Friday, September 11, 2009


The rich linguistic diversity in India has been generally viewed as a national treasure. However it has never been free from threat; ironically but not unexpectedly, helpful environment for it hardly exists in multilingual societies. Especially when such a society is hierarchical.

Some education in the mother tongue, as recommended in the “three language formula”, can ensure that the language remains functional, and thus the linguistic diversity protected. But in India the languages are many, and the speakers of some are too few. Demands are made from time to time to recognize one dialect or the other as language. Some languages are still oral. In such a scenario, mother tongue education in practice has become education in some scheduled language. What has happened is that every individual, who has studied in an institution where the three-language formula has been implemented, has become multilingual. However, more and more Indians becoming multilingual for reasons of education or compulsions of day-to-day life is one thing, and the preservation of the linguistic landscape of the country is quite another.

Preserving our rich linguistic diversity basically amounts to ensuring that there is no language death. According to a recent UNESCO Report many Indian languages are under threat. The central government has recognized the need for affirmative action in this regard, and has initiated a programme of action. But what can be realistically achieved, under existing circumstances, for a language more likely to become extinct than survive, is the documentation of its lexicon and the grammar, its proverbs, folk songs and folktales, etc., and the knowledge of its speakers in terms of which they lived their daily life. This would ensure that an extinct language (and the related knowledge system) remains in the archives and is not lost to the world. A language (or dialect) need not die when all its speakers die, or when all its speakers shift to another language (or dialect). But such an archival approach to the preservation of language derives from the acceptance that language death cannot always be successfully fought.

But doesn’t it amount to compromising with the goal of preserving the multilingual reality of our country? In the present circumstances this goal does appear to be rather idealistic. We live in the age of “information”, and in a world made small by technology. For everyone to have access to the opportunities the world offers, the role of language cannot be underestimated; after all, it is through language that knowledge is created, disseminated and acquired. Now languages under threat are those that do not (or have ceased to) function in the domains of education, governance, and economic activities. The knowledge available in these languages, in terms of which the speakers of the same had once negotiated with the world, has become unhelpful for them to deal successfully with a different world. This creates a compelling situation for speakers of such a “disadvantaged” language to shift to the language of education, opportunity and privilege in their own context. It comes as no surprise, then, that so many languages are endangered.

A social or cultural practice is safe as long as its practitioners attach some value to it; even symbolic, but the same does not hold for language. Language must have a much more significant role in day-to-day life. Therefore it might be easier for a community to preserve its cultural practices under unfavourable conditions than its language. An aggressive cultural localism may not be the best solution to the problem of language (or cultural) endangerment. Exclusivist in nature, and it would create more problems than it might solve.

A language is safe if it has a function in day-to-day life. An organism would not survive if its habitat were destroyed. Mother tongue education would give a language its habitat, but it is no simple task. It appears that India can protect its linguistic landscape only if its commitment to it becomes as strong as it is to equality, democracy, secularism, and similar other socio-political values. Is this a likely scenario?

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