Are we losing our linguistic wealth?

22 Feb 2010
Posted by Kiran

Language is a means of communication. As long as you are able to get your message across to the other person, the purpose of communication is served. At least that is what I always thought until I read this excellent piece about the death of a language — the Bo language. The piece has been authored by Mr. Ishaan Tharoor on the Time Magazine's website.

As per the statistics published in the Ethnologue, there are around 7000 languages in the world today, 26% of which are spoken by less than a thousand people each. It also states that about 94% of the world's languages are spoken by only 6% of its population!

As per a research done by George Weber back in the 1990s, English is the most influential language in the world. It is fast gaining widespread acceptance as the language business is carried out in. As a natural outcome of this more and more members of the younger generations want to learn and actively converse in this language.

Now, fluency in English is somehow seen as being cool. As English's prominence increases, the importance that the younger generations give to regional languages is reducing day by day. I myself am guilty of focusing on English more than my own mother tongue. I justify it by saying to myself that fluency in English and a good English vocabulary will help me succeed in my career and be a global citizen.

I have been focused on ensuring that my daughter learns good English. I have prided myself in the fact that my 2½ year old is able to rattle off complete sentences in near perfect English. The fact that she wasn't as fluent in her mother tongue never really bothered me!

I strongly believed, and still do, that Kannada just cannot give me or my child the same global reach that English can.

Mr. Tharoor's article however got me thinking that a language is a lot more than just a means of communication. It is cultural wealth. It got me thinking that not many of us appreciate this wealth or even consider it as important! If I don't take the interest to teach my children their native language, how can they be expected to take interest on their own?

I don't think I can do better than how the former President of France, Jacques Chirac put it:

Culture is not merchandise and it cannot be left to the blind forces of the market, We must staunchly defend the world's diversity of cultures against the looming threat of uniformity.

The fact that Kannada movies are nowhere as well-made as Hindi or English ones and the fact that Kannada literature or folk music is never packaged in the same glamorous way as Hindi or English ones, also will not help.

When it comes to regional languages, the only widely visible advertisement is usually a negative one. Be it restrictive policies by state governments, meaningless activism by random politically backed outfits or tasteless cinema, they are in no way contributing to the longevity of the language they claim to be defending.

Case in point are the recent outbursts from two well known radical organizations in Maharashtra: the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena. While one attacks helpless Taxi drivers and laborers, the other takes on well known Indian icons for expressing their freedom of speech. All in the name of a regional language — fantastic advertisement for the language, wouldn't you think?

If the fate of Indian regional languages is left to organizations like the two Senas, their fate is all but sealed. With only thugs and their hooliganism to protect them, these languages stand no chance of surviving. What they really need is branding. They need the packaging that will enthuse the younger crowd, not scare them away.

On my part, I think I am going to put in some more effort to ensure that my daughter learns the family dialect.

Yes you get it finally! :-P

I agree that we in India do not focus on regional languages as much as on English. Every European and almost every East Asian country has progressed leaps and bounds in literature, cinema, science and technology in their own language. In India though (except perhaps to an extent Hindi) all languages are going through a decline.

Personally I believe that to create life long readers we need to target kids. Parents who will buy children's books in India are mostly the urban and sophisticated kind who shop at chains such as Landmark and Crossword and it is so rare to find good children's books, educational and entertainment material in Indian languages in these places. Fortunately we do have a few publishers (Tulika, Karadi Tales series) which have created some good material for kids...but for a 7000 year old culture we are sadly way behind than most other civilizations in protecting, nurturing and fostering our heritage.

I finally do :)

I have definitely been a culprit when it comes to ignoring my mother-tongue.

In addition to the gross neglect and apathy from the urban populace, I think the other aspect that really turns people off is the ways and means that are used to promote the regional languages. The arm-twisting tactics employed to promote languages such as Marathi and Kannada cannot help; even adults get disinterested in them.

Books are definitely a good way of getting kids interested. I also believe that good, quality cinema can help get people interested in a language. Sadly, we rarely get good movies in Kannada.

Do not blame the politicians!

Politicians will politicise anything if given a chance. They love nothing more than to create divisions based on caste, language and religion. That definitely does not mean that the educated populace should "switch off" from the issues that matter and stop forming or expressing opinions on these topics.

Reacting to the politicisation of the language issue by ignoring (even hating) one's own mother tongue just to feel like a rebel is an immature response which is best left to angsty teenagers.

Don't excuse the politicians so fast!

Are we to ignore all our politicians? While we are at it, why not ignore the government too?

I agree that the "educated populace" have a duty to preserve the cultural wealth accumulated by previous generations. That was what prompted me to write the blog in the first place.

Any person, be it a child or an adult will take to learning and conversing in a language if he/she finds it interesting; if he/she believes it adds value. I speak Kannada, but have limited its use to the point to which I think it adds value to me. It is not about being a rebel; it is about being interested.

If I am learning and conversing in Kannada just because it is my duty, the whole process can seem like a chore. The language cannot survive if people think it is a chore. The language must attract us to it. And the way to make that happen is by employing it in interesting and entertaining media.

And I also believe that being cogs in our government's machinery, the politicians need to contribute towards making the regional language more attractive. Unfortunately, their actions and activities have served a different purpose.

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