On Preserving Languages

By Feroze Varun Gandhi

The Taushiro language in the Amazon basin in Peru has only speaker left. The Resigaro language, in the same region, too suffers from the same fate. The cultural weight of Spanish is turning this ancient Incan land into a homogeneous state. Wherever English has spread in the last two centuries, local languages have been wiped out – over 100 aboriginal languages in Australia have disappeared in the last two centuries. Similar stories abound in India – In 1961, the census recorded India has having 1,652 languages. By 1971, the number was recorded as 808. Over 220 Indian languages have been lost in the last 50 years, with a further 197 languages categorized as endangered (People’s Linguistic Survey of India, 2013). Somehow, despite our faith in diversity, we simply are not able to quantify it, especially in terms of languages and dialects. The death of a language, a moment filled with poignancy, somehow has not inspired us to mourning and action.

A simple act of bureaucracy can often be a tool for genocide for a language or a dialect. The colonial government brought in the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871 (rescinded only in 1952) – the act described certain communities (most of whom were nomadic) as criminal by birth, stigmatizing them and forcing them to conceal their cultural identity and suppress their languages. The Government of India currently defines a language as one that is marked by a script, effectively neutering oral languages. India’s official number of languages, 122, is far lower than the 780 counted by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (along with a further 100 suspected to exist) – the discrepancy caused primarily because the government does not recognize any language with less than 10,000 speakers. Funding remains important as well – Germany spends over $6.7bn on courses to help regional languages thrive. After decades of ignoring Welsh, the UK now spends $201m annually to support Welsh schools and subsidize Welsh media.

Of the aforementioned 197 endangered languages, only two (Boro & Meithei) have official status in India, given that they have a writing system. Such an act forgets that most of our great scriptures and epics are part of oral tradition, embossed into actual writing over centuries. Such methodologies should be reformed, granting greater recognition to oral traditions in different languages. While the Central Institute of Indian Languages (established by the Govt in 1969 in Mysore) has done some exemplary work in researching and documenting Indian languages (the Bharatvani portal publishes content in over 121 Indian languages and is increasingly shifting to online courses), besides introducing the “Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India”, there has been limited progress in actual outcomes. Further challenges remain – optical character recognition for digitizing Indian languages is still primitive, (Bharadwaj, K.V., Dec 2017) besides lacking humongous efforts required for proofreading.

A proven method to ensure survival of languages is the development of schools that teach in them, enabling the new speakers to preserve and enrich the language. We need a new Project Tiger – A vast digital project for preserving and growing India’s endangered languages must be launched – the creation of audio-visual documentation of the important aspects of such language – like storytelling, folk literature and history would be an ideal start (Panigrahi, Subashish, June 2017). Such a movement should use cross language open source tools (e.g.: LinguaLibre, Kathabhidana, Pronouncify) to help build pronunciation libraries. Existing work from groundbreaking initiatives like Global Language Hotspots can be used to enhance such documentation efforts. Similarly, the 5% CSR limit should be encouraged to be spent on saving languages and crafts, documenting them and building accessibility tools (Visvanathan, Shiv, Compost Heap, March 2018). Such databases could then be utilized for linguistic research, linking languages from the same families (e.g.: Odia with Ho, Munda, Khadia and Kui). Young speakers can be encouraged through spoken interactions, exchanges, apps and podcasts to preserve and grow their language, as witnessed in Tlingit and Choctaw tribes in US.

But ultimately languages are not preserved by documentation but by having a profusion of people who continue to speak them. State support continues to remain necessary – there remains little (if any) institutional support for growing languages like Bhojpuri, or declining languages like Mehali (Maharashtra), Sidi (Gujarat) & Majhi (Sikkim) Their revival is dependent on ensuring livelihood support for the speakers of the language.

India is one of the most linguistically rich countries (Papua New Guinea apparently has over 1100 languages, followed by Indonesia with over 800). When we lose a language, it is a loss of entire universe, including its cultural myths and rituals. The preservation of languages and dialects, especially those close to extinction is an important to ensure that our heritage continues to be living. Ignoring languages with fewer speakers will simply not do – languages like Hindi have over 126 languages feeding into them; cutting down on such roots will harm the larger languages as well (Laimalsawma, David, Sep 2013).

There is still hope – a language like Bhil as showcased an 85% growth in speakers in the last two decades (Das, Bijoyeta, 2013). We need a new social contract where we seek to preserve the orality and textual nature of languages using digital means. Such a practice would keep India’s purported pluralism alive, giving it renewal. One must remember that recent bouts of ethno-nationalism in Europe (eg: Catalonia, Basque) are partly due to language related grievances. As we modernize, we must ensure that our democracy develops a culture that is not standardized or homogenous, but accepts multilingualism in all its forms.