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Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, while addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the occasion of the country’s 76th Independence Day (i.e. 15-8-2022, Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav) rightly asserted, “We need to be proud of every language in our country. When we are connected to our roots, then only can we fly high; and when we fly high, we will provide solutions to the entire world.” Many a time, the Prime Minister of India reminded people and his party cadre how Bharat’s languages represent Bharat’s Sanskriti (culture) and Swabhiman (self-respect). In his address to (on 20 May 2022) the BJP National Office Bearers in Jaipur, the Prime Minister said, “as a political party the BJP would visualize in every Indian language the culture of India and the soul of India”.
That being said, however, on the ground many Indian languages are disappearing from the landscape of our country and so do other languages around the world. “According to the UNESCO-2009 report, India heads the list of countries in the Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. This in itself may not come as a big surprise to many; more will disappear if the current trend continues. Loss of languages is considered by many as a ‘natural’ outcome of organic decay of languages”, writes Prof. A.K. Mohanty of JNU. Mohanty in his 2009 report on Multilingualism status noted, “In India, multiple languages complement each other in meeting the communicative needs of the people and, hence, education must necessarily foster multilingual proficiency in the languages of functional significance.”
Hence, recognising the significance of multilingualism, it has been adopted in the New Education Policy- NEP 2020 by the present BJP Govt. at the Centre. Linguists, all over the world opine that the crisis of language endangerment worsens much faster than the environmental crisis. For instance, 2-3% of plant and animal species are dying (in a certain period of time), whereas in the case of languages, the percentage is nearly up to 50% in the same period i.e. the disappearance of languages at a rapid pace. In India, many minor (tribal) languages vanished due to the lack of encouragement by the state governments. Languages survive and thrive due to inter-generational transmission. In the case of tribal languages, only older people can speak them, whereas the younger generations have moved on to the dominant regional language in the state. To preserve any language, it should be taught in schools. Tribal languages have no script. Hence, they could only be orally transmitted. Basically, the children of far-flung tribes learn the predominant regional language plus (often) English in schools. They assume that they can secure a livelihood and get around by learning the language predominantly spoken in the country or in their region or state. Eventually, they may not evince interest in developing their own. This could be one of the main reasons for their endangerment.
Protection of any language could be done in two ways. One is through encouragement from the government through a language promotion policy (including that of minor-tribal languages). Another is through proactive community effort to revive/restore their language. The third and underlying current is the money spent on the restoration process. Many tribal languages in India died because of a lack of that particular community effort because many do not understand the need for revival. Sometimes, even if some know the importance of their language preservation for reasons of cultural identity, they are unable to mobilize the community to make a concerted effort in that direction.
What happens when a language dies? Many do not comprehend what they stand to lose if their ancestral/inherited language vanishes. K. David Harrison in his book on: “When Languages Die: The Extinction Of The World’s Languages And The Erosion Of Human Knowledge” (2007) writes that when languages die the knowledge that is deeply entrenched in those languages also disappears. He also states, “An immense edifice of human knowledge, painstakingly assembled over millennia by countless minds, is eroding, vanishing into oblivion.” Hence efforts are made in many parts of the world for language protection and promotion. There are so many languages that have been reclaimed and revived. For instance, a success story is that of Hebrew in Israel and some other African languages were revitalized and saved from oblivion.
How do we revive or revitalize a language? The fundamental fact is, as said earlier, without inter-generational transmission a language dies. If the younger generations are not enthused to learn their inherited language and carry it forward, it is sure to die, as older generations that speak the language will pass away. In India, if the young feel English is cool or good for them, they take interest in it. Hence, it is fundamental to inspire the young generation to learn their native language. There (in the learning of the native) emerges a conflict. “The ‘purists’ of language are the older generation. They wish for a pure or unadulterated native language. These language-purists are old-fashioned in the view of the younger ones. If the younger members are turned off from the language, the language has no existence. In due course, the young should respect the older ones’ sentiments and vice versa” 5 says the linguist Prof. David Crystal of the British Council.
If the purity of language is taken into account, even English is not pure. It has an influx of words from many other tongues. Often people use to ask, question and interrogate interchangeably to suit the situation. Ask is an Anglo-Saxon word, question a French one and interrogate a Latin word. But they are all English to us. Similarly, in India, we have a lot of English words in our languages (for e.g.: cup, saucer, road, rail, bus etc.) for which we often do not know our native languages’ equivalents. However, to keep a vocabulary intact word compilations, dictionaries and digital documentation are necessary. It is better for all Indian languages and especially for endangered tribal languages, to resort to the digitisation of songs, folklores, dances and story-telling mechanization for carrying forward the culture and heritage. This would encourage the younger ones, who are usually tech-savvy, to learn and assimilate the inherent wisdom in their language-culture, say the expert linguists.
People may wonder whether it would make a substantial difference to their lives to lose their own language. Anyway, they have picked up a language that is dominant all over the world (read English) and are communicating effectively. Why should one be passionate about one’s native or ancestral medium when it is not serving the purpose as a communication enabler like another one they adopted? What do our children stand to lose by not learning it? and so on. Those that put forth these arguments do not know that the culture of Bharat stands on the edifice of our native languages. After all, languages live and thrive in the communities of speakers? They should also know that “Languages are vehicles of our cultures, collective memory and values. They are an essential component of our identities, and a building block of our diversity and living heritage.”
“One does not inhabit a country, one inhabits a language.”; writes E. M. Cioran of UNESCO in the “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger”. Indians of all hues—Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Malayali, Telugu and other Indian languages carry their regional linguistic cultures to the other parts of the world i.e. the nations they inhabit. This way of propagation of languages is a healthy sign for the dynamic and identity of the linguistic community. Besides, linguists say that along with identity and culture, a language brings a viewpoint. There is always beauty in diversity. More languages mean more viewpoints. When a language dies not only does a bunch of expressions die but a whole viewpoint is lost. Therefore, there is a need to protect all Indian languages.