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Losing our language
By Pandurang Hegde

Every language represents the repository of accumulated knowledge over the generations and defines our relationship within the society and its link to nature. Unfortunately, we have begun to judge a language by only its commercial value in the existing market.

Contrary to popular perception, English is not the most spoken language

One of the major links between Africa and Asia bas been broken as the last speaker of Bo language in Andaman Islands died recently. She was the lone speaker of this historical language that originated 70 000 years back in Africa. Andaman will witness further disappearance of ancient languages as that of Jarawa and Onge, spoken only by few hundred people. Sharada, the ancient language of Kashmir is already on the way to extinction as there is hardly any one who can speak the language or read its script, which resembles ancient Brahmi. The whole world knows about the conflict in Kashmir, but the people, even in India, are not aware of the death of a language called Sharada, that was once a flourishing language in the entire western Himalayan region in the 9th century AD.

According to Bhasha, an organization working on conserving the oral traditions of marginalized communities, a total of 1652 mother tongues were documented in the census of 1961. Several hundreds are not even traceable today!

These are clear indicators of extinction of the languages. This phenomenon is not limited to ancient languages but there is lingering threat to existing languages spoken by thousands of people. However, India is about to witness a further decimation of the languages in the coming years. What are the causes for this extinction? Is it relevant to talk about the death of languages, which has become obsolete? Is this a gradual process of evolution in which the Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest is demonstrated in practice?

The whole world knows about the conflict in Kashmir, but not many are aware of the death of a language called Sharada, once flourishing in the 9th century Kashmir.

During 15th century about 10000 languages thrived and were alive in different parts of the world. The colonisation and industrial revolution set in a process in which the diversity of the languages started to disappear, making way for the dominant language of the colonisers. Thus, the countries of South America lost their indigenous languages and were replaced by Spanish, similarly in Africa it was replaced by English and French. In Asia, the English language got deeply entrenched, establishing its superiority over the local vernacular languages. Even though the colonisation processes have come to an end, there is acceleration in the process of economic colonization by the dominant languages of the world. As a result of this colonization we have lost almost half of the languages of the world, at present only 6000 languages survive, most of them endangered and on the verge of extinction, as those who speak these languages are only few. World's linguistic heritage and diversity is being sacrificed at the altar of modern economic development.

Colonisation of Mind

Every language is rich in its own terms. It reflects the evolution of the diversity of culture in different contexts of regions and eco systems. It represents the repository of accumulated knowledge over the generations. Each language is unique because it teaches us to think and know the world in a different way. The language is deeply related to how we think; formulate our ideas and our relationship within the society and its link to nature. It is the product of a particular eco system that has relevance to the soil and the way people live.

"Genocide, the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of peoples' way of life is not only not condemned, it is universally - in many quarters - celebrated as part of a development strategy."

Unfortunately, this thinking process rooted in local people's mind gets destroyed when the dominant language replaces the local language. It is not a simple shift from one language to other, but it sets in a process of colonization of mind, it entirely changes the way people think and relate to themselves in the society. Eventually, it leads to replacement of one's own culture and values by the colonising language.

In recent years the spread of globalisation and economic liberalization has led to weakening of the local languages and the cultures. The homogenization and integration as part of the economic development force societies and nations to quit their vernacular languages in favor of the dominant languages that rule the market. It becomes inevitable for common people to jettison their mother tongues that have no commercial value in the market place. The widening role of information technology and Internet places emphasis on learning the dominant English, Spanish or Chinese leaving behind the local native languages to decay. The ongoing craze for English education in rural and urban areas in India is a clear indicator of how a dominant language is perceived as the only way to build a secure career.

It is feared that of more than 6000 currently spoken languages, 50 to 90% would be lost by 2050. The silencing of the native languages leads to erosion of cultures and the different ways to know the world. Like monocultures in agriculture and forestry, the homogenisation of the language reduces the diversity of life forms. Wade Davis, an authority on endangered languages says: "Native languages are driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to". He further remonstrates that "genocide, the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of peoples' way of life is not only not condemned, it is universally - in many quarters - celebrated as part of a development strategy."

Alarmed by the accelerated threat towards extinction of the languages, UNESCO has launched the register of good practices for language preservation. The objective is to empower the endangered languages to adapt to the changes with hands on experience and learning from the successful ventures where languages like Basque and Catalan have been successfully rescued. Nevertheless, those cultures and languages which are endangered find it difficult to learn from the models. Each case is region-specific and ecosystem-specific and needs a unique innovative approach. Under such critical circumstances, it is doubtful if the preservation of the languages can withstand the onslaught of the economic and cultural globalisation.

The only hope is to uphold and facilitate the process in which multi or bilingualism is able to take deep roots. This will nurture the native language as well as provide a strong foothold over the dominant commercial language like English to adapt to the globalising world. In India, we have numerous examples of this being put into practice, however in recent years the native language is looked down as 'primitive' in comparison to the 'advanced' English. We need to overcome this inferiority complex and motivate the younger generations to take necessary actions to protect as well as feel proud of the native tongues of their region.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Pandurang Hegde  |  appiko@gmail.com

Pandurang Hegde is a farmer, environmentalist and writer based in Sirsi town in Karnataka. He is well known for launching the Appiko movement which played a key role in protecting many forests from the axe in the Western Ghats region.

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Feedback /Comments on this article
protect ethnic diversity

Regret i am one of the unaware lot. What is the latest known period post 9th century when Sharada was used? And yes, unfortunately most people are not even cognisant of a phenomenon like ethnocide. Protecting, or rather letting exist, the Ethnic diversity is as critical to sustenance of human civilization, as doing so for Bio-diversity is. But bio-diversity finds powerful advocates in scientific community, while ethenic-diversity doesnot have any well recognized/titled professional support.

Posted By: Ujjwal
Dated: Friday, March 05, 2010

'Losing our language', very true!

A recent report in India's national level paper 'The Hindu' says that there is a danger of over 98 per cent of languages of the world going extinct in 20 years. I don't how far these data are correct or the correctness of the calculation basis of this prediction. But the truth is that it is happening and happening fast. With the spread of Globalization and education there is least growing dependence on local languages and dialects.

Posted By: Manoj
Dated: Friday, February 26, 2010

language is Priceless!

After studying languages for a while (in relation to software), I am convinced that each language has something invaluable in it. Simply priceless. A subtle rendering of mind patterns expressed as the natural grammar of a group of human beings, a race, a tribe. It is the loss of the grammar and its patterns, built over centuries, that is really the loss. Grammar is like a enormous mental architecture that generations contribute to build, and it cannot be replaced at all.

Posted By: Kinshuk Adhikary
Dated: Friday, February 26, 2010

culture dies with language

Yes, with the language - dies the culture, heritage, tradition, thought, creativity,contribution to the world and identity of the group people speaking that particular language. This will result in brain death! Strange - that economics, business, profit, money are becoming the sole motives of people across the world. And they will pursue it no matter what are its side effects. And no - death of any language cannot be simply termed as mkt economics OR survival of the fittest not in today's world

Posted By: Vikram Cavale
Dated: Friday, February 26, 2010

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An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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