discovered two languages spoken in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh: Walmiki and Malhar.

The first step of saving an endangered language is documenting it, a Herculean task. “It is a lengthy process and needs huge resources because it’s not just about documenting the language but also socio-cultural practices and ethnic practices of the community,” says Dr DG Rao, director, Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysuru. “More importantly, researchers need a lot of time.” While there are many researchers documenting India’s dying languages, there has been no standardisation of the process. To streamline it, CIIL has come up with a manual for language documentation, parameters for a timeline and is also training people working on projects on how to go about it.

“A language can only survive if it is used …. It’s the younger generation, which has to drive this process as they are the ones that will carry the knowledge and transmit it,” says Seyfeddinipur. Other than in homes, these languages need to be taught in schools.

Thereby hangs a tale in India.

In 2014, Karnataka started the policy of mother tongue as medium of instruction at the primary level. But parents of students went to the Supreme Court against the order. The apex court held that the imposition of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary classes in government-recognised, aided or unaided private schools was unconstitutional, and it should be left to children and parents to decide on which language of instruction they prefer.

Need Of The Hour

The role of the mother tongue in schools, which can help languages to survive, is a fuzzy area in India because there is no language policy in place. “A comprehensive language policy could be a statement of intent, and can be implemented as a procedure or protocol. Currently, India has no guidelines for ensuring the survival of these languages,” says Dr Purushothama Bilimale, professor of Kannada, Centre of Indian Languages, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Take, for example, Koraga. There are not more than 45-50 people (all in their 60s) in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka who speak this language. “Their children have not learnt this language and have moved to Tulu, the powerful local language and to Kannada, the official language of Karnataka. In the next decade or so, there will be no Koraga-speaking people left. This is how a language dies,” says Bilimale.

Another example is Ruga in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. The community is supposed to speak Ruga but speaks Garo, the dominant language of the area. Today, there are only three speakers left.

The National Education Policy of 1968 – a revision is in the works – however, tried to push local languages by recommending a complicated three-language formula.

The first language would be the mother tongue/regional language; the second, in Hindi-speaking states, would be any other modern Indian language/English and in non-Hindi-speaking states, the second language would be Hindi or English. When it comes to the third language, in Hindi-speaking states, it would be English or a modern Indian language not studied as the second language; and in non-Hindi-speaking states, the third language would be English or a modern Indian language not studied as the second language.

This was accepted in principle by states but never applied.

“The Constitution leaves the choice of language for children to the parents; exploiting this, states have encouraged English-medium schools and allowed private entrepreneurs to move into the field that should have been the State’s domain,” says Dr Rao. “Then came the IT sector and imprinted in the minds of parents that English must be the lingua franca…It’s difficult for languages, even the major ones, to survive such lopsided policies and increasing preference for foreign languages in schools”.

Is it surprising then that the language tree is slowly wilting in a country that, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, has the largest number of living languages?

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