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Posted at: Oct 11, 2015, 1:08 AM; last updated: Oct 11, 2015, 1:08 AM (IST)

Digital boost for dying languages

For the victorious march of languages like English and Hindi, many dialects and local languages had to die. A few initiatives are trying to salvage these rich, oral traditions which are on the verge of extinction

Vandana Shukla

Aditi, a student of Class 12 in Delhi, loves the sing-song quality of conversations between her mother and grandmother in Nyishi, a language spoken in the North-East. Stressed under the fiercely competitive education system, she never had time to learn her mother tongue. Modern languages acquire a gravitational force due to the employability these generate for the new economy. They devour all other languages to grow in size. India has lost a fifth of its languages in the past five decades. With the death of these languages, we have also lost the keys to access a vast pool of knowledge and cultural history of the people who spoke them.

Affected by economy, politics, migration, geography, religion and the lifestyle, languages grow as organisms that are also biotic; remove the flora and fauna and the language that grows around it would die. This has happened to several tribal languages of India which evolved in their unique geographical milieu, but killed by the Minotaur of development. Most of these languages lack a written script, yet these survived for 60,000 years due to their rich oral tradition.

These languages had a different worldview, which was holistic. Concerned citizens and agencies are now working towards saving the dying languages in the digital arena. India has only 20 scripts for its nearly thousand languages since the digital platform also records orality, it offers greater hope for the revival of dying languages. There are YouTube clips of conversations in Nyishi and Gond and short films in dozens of languages, on the verge of disappearance.

Should languages be preserved by documentation and archiving? Experts say that languages are not meant for museums. Their primary function — of oral communication — has to grow among its speakers. A few hundred languages of India now face extinction with the unprecedented shift in the cultural milieu of their speakers triggered by migrations and the fast pace of development.

One step forward, two steps back

The drive for literacy, as an instrument of development, killed hundreds of languages. The 3-language formula that lay emphasis on reading and writing alone eliminated oracy from the movement for universal education. Mother tongues were ignored by the mainstream education. The child was forced with “aphasia”— the cutting of the child’s tongue — by not using the mother tongue for primary education. The 1961 Census, listed 1,652 languages, which drastically came down to 182 languages in the 1971 Census. Did the government conceal linguistic diversity in the subsequent years, or so many languages died? 

The 2001 Census lists 122 languages (29 of these are scheduled languages), but the first people’s own linguistic survey PLSI found 850 languages; with their distinct grammar and vocabulary. Since top 10 Indian languages are spoken by only 40 per cent of the population, it leaves a large chunk of population that speaks languages which find no place in the education and development agenda. The government does not recognise a language if it is spoken by less than 10,000 people. This ignores a vast linguistic landscape. In 1970-80, about 80 languages were used by Indian schools, which came down to 54 by the 1990s.

The lifeline

This worrying trend triggers a quest among the urban young to locate their moorings in the present cultural void. An initiative by Katha and IGNOU “Translating India” has ignited young minds to build bridges between hundreds of languages by intra-translations in bhashas — the spoken languages. In its first orientation programme with the sathis — students from different schools and colleges of Delhi — Prof Sukrita Paul Kumar was pleasantly surprised to find 127 volunteers aged 15 to 25, who speak 28 different languages that includes Konkani, Bhutanese, Bhoti, Maghai, Nyishi, Awadhi and Bhojpuri, etc. The young volunteers came up with ideas like creating cartoon strips in bhashas. The initiative plans to hone skills of translation among the young who often hear the bhashas spoken at home by the elders and are willing to take these forward by using skills in dubbing, sub-titling, translation, digital recording, etc. This cultural linking of bhashas will also strengthen oral traditions, says Sukrita, who calls it a movement of Translating India/Understanding Diversity. She also demands academic validity for the oral traditions.

In the North-East, a young language researcher Palash Kumar Nath started Singpho Mother Tongue School. Singpho is spoken in parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The school was established with the support of the community where elders would come and narrate stories to children in their mother tongue, and teach traditional songs and dances, etc. Students were encouraged to translate popular Bollywood songs in Singpho. The stories were illustrated by children on A-4 size papers, which Palash turned into books by simple binding. It encouraged the learners. The Singpho Mother Tongue School worked an extra two hours after the regular school hours.

In Bihar, where 97 per cent students speak tribal languages whereas 92 per cent teachers speak Hindi, creates a mismatch that leads to complete failure of the literacy drive, apart from pushing the tribal languages towards their untimely death. 

“Basic literacy should be taught in the mother tongue, then, they can switch over in phases to the mainstream 3-language formula. Statistics support better results of learning in the mother tongue, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh Governments are also supporting community level schools in mother tongue” says Prof Ganesh Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Trust.

New tools for survival

The Adivasi Academy set up in Tejgadh, Gujarat, by the Bhasha Trust, educates tribal communities by developing curricula and textbooks in 14 local languages, such as Panchamahali Bhili, Dehwali, Rathwi and Chaudhari. About 120 schools run by the community use mother tongue for instruction. The Adivasi Academy also publishes a popular magazine Dhol in tribal languages using Hindi script to create a balance between modern education and tradition.

Literacy in the absence of indigenous languages is almost impossible. “A child who comes from a tribal belt faces multiple shifts; from a kutcha house to concrete school building, he is trained to learn by doing — not by reading and writing, then the text is culturally alien to him. It fills the child with a feeling of shame for his culture and he drops out” says Lulabi Pattanayak, literacy consultant. Smaller languages that fail to find space under the linguistic hegemony of the mainstream education, are now finding new tools of survival.

In Chhattisgarh, Swara Broadcasting has turned the spoken word into published word of the tribal people, by using mobile technology. Brahmaputra Community Radio in the North-East is also using several tribal languages like Shadir, Bara, Assamese and Mishing, etc. to give a new lease of life to the people who speak the language of harmony with the nature and other people.


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