Literary criticism

Language Endangerment and India: A Critical Study

By: Kousik Adhikari

GaggedImagine that you are the last speaker of your language! Every other person who ever spoke your language has passed away. You have no one to talk in your own mother tongue; your children never learned your language and instead use the language of outsiders. If you want to interact with others you must use a foreign language, and because you never have the chance to use and practice your own mother tongue, you find yourself forgetting pieces in your language. Everyone else has moved on to live in ‘modern’ lives and languages. You feel a sense of loneliness and feel yourself stranger in your own land!

For the English speaking speakers this image may be difficult to imagine, having almost 310 million speakers the world over, but for many of us this situation is very real, around the world over 11% percent of languages have fewer than 150 speakers!

An endangered language is a language that may soon vanish, ceasing to be used as a vehicle of communication perhaps even disappearing totally from human history. It is estimated that 80% of the world’s almost 7000 languages will die within next 100 years or so and it is a time when language endangerment is increasingly being seen as a topic that concerns the whole world. Several books have been published in this area like ‘Vanishing Voices’, ‘Preserving Language Shift’, and ‘Linguistic Genocide in Education’. Nettle and Romaine (2000) strongly criticize the lack of policy and support for endangered languages and the devastating effects of such indifference, hampering linguistic diversity of the world. The authors consider it a ‘strategic error that will be regretted as time goes on.’

Moreover language does not simply mean the vehicle of communication but also the vehicle of culture, tradition that the community inherits from the ancestral as Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) points out that language and culture ‘stand for each other’ and the loss of language is in fact the permanent loss of human culture and civilization. Sapir, the great linguist, maintained that language is ‘the symbolic guide to culture’. Minority languages are being gradually and speedily replaced by various politically, economically or socio-culturally dominant languages. In his article ‘Who Am I in This Land? What People Am I Part of?’ Sergei Haruchi, representative of one of the minority peoples in the Russian North gives the following accounts on his relation to Nenets people and their language:

I experience no shock on realizing that I belonged to the Nenets people, both by father and my mother spoke Nenets. They did so without embarrassment even in the presence of strangers. Regretfully, the children now find themselves for the greater part of their time –at kindergarten, at school. They talk with parents only in the morning and the evenings. As a consequence, some children of indigenous intellectuals not only from families of mixed marriages but even those whose fathers and mothers are both Nenets don’t know their native language. My own eldest daughter and son understood but do not speak Nenets, because they have no opportunity to practice it…it is our fault and nobody else’swhen a cry of lamentation is raised that the language, the basis of people’s cultures is sinking into oblivion and that books and textbook should be published in the language. I don’t object to this. But, after all, our parents did not teach us their native language by using books. We learned by hearing our mothers talk to us. It is first and foremost that the mother who passes on the language and a great deal depends on her because she spends more time with the children …we must have strong desire to pass on the language. Our children ought to speak their native language.” The picture truly brings home the condition of numerous languages in the world over standing helplessly at the verge of extinction.

Language endangerment may be caused primarily by external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation. It may also be caused by internal forces such as community’s negative attitude towards its own language or a general decline in group’s identity. Many minority communities associate their disadvantaged social and economic position with their ancestral culture and language. Speakers of minority community abandon their language and consequently their culture in the hope of overcoming discrimination to secure a livelihood and enhance social mobility. Franz Boas, who formed the basis of linguistic relativism, maintained that no human language can be superior to any other in terms of its ability to meet human needs which should be kept in mind in this context.

At the 31st session of the UNESCO General Conference in October 2001, the unanimously adapted ‘Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity’ recognized a relationship between cultural diversity and linguistic diversity. It recommended that member states in conjunction with speaker communities should undertake steps to ensure:

  1. Sustaining the linguistic diversity of humanity and giving support to expression, creation and dissemination of the greatest possible number of languages.

  2. Encouraging linguistic diversity at all levels of education wherever possible and fostering the learning of several languages from youngest age.

  3. Incorporating where appropriate traditional pedagogies into the education process with a view to pursuing and making full use of culturally appropriate methods of communication and transmission of knowledge and where permitted by speaker community encouraging universal access to information.

Endangered languages are not necessarily languages with few speakers. Even though small communities are more vulnerable to external threats; the size of a group not always matters. The viability of a language is determined first and foremost by the general attitude of its speakers towards their cultural heritage, of which the language may be considered the most important component. Statistical data related to language further illustrate the extent of the problem of language endangerment. About97% of the world people speak about4% of the world language and conversely 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people. Approximately 85% of the almost 7000 languages of the world are spoken in only 22 countries. Some of these countries are home to large numbers of diverse languages, Papua New Guinea (almost 900 languages), Indonesia (up to 700), Nigeria (more than 500), India (almost 400), Cameron (almost 300), Mexico (almost 200), and Brazil (more than 200). In these linguistically highly heterogenic countries only few languages have significant numbers of speakers and very few languages are assigned official status with these states.

Stephen Wurm classified the level of endangerment of languages:

  1. Potentially Endangered- which usually implies lack of prestige in the home, country, economic deprivation pressure from larger languages in the public spheres to the extent that the language is not being systematically passed on in the education system.

  2. Endangered- where the youngest fluent speakers tend to be young adults and there is a disjunction in passing on the language to children especially in the school but even in home environment.

  3. Seriously or Severely Endangered- with the youngest fluent speakers being among the older generation aged fifty and over implying a loss of prestige and social value.

  4. Moribund – with only a tiny proportion of the ethnic group speaking the language mostly the very aged.

  5. Extinct- where no speakers remains.

The UNESCO ‘Atlas of The World Languages’ identified 196 languages that are endangered in India, which comprise 84 languages that are ‘unsafe’, 62 languages that are ‘definitely endangered’, and 6 and 33 languages that are respectively ‘severely’ and ‘critically’ endangered. Nine languages like Ahom, Sengami, Tarao, Aimol, Andro, Chairel, Kolhreng, Rangkas and Tolcha have become extinct in India from 1950. The constitution of India recognized 18 languages as ‘scheduled language’ (listed in schedule VIII article 343-351), while those languages not included in the scheduled 18 are listed as ‘minority languages’. The constitution does not provide a clear criterion for defining minority languages. The Supreme Court of India in 1998 presents a parameter for defining a minority language as ‘language of minority community’ which is defined as a community numerically less than 50%. However this parameter is not applicable as ‘there is no linguistic group in India which can claim the majority status’, clearly. The Austro-Asiatic language family which is the most ancient linguistic phylum of India and south East Asia with the exception of Khasi and Santhali, over the two hundred other languages of the same origin is threatened with extinction. The precise language situation of Andaman and Nicober islands is virtually kept hidden but Pu, Tahet, Taihlong, Shompen etc. are in the verge of extinction with 200-400 speakers. The South Munda languages, spoken over vast scattered communities in Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Madhya Pradesh etc. are more or less endangered. The language of semi-nomadic Birhor is moribund with less than 2000 speakers in Singbhum, Southern Palamou.

Other than the four major Dravidian languages, Kanarese, Tamil, Malayalam, and Telegu, the other minor Dravidiain languages are spoken by small tribes and have not been substantially committed to writings. Kanarese, Tamil and Malayalam are Southern Dravidian language and Telegu is the only central Dravidian language not threatened with extinction. Irula, Todo, and Badaga are minor south Indian languages with 5000-10000 speakers and Badaga has 1,00,000 speakers. Despite being once a major language now the total number of fluent Lepcha speakers does not exceed a few thousands. The three Hurshi languages of the Arunachal Pradesh like Aka, Miji, Bongro, are virtually in the line of extinction. This is the case for many other small community’s languages that are in different levels of endangerment.

The constitution of India enabled the parliament to create new states and underlying the major reorganization of the states of India in 1986 and subsequent years was the rationale that linguistic minority should be offered adequate opportunities for political and economic growth. The linguistic diversity of the country will preserve the cultural diversity of the country. In the world today, different organization and universities and state- funded agencies are doing admirable work on documentation and preservation of language.

We should conclude this essay by quoting a Navajo elder’s saying published in ‘Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World’:

If you don’t breath,
There is no air,

If you don’t walk
There is no earth

If you don’t speak
There is no world

We should generate adequate policy and regulation to save the vanishing voices or languages in order to save this world before all ends.


[Kousik Adhikari, MPHIL scholar, participated and presented papers in several national and international seminars and conferences, has several publications in reputed international journals consisting of critical writings, translations and creative writings, interested in postcolonial literature, linguistics, and comparative literature. India ]


1 reply »

  1. It is the phenomenon of Brotherhood Vs. Other-hood that overtakes people’s rationale of preserving their language. The Others are seen as threatening, unfriendly and an alien variant in the Brother Society.
    This situation would change only if we are able to completely degenerate the whole notion of ‘normalcy’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.