Endangered Languages in India – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought. It is a tool for our intellectual and emotional expression. UNESCO has recognized India as one of the most linguistically diverse countries. As per census 2011, more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues while only 121 languages are spoken by 10,000 or more people. This shows the quantum of endangered languages in India. A number of steps have been taken at the national and international level to conserve the endangered languages but much more needs to be done for giving due protection to the vulnerable languages.

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What is the current status of endangered languages in India?

There are 197 languages in India whose survival is in peril. This is the largest number for any country in the world, going by Unesco’s Atlas Of The World’s Languages In Danger Of Disappearing. 

The atlas was first published in 1996, and updated in 2010. It lists about 2,500 endangered languages and also provides analytical reports by region.

UNESCO provides a classification system in its ‘Atlas of Endangered languages’ as: (a) Vulnerable – most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home); (b) Definitely endangered – children no longer learn the language as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home; (c) Severely endangered – language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves; (d) Critically endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently; (e) Extinct – there are no speakers left.

What are some of the endangered languages in India?

Great Andamanese: It is a generic term for a family of 10 languages once spoken by 10 tribes in the north, south and middle of the Great Andaman. It is now listed as critically endangered by UNESCO.

Balti: It is a Tibetic language natively spoken by the ethnic Balti people in the Baltistan region of Gilgit−Baltistan, Pakistan, Nubra Valley of the Leh district and in the Kargil district of Ladakh, India. It is classified as vulnerable by UNESCO.

Asur: The Asur tribe are an Austro-Asiatic ethnic group which mainly resides in the hilly terrain of the Netarhat plateau covering Latehar, Gumla and Lohardaga districts in Jharkhand. They speak the Asuri language which is listed as a severely endangered language in UNESCO’s list.

Why do languages become endangered?

Dominance of Majority: The majority community tries to enforce their language on the minority as a mark to show their supremacy. For instance, War between the tribes through the centuries is one of the reasons why tribes such as Tarao lost their identity and language. Today, it is spoken only by around 850 people in Manipur.

Colonization: Some experts point out that the colonial masters imposed their alien language and attributes on the masses of the colony. In this process, they paid little regard to preservation and conservation of native languages. 

Government Apathy: There is little chance of a language surviving if it’s left out of government patronage for cultural institutions, public libraries, cultural productions, radio broadcasts, primary schooling and administration.

Globalization: Spread of multinational corporations has made English a standard means of communication, which has undermined the use of mother tongue. Further, creation of a common global culture influenced by the west has threatened indigenous language and culture.

Migration: The economic necessities induce people to migrate to new places which results in disintegration of their culture. They start to adopt the language of the migrating place and reduce usage of native language. For instance, When people from Konkan go to Mumbai for work, the second or third generation of the family takes up Bambaiya Hindi or Marathi.

What is the need to preserve languages?

Gives a Sense of Identity: Languages are the lifeblood of our identity, both individual and collective. They play a significant role in creating and strengthening bonds among people.

Improving Learning Potential: Mother tongue is the first language that a person learns. It promotes learning as the child feels more comfortable to express himself in a language he/she understands and can identify with. The knowledge so learned can be instantly applied in the real world by the children as opposed to other languages which they cannot instantly relate to.

Repository of Knowledge: Native system provides a unique system of knowledge and understanding of the world. It is the repository of our collective knowledge and wisdom which we have amassed over the course of the long journey of our vibrant civilization. For instance, the Asur community of Netarhat were metallists who are believed to have given India iron.

Unity in Diversity: The core principle on which India as a nation has formed is unity in diversity. This includes diversity of language, religion, food etc. and hence if diversity is threatened, our unity will soon come to peril. Moreover it is a fundamental right of communities to preserve their language as per Article 29 of Indian Constitution.

Protecting Biodiversity: There is an emerging consensus between scientists and humanists that biodiversity and linguistic diversity go hand-in-hand. Areas rich in one are usually rich in the other as seen in case of India.

What steps have been taken for their preservation?
Domestic

Constitutional Measures: Article 350A facilities for instruction in mother-tongue at primary stage. As per this, every state and a local authority in the state should provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother-tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups. The president can issue necessary directions for this purpose.

Article 350B – Special Officer for linguistic minorities: The president should appoint a special officer for linguistic minorities to investigate all matters relating to the constitutional safeguards for linguistic minorities and to report to him. The president should place all such reports before the Parliament and send them to the state government concerned.

Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL): It started with a short-term goal of providing a grammar, dictionary and ethnolinguistic sketch for 117 languages that have 10,000 or fewer speakers. In the long term, it aspires to cover around 500 languages in the future. The scheme is monitored by Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) located in Mysuru, Karnataka.

Central Institute of Indian Languages: It was established in 1969 under the administrative control of the Ministry of Human Resources (Now Ministry of Education). It advises and assists Central as well as State Governments in the matters of language. It also protects and documents minor, minority and tribal languages. 

The centre is currently working on around 44 languages from the North-East such as Atong, Bawm, Koireng, Liju, Newari, Lamgang, Singpho, and more. 

Global

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger: It is a tool to monitor the status of endangered languages and the trends in linguistic diversity at the global level.

Endangered Languages Project: It is a worldwide collaboration between indigenous language organizations, linguists, institutions of higher education, and key industry partners to strengthen endangered languages. The foundation of the project is a website, which launched in June 2012.

International Decade of Indigenous Languages: To preserve indigenous languages across the world, the UN general assembly has declared 2022-32 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

What more steps can be taken?

First, the use of technology, especially social media, can be leveraged to sensitize masses about their native languages at a very minimal cost. Dedicated articles and videos can be posted to develop curiosity among the youth towards their language.

Similarly community radios can be used to play songs, recite poems etc. in native language as done by the Asur Tribe in Jharkhand.

Second, the government should recognize the efforts of public spirited individuals and groups which are actively working for preserving endangered languages. For instance, the gesture of awarding Padma Shri to at least 5 language champions is a notable step in this regard.

Third, the government should also partner with NGOs and local communities to organize local workshops on language preservation. It should also enhance funding towards initiatives that are launched for language preservation.

Conclusion

Language is a crucial part of culture that is practiced by the community. It is a medium through which their knowledge, customs and beliefs travel from generation to generation. It holds immense significance due to which India should take proactive steps for its preservation and uphold the spirit of unity in diversity.

Source: Mint

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