A language is a structured system that helps people communicate, share meaning and experience their sense of individual and community identity. It can be conveyed through spoken, sign, or written language. Losing a language means losing that deep knowledge passed down over millennia and the community’s history, customs, rituals and traditions, myths and memories, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression. For the language speakers, it means losing a part of themselves.
Importance of language
In 2019, Hercules Singh Munda, who hails from the Mundari tribe in Jharkhand, launched a learning platform called Trilingo to help the indigenous people from his tribe learn their language. Munda was selected as a Felix Scholar to pursue a master’s in linguistics at SOAS, the University of London, in 2021. An IT engineer by training, Munda’s fear of losing his mother tongue made him shift gears and work on the language-learning technology for the indigenous people. The official record of various organisations, including Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, UNESCO, suggests that there are 192 endangered languages in India. “The number of languages fading into oblivion is far more. As a speaker of Mundari and a trained linguist, I feel Mundari (which is still not Constitutionally recognised) and many other indigenous/ tribal languages are on the path to extinction,” adds Munda.
Linguists worldwide believe that nearly half of the 7000 spoken languages will fade away by the end of the century. These endangered languages are no longer encouraged to be used and are not transferred to the younger generation.
“The term “endangered language” is not defined yet, and there is no consensus. It is a relative term. For example, the number of UNESCO listed endangered languages in India is wrong and based on some misinformation. We are working with UNESCO and will soon come up with a new list of languages,” says an official of the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore. The relativity, he explains, can be seen even with the fact that if one compares even Hindi on the parameters of the support that, let’s say, English has, Hindi would be considered an endangered language.
At CIIL, any language with less than 10,000 speakers is considered endangered. The Institute supports these languages through documentation, preservation and promotion activities so that transferring from one generation to another is easier. “Based on the above criteria, CIIL has identified 117 languages that are considered part of the endangered language project. However, as more data emerges from different language communities, we may take up more languages under the ambit,” says an official working for the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL).
Why languages die
Languages die when their speakers cease to speak the language. It is an attested fact that languages emerge and vanish over time.
However, language endangerment in the present time is alarming. The distribution of the world population and languages are heavily skewed: while 50% of the world population speaks one of the top twenty languages like Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, and Spanish, which have over 50 million speakers each, and the rest of the world population speaks many minor languages with speakers numbering only in thousands and hundreds. It coincides with a varying concentration of economic, political, social and cultural power among majority and minority language speakers to accelerate the loss of linguistic diversity.
Since 1971, the Census of India has not enumerated languages with less than 10,000 speakers. The number of Indian languages listed by UNESCO as endangered is 192. “Of this, a language is considered Extinct when it has no speakers left. There are 39 Critically Endangered languages where grandparents only partially speak the languages, five Severely Endangered languages where parents understand but do not speak the language, 63 Definitely Endangered languages where children don’t learn the language anymore, 84 Vulnerable languages where children speak the language but in restricted domains,” says Tanmoy Bhattacharya, Head of the Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi. He states that most of the endangered languages are Tibeto-Burman languages (Naga most among them), some are Munda, Dravidian, various Nicobarese languages, and a few Pahari languages among the Indo-Aryan languages.
Languages die when their speakers cease to speak the language. It is an attested fact that languages emerge and vanish over time. However, language endangerment in the present time is alarming. The distribution of the world population and languages are heavily skewed: while 50% of the world population speaks one of the top twenty languages like Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, and Spanish, which have over 50 million speakers each, and the rest of the world population speaks many minor languages with speakers numbering only in thousands and hundreds. It coincides with a varying concentration of economic, political, social and cultural power among majority and minority language speakers to accelerate the loss of linguistic diversity.
According to Munda, there is no concrete and universal reason why and how the speakers of a language(s) decline over time — if it was common knowledge, the inevitable process could have been reversed for many languages. “The reasons could be external and internal. The external factors include language status (recognition), utility value (medium of instruction in education etc.), and inclusivity (across medical and judicial infrastructure) etc. In contrast, the internal factors include inter-generational transmission of language and culture, number of speakers (child-bearing generation and young generation aged below 14), the attitude of grandparent generation, etc.,” explains Munda, who has also studied Uganda’s Soo language, which is on the verge of extinction with less than 100 speakers.
Efforts to save languages
The Government of India is aware of this issue and is committed to promoting and protecting the languages. “SPPEL was constituted to safeguard the Endangered Languages of India. CIIL has been working on the lesser know tribal languages since its inception. At present, the Institute is contributing through language documentation work. Workshops and training programmes help create the resources to document all these languages. Seminars, conferences and community outreach programs are organised to create awareness about the language endangerment issue,” says a CIIL official.
The Bharatvani Project also contributes through the digital platform where several tribal language materials are available. It helps create interest among scholars and community members.
Bhattacharya enumerates how the Constitution of India under Article 350 A provides that every state must impart primary education in a mother tongue and under Article 350 B provide for the appointment of a ‘Special
Officer’ for linguistic minorities. The Special Officer is responsible for investigating matters relating to linguistic minorities and reporting them to the President.
“However, there is a need for more activities in the languages (like poems, plays, movies, etc.) to vitalise languages, not just policies or slogans. The National Education Policy 2020, on the face of it, encourages multilingualism, but in truth, it is pushing for only the major languages,” highlights Bhattacharya.