Mother Tongues endangered due to government neglect

Hindustan Times | ByMeher Ali, New Delhi
Dec 10, 2009 08:04 PM IST

In a globalizing world where Hindi and English hold currency, mother tongues are becoming endangered. The government doesn't acknowledge they exist nor are they taught in schools. People who speak minority languages or 'mother tongues' are too old or not interested in passing them on to their kids. Meher Ali reports.

"The concept of non-discrimination lies at the heart of human rights," reads the first line of a statement issued by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, this year on December 10, recognized the world over as Human Rights Day.

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Pillay's statement underscores the fact the spirit of human rights lies in "non-discrimination."

Yet, discrimination on the basis of language, among others, is a common, although often ignored grounds for human rights violations in India.

Our linguistic diversity is under threat because linguistic minorities are gradually letting go of their mother tongues. This coupled with the government's passive attitude towards preserving these languages has earned India the dubious distinction of being the country with the most number of endangered languages - in the world.

187 languages in India are under threat of disappearing; 9 are already extinct, according to UNESCO's e-atlas released in February this year.

Our South Asian neighbours fall far behind. Nepal has 71 endangered languages (second highest in South Asia), Pakistan has 27, Bangladesh five and Sri Lanka, just one.

This despite the fact that linguistic rights are protected both under the Indian Constitution (Article 29 (1) and Article 350 A) and by UN legislation including, among others, Article 27 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 107 (3).

So why is it that India has the most number of languages in danger of disappearing? What does it mean and does it even matter?

What is starkly apparent from the e-atlas of India is that there is a cluster of endangered languages in the Northeast (NE) and along the Indo-Nepal border, starting from Uttaranchal and going all the way up to Ladakh.

A look at the online database, released along with the e-atlas, reveals something even more interesting - of the 187 endangered languages 64 are in the NE and along the Indo-Nepal border. The NE alone has 39 endangered languages. 22 of these are in Arunachal Pradesh. This means that a state just 2.5% of India, has 11.7% of the total number of endangered languages in the country.

So what is happening in this state that constitutes such a small portion of India, and occupies an even smaller space in our national imagination?

To define a language

To begin with, there is the problem of definition. What the government doesn't know of, the government won't do anything about. The Indian government does not recognize many of the languages listed in UNESCO's e-atlas. "We don't go by the UNESCO atlas," says GDP Sastry, Head of Centre for Tribal and Endangered Languages in Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL), which comes under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. "We (CIIL) make a distinction between language and mother tongue," he adds.

CIIL follows the Census of India (2001) definition of what can or cannot be classified as a 'language'. The census is pretty straightforward - if there are 10,000 or more speakers it is recognized as a language, otherwise it is a 'mother tongue'.

Mother tongues are basically at the bottom of the rack. They are classified as dialects under 'non-scheduled languages'. These are languages the government recognizes but doesn't consider important enough to include in the Eight Schedule (ES), which is a list of 22 languages officially recognized as languages spoken in India.

A case in point is the language Apatani, spoken in Arunachal Pradesh. It is listed as a non-scheduled language in Census 2001 and UNESCO lists it as a "definitely endangered" language in its e-atlas. Being "definitely endangered" means that "children no longer learn this language as their mother tongue at home," according to UNESCO.

While GOI recognizes Apatani, many mother tongues, especially those with a thousand or less speakers, get no such acknowledgement. The only proof of their existence is the UNESCO e-atlas that lists them as endangered.

In contrast, scheduled languages are accorded prestige. They "get more attention and more funding," says Rajesh Sachdeva, Director of CIIL. "They enjoy […] privileges from the government for retaining and empowering [them] through [their] literature," adds Professor Bidisha Som from IIT, Guwahati, who did her PhD on endangered languages in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

So how do languages get on this A-list? "There is no set criteria…all big languages with lots of literature," are included in the ES, Sachdeva points out.

No mother tongue education

Whether a language makes it to the ES or not determines its chances of survival. It is compulsory for schools in non-Hindi speaking states to teach a language listed in the ES, along with Hindi and English. This education policy adopted by GOI in 1968 is known as the "Three Language Formula" (TLF).

But TLF does not require teaching of non-scheduled languages or mother tongues in schools. "Progressively what happens is […] People cannot express themselves in their mother tongue because they have lost certain words, so they switch over to the dominant language," says Sastry.

This is happening in Arunachal Pradesh where, according to him, "people prefer to speak in Assamese because they don't have vocabulary to express themselves in their mother tongue." This phenomenon is called language attrition, where a portion of a language is lost.

The language policy being implemented in schools is one of the reasons for this. "English on paper is the language of instruction [but] Hindi is de facto language of instruction," says Professor Awadesh K Mishra, Head of Department of Language at the North East Regional Institute of Education in Shillong. The third language that is supposed to be taught in schools in Arunachal is one of the nine tribal languages of the state.

One would then hope that this is a positive step towards preserving tribal languages in the state. But this is not the case.

"The tribal languages are just on paper. [Of the 9 tribal languages] Monta, Khampti, Mishmi, and Singpho are only taught. The rest don't have a book, no teachers [and] no funds," says Professor Mishra.

"With Hindi in schools, there is the attraction of moving away from one's mother tongue and the lure of getting into Hindi, English, and Assamese bandwagon," adds Professor Udaya Narayan Singh, Tagore Professor at Visva Bharati University, West Bengal who worked on the India section of UNESCO's e-atlas.

In fact, it is interesting to note that Scheduled Tribes with the highest literacy rates in Arunachal Pradesh are also the ones whose tribal languages have been listed as endangered by UNESCO.

For instance, the Deori tribe has the highest literacy rate in the state (76.9%)and their language, also known as Deori, has been listed as "definitely endangered." This trend is true for 6 of the 10 tribal communities listed in the 2001 Census. So it could be that schooling is actually leading to language loss amongst tribal communities as more people aspire to learn Hindi or English in schools.

Non-tribal languages are perceived as "useful, powerful and functional by young people," says Professor Singh. Parallel to this is a growing sense of inferiority in relation to tribal languages, he notes. Within the family there is also no pressure to use the mother tongue, and tribal communities are losing their language "of their own volition," says Sastry.

This process of language loss has been termed, perhaps rather dramatically, as "linguistic suicide" by Anavita Abbi, Professor in Centre of Linguistics at JNU.

So does the government just sit back and watch people lose their language? The answer is no. "Government does intervene if language dies by making people realize that their language is important," says Mr. Sastry. He adds that such languages are "equipped" with script and dictionaries by CIIL.

Ironic isn't it? First the government refuses to recognize mother tongues as languages or labels them as 'dialects' of non-scheduled or scheduled languages. The same government then goes into a state, like Arunachal Pradesh, with 64% tribal population, institutes its own languages, provides token tribal languages in schools, fails at this, and instills a sense of inferiority in tribal communities. When the latter are ready to accept Hindi or English, the so-called 'languages of prestige', it acts with malevolent benevolence, saying, "No, even your language is important."

So, the questions that arise for us are: What do we lose when we lose a language? What do people lose when they give up speaking their mother tongue with their children? Does a way of life really end? And does this matter, if a new one begins? Is it important for us to be a linguistically diverse country with 1,635 mother tongues or better for us to be a nation of 122 languages?

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