Save indigenous languages

These languages are the repository of cultures and traditions of our various communities, and must live on

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 14th Jun 2018   12:06 am Updated: 13th Jun 2018   10:40 pm

Many people are expressing concern at the extensive use of Hindi in Arunachal Pradesh, which has around 90 indigenous languages. They complain that children would forget their mother tongue within a short time after enrollment in school, and parents will have to learn Hindi to communicate with their offspring.

Adi, Nocte, Apatani and Nishi are some of the major languages in the State. There are 26 tribes and 256 sub-tribes in the State and each has its own language or dialect. Khamti is considered to be the only language of the tribes that has a script of its own. Other local languages are influenced by Burmese and Tibetan scripts.

Dominating English, Hindi

Unlike other northeastern States, Arunachal Pradesh did not have a language movement because all of them speak different dialects. In one’s own community, one might converse in her own language but if one has to converse with someone from some other tribe, s/he has to use either English or Hindi.

Although English is the official language of the State, Hindi has become the lingua franca. Sponsoring Hindi by the Central government and Bollywood’s cultural invasion have made Hindi the default language.

Earlier, Arunachal Pradesh was known as North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and was part of Assam. It was made a full-fledged State in a phased manner in 1978. The medium of instruction was Assamese then.

Many renowned authors belonging to different tribes of Arunachal Pradesh write in Assamese. Now, Hindi has replaced Assamese. The other reasons for such a shift in the linguistic attitude owe to a bigger presence of Army after the Indo-Chinese war in this region in 1962 and bickering with its neighbour Assam.

In Nagaland

However, the scenario in Nagaland is different. Nagamese is the most popular spoken language here by different tribal groups of the State. Nagamese is a mixture of different Naga and Assamese languages. The language has also been enriched with contributions from Hindi. Nagamese is popular for its simplicity. The language does not have any written scripts and it does not follow any complicated grammatical rule. Another popular feature is that Nagamese has no classification of gender.

Konyak, Chang, Lotha, Ao, Phom, Sema, Angami, Rengma and Chakhesang are some of the major languages of Nagaland. Ao and Tenyidie are two Naga languages that have written scripts. The British missionaries introduced the scripts to popularise the practice of these languages. People of Nagaland like many other States know Hindi but it is not as extensively used as in Arunachal Pradesh.

Towards Extinction

Of about the 42 languages or dialects in India prepared by Unesco that are endangered and may be heading towards extinction, 12 are from the Northeast. These 42 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. Adi, Mishmi, Nishi, Khamti, Galo of Arunachal Pradesh, Bodo, Deuri, Tiwa, Koch and Karbi of Assam, Mizo of Mizoram, Bishnupriya Manipuri and Maitei of Manipur are among the endangered languages from Northeast enlisted by Unesco.

According to a report of the census directorate, there are 22 scheduled languages and 100 non-scheduled languages in the country that are spoken by one lakh or more people. Interestingly, Bodo language of Assam — recognised as a scheduled language — is also on the list of vulnerable languages of the country. Assamese, which is a scheduled language and is spoken by 13 million people, is also facing a crisis as the upcoming generation is choosing to study in English medium to face the competitive career market dominated by English.

“Currently as many as 780 different languages are spoken and 86 different scripts are used in the country. While it surely is a fact to celebrate the diversity of the country, the sad part is we have lost nearly 250 languages in the last 50 years or so,” GN Devy, chairperson of The People’s Linguistic Survey of India wrote in an article. Knowing language data is important for linguistically minority communities, for it helps them take corrective action to preserve their language.

Shrinking List

Longevity of multiple languages is essential for maintaining the cultural diversity of the country. Imparting education to children through their mother tongue is scientifically considered to aid full development of their cognitive and emotive faculties.

It is the State’s obligation to secure and protect the community’s right to its language. From 1971 onwards, the Census is disclosing the names of only those languages, which have more than 10,000 speakers. Resultantly, the list shrunk to 108 languages in 1971 Census, as against the 1,652 a decade ago.

There are many reasons why languages die. The reasons are often political, economic or cultural in nature. The absence of a policy on language conservation has also adversely affected the sustainability of smaller languages. Even languages with a substantial number of speakers find it tough in today’s increasingly globalised mono-cultural world.

When a language dies, it also means the death of a heritage, as languages are the repository of cultures and traditions associated with communities. Since a thriving language is often linked to a vibrant culture, a concerted effort on the part of the diverse ethnic communities is imperative for the healthy growth of their cultures and traditions.

Unesco has been promoting the idea of language as an inalienable cultural right. It has already built it into the charter of sustainable development goals. India is a formal signatory to the charter. The community’s right to its language becomes a non-negotiable right to cultural possession. Similarly, the state’s obligation to secure and protect this right too becomes a non-negotiable duty.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)