English Vinglish Is Fine, But How About Saving Our Desi Languages?

There is no exclusive scheme for revival of endangered languages in India, which necessitates immediate action.

Updated24 Apr 2020, 03:51 AM IST
5 min read

“Perhaps the greatest misconception about cultural diversity is that the Internet has had a ruinous effect, swallowing up smaller cultures in a torrent of English, Spanish, and other mass media languages,” says Daniel Bogre Udell, resident TED Speaker and co-founder, Wikitongues, contradicting that assumption.

Wikitongues is an American non-profit organisation registered in New York that documents the languages of the world. “The Internet has equipped people with the possibility of sustaining their mother tongues. The ability to create and share media makes it possible to promote your language without external support,” Daniel adds.

How Do You ‘Save’ a Language?

How do you save a language? “While there is no systemic method to follow, language revitalisation entails three main phases – documenting the language, normalising the language, and digitising the language,” offers Jeannette Stewart, co-founder, Translation Commons. Translation Commons is an American non-profit that creates roadmaps and workflows, and provides resources to help all languages have an equal digital footprint.

“Many languages are well-documented, but in the case of languages that do not have a written script, documenting it via videos and audio media are the way to go,” Daniel expounds. “For example, the language Yshyr in Paraguay, South America (also called chamacoco) is primarily verbal. It is written with the Latin alphabet, but the language was traditionally not written, and natives don't prefer writing the language. Because of internet penetration, people in the community prefer to send voice notes in Yshyr.”

Predictive text and machine translation like Google and Bing Translate rely on written language. And so, it is a limitation of technology that excludes many languages, including sign languages.

‘Normalisation’ Of Language

The second phase is normalisation. Normalising boils down to cultivating space for the language to be used on a daily basis, and using the language in a way that is contemporarily relevant so that the community keeps speaking it. “If the community knows it, but doesn’t really speak it, there is really no real point,” Daniel holds, adding, “This is perhaps the most difficult and less-tended-to phase of language revitalisation.

One miss with normalisation of language is the case of the Irish language. Despite being well-documented, officially recognised, taught in schools compulsorily and having no dearth of literature, only 2 percent of the Irish population actually speak Irish because people feel that they do not have use for the language.

If We Must Digitise Something, We First Need a Script

The third phase is digitising languages. “Digitising means making sure that the script of the language is supported by the phone and operating systems. That means, getting the script of the language encoded by Unicode, and making sure that there are fonts available for people to download to type characters. In a more complicated way, it also means lobbying Google and other companies like that to produce predictive text for your language, feasibly,” Daniel explains.

If we need to digitise something, we first need a script. The story of the creation of the ADLaM script is an awe-inspiring one.

While teenagers in the late 1980s, brothers Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry devised the alphabetic script to transcribe the Fulani language, a Senegambian language spoken as a set of various dialects in a continuum. After several years of development it began to be widely adopted among Fulani communities, and is currently taught in Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia and 17 other Central and West African countries, and is one of many indigenous scripts developed for specific languages in West Africa. “More than 20 million of 60 million Fulani speakers have learned the script since. The Barry brothers single-handedly created literacy for Fulani speakers. Moreover, Adlam is supported in Google's Android and Chrome operating systems,” Jeannette says.

Which Indian Languages Are Endangered?

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the ‘World's Languages in Danger 2009’, 197 languages in India, including about 80 in the Northeast, are either vulnerable, endangered or extinct. The extinct languages are Ahom, Andro, Rangkas, Sengmai, Tolcha – all spoken in the Himalayan belt.

It is estimated that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today with 50 percent of the world’s population speaking 50 languages and the other 50 percent speaking 6,950 languages.

Globalisation, climate change, urbanisation and political unrest are causing the extinction of languages at a rate equivalent to the loss of biological diversity during the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. This also negatively impacts cultural diversity and decreases social resilience.

In a country like India, where only 22 out of 750 languages are recognised by the Union government as part of the 8th Schedule of the Constitution, there is a dire need for a lot more action to further the use of native languages in all aspects.

Ganesh N Devy, the founder of People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI), a citizen science initiative to survey the use of Indian languages in natural settings, warned that almost half of India’s languages might die within 50 years.

However, on the upside, it has been observed that there is currently a worldwide linguistic and cultural renaissance among the world’s Indigenous people, especially evident in developed nations.

Communities Are Key to Language Revival

The past 20 to 30 years has produced a groundswell of language activism around the world. Greater internet penetration with the advent of Jio and initiatives such as Digital India offer hope for better documentation and digitisation of all Indian languages.

While there is no exclusive scheme for revival of endangered languages in India, the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL) was instituted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development at the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) in Mysuru in 2013.

The objective of the scheme is to document and preserve the language and the community’s indigenous knowledge system such as indigenous medicine, sports and games, transportation, social control system, etc of the concerned language.

The CIIL, through the Centre of Language Documentation (CLD), also initiated the Beta Kuruba Community Outreach Programme on 19 January 2019 with a goal of orthography development for the language in consultation with the community members for reviving their language and culture.

“At the end of the day, there is a strong community-organising component to language revival. Digital media and the internet can be a very powerful tool for language activism. More than translators or linguists, it is mostly average people interested in their culture who reach out to us,” Daniel shares.

Change was brought forth because regular people with a passion for their language and culture have stepped forward to raise awareness and put their language under the global radar.

What with the internet being an infinite storehouse of data, and owing to its easy-access decentralised nature, language revival is in all our hands.

(Radha Varadarajan, a student journalist from Chennai, will be pursuing an MSc in International Politics at SOAS, University of London next September. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 23 Apr 2020, 02:56 PM IST
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