A popular maxim in Rajasthan goes: “Baran kosa boli palte, das kosa pani. (Every 12 kos – 1 kos equals 2.5 km – the language changes; likewise every 10 kos the taste of the water of that land also changes).”

It is a matter of concern that many of the dialects are fast vanishing in the merciless avalanche of globalisation and its by-products. Language decline has been, like ecological depletion, a serious concern for our time. Over the last few decades, reports of language decline have been coming up from all continents, rich or poor, north or south

UNESCO came up with an Atlas of World Language in Danger and made a beginning towards proposing a comprehensive list of endangered languages. Linguistic diversity is highest in Southeast Asia followed by South Asia. The prevalent multilingualism and polarity of languages make this content unique, the report notes.

Any decline in the multiplicity of languages, say linguists, will reflect a parallel decline in indigenous culture and civilisation. The disappearance of an individual language constitutes a monumental loss of scientific information, cultural knowledge, historic amount of human migration and language evolution.

Language lingers

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands then it goes to his head and if you talk to him in 'his' language then it goes to his heart.” This was the soul theme of debates and discussion when about 30 linguists gathered at the IIC-International Research Division of the India International Centre to ponder upon the shrinking linguistic diversity in South and South-East Asia. The whole event, chaired by Kapila Vatsayayan, chairperson of IIC-research division, witnessed serious concerns being raised over the continuous lessening of the linguistic variance in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and India.

“A continent proud of its language diversity can accomplish the task of fully protecting the endangered languages. When we look at the great diversity of languages – the state supported ones, the community cherished ones and the tradition-based ones – we feel that our thinking about the 'endangered languages' might become richer if we contextualize it in our awareness of the good practices that have preserved our language diversity. Alarm and despondency alone would not help preserving the large number of languages that are surviving precariously on the line between life and death,” said Ganesh Devy, chairman, People's Linguistic Survey of India, in his keynote address.

Choice or coercion?

In times of social, political and economic upheavals the position of various languages and competence required in them to successfully mediate in the new settings also changes. Also, changes in the socio-economic conditions and political system not only make fortunes of human races rise and fall but also of language ecology.

Explaining the shrinking language diversity in Bihar and Jharkhand, Devy said emergence of Contact Hindi and important communicative functions that it has acquired have been found to decrease in domains of mother tongue usage, complex diglossia faced by students from the deprived sections of society who speak one of the indigenous regional or tribal languages as mother tongue (See Box: Coining the 'Koine').

Linguistic minorities

Prof Asha Sarangi from JNU raised alarming questions on the linguistic minorities in India and quoted B R Ambedkar's speech from the Constituent Assembly that the task of preserving linguistic diversity was the biggest exercise in the Constitution-making. Presenting some quick facts, Prof Sarangi further explained how after the first data on language appeared in 1881, the diversity in languages has constantly narrowed. She told the conference that it takes 10,000 speakers for a particular language to be officially listed in the government (schedule) list, adding that a total 428 languages are listed on government records out of which 415 are living while the rest have become extinct. She also cited census reports from 1921-2011, which evaluated how actually the data have lessened from 188 languages in 1921 to 115 in 2011 (See Box: Chronology).

Languages deserve script

Has one ever wondered why a majority of the languages of our country were never written down? In India, a sizeable population cannot read or write because their languages were never represented in any road map of education. India is characterised by its diversity and multiplicity of languages. As of today, there are1,635 languages, belonging to seven different languages family, spoken in the country. Some of these languages are preserved in the oral forms but some have come under threat due to globalisation and industrialisation. Modern times demand a different outlook and revised language policy. Languages should have a written script, so that one part of country can learn about the other. Another means to solve this problem can be through a multilingual education system. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was instituted to ensure that every Indian is literate and educated. Yet, the large dropout rates in rural areas have continued because students fail to understand the language and script of instructions used in classrooms. Both state and Central governments can help in developing appropriate scripts for languages of minority communities for imparting primary education in mother tongues.

Contribution of the National Book Trust

One of the major strengths of Indian cultural-literary landscape is its linguistic diversity. National Book Trust, India, established in1957 the Union government to promote reading culture in the society, has been in the forefront of sustaining as well as adding new dimensions to the fostering of the linguistic diversity of the country. The trust has ventured into publishing tastefully-produced books for children in endangered languages of Andaman, in the Halbi and Bhatri languages in Bastar, in Kok Borak language of Tripura, and also in some major local languages such as Magahi, Bhojpuri and Maithili languages of Bihar and Eastern UP. The major emphasis of the Trust is to introduce these languages to the younger readers as that it is the most significant way to preserve a language and carry forward to the next generation users and readers.