When a language dies we lose not just a medium of conversation, we lose knowledge, we lose culture, we lose a worldview
Let’s begin with an incident from Bangladesh. The year was 1952. Back then the country was called East Pakistan. Its government had imposed Urdu on the Bangla-speaking population. They were told Urdu and Urdu alone is their national language. People were furious but they could not protest, for the government had outlawed meetings and rallies, but students in Dhaka University decided to break the law. They set out in protest and fought the suppression of their mother tongue, Bangla. The police opened fire and at least four students died. The date was 21st February, the day we celebrate throughout the world as International Mother Language Day.
Sixty-nine years since that language movement in Bangladesh, have we today become the biggest enemies of our mother language? Are we self censoring our mother tongue? Have we become so global that we think its OK to forget our roots?
What is a mother tongue? It is a native language, it is a language of our ethnic group. Earlier mother tongue was synonymous with our home language which today is not the case with many of us because many of us marry with people of different mother tongues, and because even at home we end up speaking foreign languages like English. English has become the common language; estimates say 12 to 30 percent Indians speak English to some extent, while English is universally considered as an emblem of education and success. Today the first word child probably hears are often in English. It is often said, Teach him English and he will be successful, but science does not agree to this. Science says mother tongue is essential for a child’s development. Learning first in one’s mother tongue leads to better academic outcome in the future. A document published by UNESCO says, “In addition, research increasingly shows that children’s ability to learn a second language or additional language does not suffer when their mother tongue is the primary language of instruction throughout primary school”. Mother tongue is key to our development but most of us do not realise this.
The world today has about 7,000 living languages, while about 540 languages have died since 1950, and 1,075 languages will be dead by the end of this century. The only way to save our languages is by speaking them, by learning them, by writing in them. Asia Pacific is home to half of the world’s living languages. In Asia alone there are 2,296 spoken languages, but 38 percent of Asian languages are at risk. The UN says it is because of poverty, migration, job loss, etc. Another reason may be language politics. In India, for example, 44% of people speak Hindi and there are some who say Hindi should be national language. India has 22 official languages but not a single national language. Unity does not have to mean uniformity. India’s unity lies in its diversity and the idea of one nation one language kills that diversity. It also kills our mother languages.
The other thing that harms is social media. Look at Facebook: how many Indian languages is it available in? Twitter is available only in seven Indian languages, what about the rest? In India there are around 19,500 dialects and languages. If we subtract the dialects we have 448 living languages in this country and 15% of them are endangered. Manipuri Bodo, Garhwali Ladhakhi, Mizo, Spiti and Sherpa are all in vulnerable category. In 2014 India’s HRD ministry told Parliament that 42 Indian languages are critically endangered. Five Indian languages are reportedly extinct, meaning there are no speakers left of Ahom, Andro, Tolcha, Sengmai, Rangkas, all from the Himalayan belt. Arunachal Pradesh is home to 29% of the endangered or vulnerable languages in India.
Mother tongues are vanishing not only in India but outside too. In Indonesia there are 707 languages, 49% are dying. In Malaysia 81% of 136 languages are dying. Languages of small indigenous tribal communities are often ignored. They are never used in education or public life. Four in ten indigenous languages spoken today are endangered or disappearing. Every fortnight at least one indigenous language vanishes. In Nepal 54% of 121 languages are either at risk or dying and the numbers from some other countries are even scarier.
When a language dies we lose not just a medium of conversation, we lose knowledge, we lose crucial information about local plants and animals. How will science progress, how will culture progress if information is not passed to the next generation? When a language dies we also lose a unique worldview. There are numerous reasons why we should save and promote our mother tongue. It advances inclusion, it helps us reach sustainable development goals, it saves dying literature and our family heritage. There isn’t a single reason to not save our mother languages. So what are we doing about it, what are countries doing to save mother languages? What can you and I do?
If you are a parent, talk to your children in the native language. Read stories to them in your language, find rhymes in your language. If you are a teacher push them to a curriculum that is linguistically appropriate, especially in early childhood education. In 1999 several countries adopted a resolution that they would use three languages in education, which is why in our schools it is compulsory to learn three languages: the regional, the national, and the international. But in practice the regional languages are mostly neglected in schools. After 10th standard same happens with national language. It is only English we focus on. It is high time to correct this.
As we are about to start a new academic year, let’s try making education more inclusive. 40% people globally do not have access to education in a language they speak or understand, and consequently indigenous groups avoid schools. Parents avoid participating in school activities. It hampers the entire process of education. In the Indian Census, since 1971 any language that is spoken by fewer than 10 thousand people is not being included in the official list of languages, and as a result only 121 languages have found mention in the list. UNESCO says any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 is potentially endangered. If we don’t list them as endangered, how will we save them? In the new census let’s include our mother tongues instated of counting them out.
—The writer is a Lecturer in Political Science. [email protected]