Indian Languages in a Struggle for Survival

by Rajshri on  December 14, 2009 at 8:49 PM Lifestyle News
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As modern life relentlessly marches on, Indian languages are struggling to survive.

Classrooms at the Adivasi Academy in western India echo to the speech patterns of languages that may soon become no more than a meaningless jumble of noises.

Kukna, Panchmahali and Rathvi are just three of dozens of tribal Indian tongues taught at the academy, which was set up in 1996 in an attempt to preserve the country's indigenous cultures.

India's 1.16-billion people speak more than 6,500 languages and dialects, according to the 2001 census.

But almost 200 of them are seriously endangered, says the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, as Hindi and English strengthen their grip in an increasingly mobile and interconnected world.

"If younger generations don't learn these languages, they will be forgotten," said academy teacher Jeetendra Vasava, 29. "Without education in the next 30 years the current speakers will get old and these languages will die."

Vasava, who believes India's rich diversity will be wrecked if local languages disappear, is a fine example of the nation's polyglot nature.

He speaks more than ten languages -- including his mother tongue Vasavi, which is spoken by less than 80,000 people in Gujarat and the western state of Maharashtra.

India's most endangered languages survive only in remote locations -- the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Himalayas, and northeastern regions bordering Bhutan and China -- where indigenous and nomadic groups remain strong.

But there are signs of a fightback against the effects of population decline and the rise of more prominent languages.

The Adivasi Academy trains 40 students a year to become cultural activists in native tongues such as Rathvi, which has around 118,000 speakers from the Rathva Bhils tribe in Gujarat and the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

Like many Indian languages, Rathvi did not have a written form until the academy created a script and illustrated glossary so that it could be taught in schools.

"When teachers would come to villages from outside they did not speak Rathvi, so the children could not understand them," said Sanjay Rathava, who spent two years studying at the academy in the town of Tejgadh.

He graduated in 2005 with a diploma in tribal studies and now oversees production of a Rathvi-language children's magazine called "Bol," which academy founder Ganesh Devy describes as "a humble version of Reader's Digest."

Academy members read out articles from the magazine to villagers -- many of whom cannot read in Gujarati or Hindi let alone Rathvi -- and Devy said keeping any indigenous language in everyday use is a major struggle.

"At home I speak to my kids in Rathvi," said Rathava. "If I don't, they will forget it and eventually nobody will know how to speak it."

Only five of the 50 people living on Strait Island, part of the Andaman and Nicobar chain belonging to India, speak Great Andamanese, one of the seven indigenous languages on the archipelago, according to researcher Anvita Abbi.

The dwindling population of native Great Andamanese speakers on Strait -- aged between their 40s and 80s -- have all but given up on passing down their language, said Abbi, chair of the Centre for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"Inter-generational transfer is becoming less, and languages die for this basic reason," she said.

Experts say the UNESCO atlas is not a comprehensive list of dying languages -- Great Andamanese is not on it -- and that there are hundreds more at risk of disappearing because they are considered too small to be included in the census.

"By and large the country does not know what has happened to these languages," said Devy.

Larger languages survive due to strongly motivated communities who fear for their identity.

"In the case of Urdu and Punjabi they are backed by religion and politics and therefore their chances of survival are better," said Udaya Narayana Singh, one of the editors of the UNESCO atlas, referring to the languages usually associated with India's Muslims and Sikhs respectively.

India's constitution lists 22 official languages, with English -- the lingua franca for business and academics -- given associate status.

But many regional vernaculars remain confined to the home and unable to attract "intellectual capital," Devy warned.

"It is the absence of livelihood options for people that is the greatest threat to any language," he said.

Source: AFP

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