Need to revitalise native languages

The accelerated pace of disappearing of indigenous languages around the world has led the United Nations (UN) to declare 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages (IYL). The main aim is to encourage urgent worldwide action to preserve, revitalise and promote them. The mechanism to implement this is through raising awareness and mobilising different players for coordinated action towards meeting the objective.

According to the UN, about 40% of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world are in danger of disappearing, most of them indigenous.  Most indigenous communities live in remote hill or forest regions like Amazon or forest areas in central India. The power centres that make the political and economic decisions that have direct effect on these communities fail to comprehend the complex knowledge systems of these communities.

With separate histories, cultures and traditions, they are the leaders in protection natural resources fostering unique cultures endured over centuries.

The action plan envisaged by the International Year of Languages (IYL) aims at using language and information technologies in order to improve use of indigenous languages and provide access to education to children and youth in their local languages.

With 1,100 languages Papua New Guinea stands first in diversity followed by Indonesia with 800 and India being the third place with 780 languages as identified by People’s Linguistic Survey of India. In the North Eastern states, 220 languages are spoken, mainly of indigenous communities belonging to three different language families, namely Indo-Aryan, Sino-Tibetan and Austric.

The ecological diversity of these regions makes it possible to host diversity of languages.

Protecting minority languages: Well before the UN declared its intention to conserve languages of indigenous communities, our Constitution had framed the clause to protect them as a fundamental right.

It states,”Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part of thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.” Another unique feature is the concept of protecting interest of children to get basic education in their mother tongue.

The Constitution provides, “it shall be the endeavour of every State and of every local authority within the state to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups”.

Ironically, this rhetoric fades into thin air.  With such large diversity of languages in central and eastern part of India, there is hardly any policy framework and practical skills to provide education in their mother tongue in primary schools.

As education sector gets privatised, the state funding is perpetually facing shortage resulting in lack of resources to support personnel to teach diverse languages.

For example, in Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, the tribal children speak Durwa or Gondi language and have no other option but to learn in Hindi that leads to further alienation of the child form their language and surroundings.

Similarly, the nomadic tribes of Rajasthan or primitive Chola Nayakan tribes of Western Ghats in Kerala are compelled to abandon their indigenous language once they are enrolled in formal education system.

The decimation of indigenous languages is the outcome of destruction of the survival base of these communities, especially the tropical forest ecosystems or common grazing land for animal herders in dry regions. Large developmental projects like mining and thermal power plants are appropriating the survival base of the indigenous communities in the hinterland of Central and Eastern India.

As they are cut off from their roots, especially the cultural and natural moorings that help them to evolve and practice the languages, gradually resulting in silencing of native languages.

Following the development in agriculture and forestry where monocltures have led to destruction of diversity, the homogenisation of the language reduces the diversity of knowing the world.

Technology as tool

Wade Davis, an authority on endangered languages, says “native languages are driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to”.

He further remonstrates that “genocide, the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of peoples’ way of life is not only not condemned, it’s universally - in many quarters - celebrated as part of a development strategy.”

Obviously, the strategies envisaged by IYL to use technology as a tool to rescue erosion of language may have limited impact as it fails to address the fundamental causes.  

Indigenous communities do not have political and economic power to claim the legitimacy for their languages, mostly spoken by few thousand people.

The estimates of losing 90% of our languages by 2050 will come true unless a conscious attempt is made to conserve the survival habitat, forests and pastures that provide sustenance for the languages of indigenous communities. 

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