Posts Tagged endangered languages

From amnesia to language death

Something traumatic happened to me last weekend. (Okay, now that I have your sympathy in advance …) An elderly couple, relatives on the spouse’s side, came visiting, unexpectedly. (No that isn’t the traumatic part, not even for them.)   Which is something I really dread (unexpected visits I mean) for there’s no saying what ghastly state of untradition I could be in on any given day. Anyway, to get to the trauma. In the course of our conversation, which was in Telugu, I used the word “recession” which my guests did not understand, and for the life of me I couldn’t recall what the word for it in Telugu is. Not that I don’t know; I come across it often enough on TV and the Telugu newspaper I read. It was just one of those frustrating tip-of-the tongue moments of amnesia; and right after they left I remembered.  A traumatic state of temporary amnesia that set me off brooding thus: will our mother tongues survive the onslaught of English?

Technically, a language dies  when its last speaker dies. Or, as David Crystal* puts it, when its second-last speaker dies because then the last speaker has no one to speak to.

It is this dramatic situation of the last speaker of a community that Crystal uses as the theme of a play that he wrote in 1998, Living On. Here’s an extract from that play illustrating the state of mind of the last speaker of a community, as he talks to a linguist recording his language:

When I wake up in the morning my head is no longer full of the sound of the rhythms of my language, as once it was. Your language is there now, making me think in strange ways, forcing my thoughts into strange rhythms. I have begun to forget how it was. Every day, I feel my language slipping away. The words which were my life are slowly leaving me. They are returning to their home, where they were born. I could no longer tell our stories well.

Sounds chillingly familiar, doesn’t it?

Maybe it’s just my frazzled, frenetic, feminine mind that’s jumping from amnesia to language death. But the fact is that language death is a very real possibility for languages dominated by another, especially if that dominance is in the economic and educational spheres. Lest you think I’m crying wolf –

According to this piece in Outlook, India tops UNESCO’s list of countries having the maximum number of endangered dialects. The US follows closely behind with 192, and then Venezuela with 147.

And here’s the source for those statistics – Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, first published in 1996.

Also, Ethnologue’s report on endangered/nearly extinct languages:

What the alarming statistics suggest is that of the nearly 6,900 languages in the world, half may be in danger of disappearing in the next several decades.

Most people are either unaware or frankly don’t care that so many of the world’s languages are dying. As Crystal points out, while most us are aware, to a greater or a lesser degree, of the crisis facing the world’s bio-ecology, only a tiny proportion have any awareness at all of the crisis facing the world’s linguistic ecology. Yes, languages have come and gone, but, again as those statistics show, it is the scale, the rate at which languages have been dying since the second half of the 20th century, that is unprecedented.

The rise of dominant world languages has had unmistakable consequences for minority languages; while English is clearly implicated here, it is not the only culprit. Spanish in South America, Arabic, Russian and Chinese in Asia have replaced many local languages in Asia and South America.

Ultimately,  why should we care? Why don’t we just let languages die and allow one language to remain, thus solving the world’s communication problems in one fell swoop?

Because if  language is perhaps the most important behaviour that makes us human, then every language is a repository of some form of human wisdom.  As Crystal puts it, quoting Ezra Pound: ” No single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”

Your language is you.  So it’s self-preservation, really.

* Crystal, David:

The Language Revolution. Polity Press, 2004

Language Death. Cambridge University Press, 2000

Comments (8)

Learning our languages: Inability or disability?

One afternoon last week I decided to walk from my Department to the campus school to pick up the little brat. It’s a pleasant 15-minute walk, especially at this time of the year when the campus wears its best, riotously verdant look, thanks to the rains.  The magnificent beginnings of a sublime Nature poem (cough cough) were, however, snuffed out when I heard someone run up behind me.  A young man whom I had taught last semester. After the customary greetings he blurted out, “Everyone says I should improve my English.” “So you should!” I responded, smiling to take the sting out of my words.

This kid really drove me up the wall with assignments that had, among other things, articles and prepositions all over the place – everywhere except where they belonged! And when chastised and explained the errors, he would turn in the next one pristinely devoid of both.   

As I’d expected, he talked me into more of the remedial work I did with him last semester. And then, looking at me sheepishly, he said, “Ma’am I’ve enrolled for Creative Writing this semester.” Laughing to acknowledge the irony and my raised eye-brows, he continued: ” And what I realize is that I know neither my mother tongue nor English well enough to be able to write creatively in either.” For me, this disarming confession is a reminder of one of the biggest shortcomings, tragedies if you will, of our education: the abject neglect and deteriorating importance of language study. 

Take the case of my home state – Andhra Pradesh. It is reputed to have the largest number of engineering colleges in the country. Students from Andhra grab a sizeable chunk of seats in the IITs and BITS every year.  All of this is the result of the “coaching regime” that has the entire high-school system in its stranglehold.  Right from class 10, children and their parents start preparing, mentally, financially, physically, every which way, for the entrance examinations that constitute the gateway to an education in the coveted streams of engineering, medicine and the IITs. 

When I was in high school there were “institutes” that coached students for these entrance exams. Now, we have  “corporate schools” that charge  astounding fee to prepare students for these entrance exams, alongside the regular high-school curriculum. Coaching is now institutionalized!

What baffles me is this. These entrance exams are supposed to test students on what they learned at high school. Why would a normal, reasonably intelligent student need extra “coaching” to clear these entrance exams, over and above what is taught in school?  Doesn’t such “coaching,” tailor-made for these exams, defeat the very purpose of the exams?

But supporters (and benefactors!) of this regime would probably argue that the intense competition for berths in these professional courses demands the extra edge that coaching provides. Even if we grant this (and I don’t!) there are other things falling by the wayside, thanks to this regime. Language skills for instance.

Colleagues teaching at the IITs, BITS and other national institutes of technology tell me that students from Andhra are very often the pits when it comes  to language, communication and other “soft” skills. I’d say that is to be expected. A system that rewards the ability to answer multiple-choice questions in the shortest possible time leaves little scope for expression and communication.

Languages do not even count in the overall percentage scheme – it’s just the ‘Groups’ (Math-Physics-Chemistry/Biology-Physics-Chemistry) that matter! English is important only because it is the medium of instruction. As for the other languages, the less said the better.

Perhaps the situation for English is improving. The realization that English is as important as an engineering degree in the job market is catching on. (Which is why the Andhra Pradesh government has decided to make English the medium of instruction in all government schools.) But what kind of English?  

 As part of a project on English for Science teachers, a colleague and I interviewed a cross section of teachers of Science and engineering in the city last year.  They were unequivocal about improving their English, but most of them felt “correctness”, especially pronunciation, was what they needed most. While that is not untrue, my assessment is that these teachers actually lack fluency – the ability to paraphrase, to explain a concept in at least two different ways, using different expressions and illustrations. Very often, they repeat definitions and explanations from standard text books. (Aside: I can imagine a bewildered student saying, “Ma’am/Sir I didn’t get that. Could you explain it again, please?” “Right,” the teacher would say and start all over again – saying the same thing, albeit more slowly!  No wonder our students don’t ask too many questions! Who wants to listen to the same crap twice over?!)

While the demand for English of a questionable variety is perhaps increasing, what of our Indian languages? They are mere “subjects” in school, second or third languages (telling nomenclature!) to be forgotten as soon as we ‘pass’ them and leave school. Which leaves a sizeable section of the population tongue-tied: inadequate English, barely adequate mother tongue.

But why is this important enough for me to blog about? Why am I harping on the study of languages, Indian languages ? Well, I could give cultural reasons, about how they’re endangered species, these vehicles of our culture, but I will desist.  This post is about languages in the context of technological education and I’ll stick to that.

 Although English is the language of choice of only a miniscule section of our society, it is the language of science, technology, medicine, nay all that is modern and progressive.  But all of this ‘knowledge’ can only be made available to the masses through their own languages. How do we effect the translations, then? Especially if knowledge of these languages is reduced to the level of second/third languages left behind in school? 

While globalization brings more and more ‘knowledge’ to our doorstep through English, such knowledge will remain the property of a few if the means of their dispersal – our indigenous languages – are not strengthened. 

Successive National Policies on Education (which you can read here) have unfailingly stressed the importance of language study. The Policy document of 1968 says:

The energetic development of Indian languages and literature is a sine qua non for educational and cultural development. Unless this is done, the creative energies of the people will not be released, standards of education will not improve, knowledge will not spread to the people and the gulf between the intelligentsia and the masses will remain if not widen further. The regional languages are already in use as media of education at the primary and secondary levels. Urgent steps should now be taken to adopt them as media of education at the university level.

Interestingly, English is mentioned in this Policy as part of other international languages which should be strengthened for the purposes of the study of Science and Technology.

The Policy of 1986 adds very little: 

8.7 The Education Policy of 1968 had examined the question of’ the development of languages in great detail; its essential provisions can hardly be improved upon and are as relevant today as before. The implementation of this part of the 1968 Policy has, however, been uneven. The Policy will be implemented more energetically and purposefully.

And the revised policy of 1992 retains this bit as is.

These documents are studies in vagueness, I must say. But then one must remember that they are Policy documents; they specify what  should be done, not the nature of implementation.

Take, for instance, the policy on free and compulsory education for every child up to 14 years.  What has this achieved?  Today, quality of education is directly proportional to cost and access. The same holds for our policy on languages. Laudable policies that have achieved zilch. Nada. Nil. A reflection of the complete abdication of responsibility by the state. And the result – crass and appalling commercialization of education.

Have we accepted this as inevitable?  I often hear people decry the undercutting of “merit” due to reservation policies in educational institutes. How many of us will decry the “commercialization of merit” in institutes that provide education for those who can afford it, irrespective of merit?

Again, while we debate the merits of primary/secondary education in the vernacular medium and higher education in English, do we realize that this division serves only to deepen inequalities? Children with such a fractured education are at an unfair disadvantage when compared with those who have seamless access to English education.

Are we breeding a privileged, isolated class – with access to the best education either because they have the money or because they were born with silver spoons? A class without a twinge of conscience for their culpability in perpetuating the status quo.


























Comments (11)