Linguistic Variety in the Northeast of India and Language Death: How Concerned Are We?
A language is considered dead when there is no one alive who is able to speak that language.
Ordinarily, it may not occur to anyone that the language he or she speaks may die some day, that a time may come when that language will just not be spoken by anyone.
However, the phenomenon of language death is absolutely real. In fact, languages are dying at a furiously rapid rate in our globalised, modern world.
In extremely rare cases, a language may die when all its speakers die in some massive natural calamity. A language called Tamboran, for instance, used to be spoken by some inhabitants of the Sumbawa Island in southern Indonesia. All these people were killed when a volcano at the northernmost mountain range of Sumbawa erupted in 1815, and thus, Tamboran died a sudden death.
Languages can also die rather quickly because of large-scale human intervention. Europeans who went to establish settlements in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries infected the native inhabitants of America with diseases to which the indigenous people of America had never been exposed before, and hence were not resistant to them. Some 90 per cent of the native population of America perished because of these diseases, and of course, many of their languages also died with them.
Usually, however, language death is a slow process. The commonest manner in which language death occurs in the modern world, is through what is called language shift. Language shift occurs in a bilingual or multilingual situation, i.e., when people use more than one language, and when people shift allegiance towards a dominant language. In a multilingual situation, there is usually one dominant language and at least one minority language.
The shift occurs when people start neglecting the minority language, even if it is their mother tongue, and use the dominant language more and more. Finally, the minority language dies when it is not used by anyone at all. A dominant language is a language that is preferred by the users because it is used by a large number of people, is a language of education, commerce, administration, etc., while a minority language is spoken by a relatively smaller number of people.
It is important to understand that people shift allegiance towards a dominant language and stop using a minority language not because of any inherent superiority of the dominant language, but because of their desire to enjoy certain privileges or advantages that the dominant language seems to provide.
The English language is a global language today. It is not the language spoken by the largest number of people in the world. In terms of numbers of speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the largest language of the world, followed by Spanish. English is only the third largest language, but is extremely widely spread across the globe, and possibly the most important language of education, politics, trade and commerce.
It also has the prestige of being the language of the former British Empire, the largest empire in the history of the world. In fact, English first spread across the globe through the process of colonization by the British.
Because of the prestigious status that English has acquired in different parts of the world through the process of British imperialism in the past and other processes in the present political, economic and cultural scenario of the world, today it is a dominant language in many parts of the world including India.
The dominant status of English in many multilingual societies has resulted in the neglect of indigenous languages, language shift, and finally language death. In fact, English is called a cannibal language because it often becomes a major cause of the death of other languages. In a way, it eats up other languages.
English is a dominant language in the Northeast of India. From the early days of British colonialism in India, Christian missionaries have penetrated remote areas with a view to propagating their religion. Christian missionary activities have also usually included work in the educational sector. Many communities in the Northeast, particularly tribal communities in the hills, have been Christianized in this process.
English is an important language of education in India not just in the missionary institutions, but in other government and private institutions of learning. The Indian Constitution bestowed on English the status of a subsidiary official language, Hindi being the official language of the country. Article 343 (1) of the Constitution stated that “The Official Language of the Union Government shall be Hindi in Devanagari script”.
However, since English was the official language during the British raj, the Constitution said that English would function as a subsidiary official language for a period of 15 years from the adoption of the Constitution. It was thought that within that period of time, Hindi would entirely replace English as the only official language.
When that period ended in 1965, and there was a move to make Hindi the sole official language, states in the South and the Northeast protested, demanding the continuance of English. In 1964, there was another attempt to end the use of English for official purposes, but the move was resisted very strongly in many states, and some of the protests in the South turned violent.
In 1967, the Official Language Act was amended to allow for the continued use of English as official language until all states agree to adopt Hindi as the only official language. Such a time is unlikely to come, however, and most likely, English will continue to enjoy its status as a subsidiary official language in India.
Considering the constitutional status of English in India, and also its privileged position as a major language of education, politics, economics, and so on, and also considering the dominant status of English as a world language, knowledge of English is highly desirable in all local and global contexts today. However, it is wrong to think that as a language English is better or more scientific or rational than other languages.
Circumstances of history have raised English to its pre-eminent status today, not anything inherently good about the language. Unfortunately, however, many people in the Northeast (and other parts of India and the world) today have a wrong notion about English being a superior language.
Because of this wrong notion, and because of the advantages associated with knowledge of English, many people start using English to such an extent that they start neglecting their mother tongues. The British linguist David Crystal once met a Nigerian who knew several of Africa’s major languages, but was not teaching any of those languages to his children; instead, he was working extra hard to earn enough to be able to send his children to English medium schools.
I have met Assamese parents who are proud of their children’s ignorance of their mother tongue just because they are good in English. There are many communities in the Northeast whose languages are endangered or have already died because of their neglecting their mother tongues.
Our languages are some of the most important markers of our identity. Our mother tongues embody specific ways of making sense of the world, they encapsulate our worldviews. Losing our languages means losing very significant parts of our heritage as human beings, of our culture. The Northeast of India is blessed with variety. It is a region with a variety of flora and fauna (biodiversity), ethnic groups, their languages, customs, cultures.
Unfortunately, as a society, the Northeast has not shown adequate realization of this great heritage. Although we sometimes quarrel in the name of specific identities, we neglect our languages which are among the most important identity markers.
Of the 192 or more languages listed as endangered by the UNESCO, more than 30 are from Arunachal Pradesh alone, and the number must have only become bigger now. The UNESCO prepares lists of languages that face varying degrees of danger of extinction.
It has marked a large number of languages from India’s Northeast, languages like Adi, Ao, Apatani, Angami, Dimasa, Galo, Hmar, Karbi, Khampti and Khasi as “vulnerable” while others like Biete, Deori, Gangte, Hill Miri, Idu Mishmi, Hruso, Kachari, Koch and Tiwa as “definitely endangered”, others like A’tong, Tai Aiton and Mech as “severely endangered” and still others like Aimol, Lamkang, Na and Tarao as “critically endangered”.
In a multilingual place such as the Northeast of India, lingua francas or link languages are required for communication among different language groups. Nagamese, a creole of the Assamese language, has been an important lingua franca in many parts of the Northeast.
The language policy of educational institutions like the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Navodaya Vidyalayas encourage the use of Hindi, but not regional languages, and the establishment of many such institutions has led to increased popularity of Hindi, but decreased use of Nagamese.
Being a creole of Assamese, one of the major languages of the Northeast, Nagamese has been useful in promoting bonds of friendship among the communities using it, but gradually, Nagamese is being edged out by Hindi and English, and this is certainly not a positive sign when one considers the need for cementing links among the communities of the Northeast.
The decline in the use of Nagamese is a sign that it may be moving towards extinction, without as much as a murmur of protest or concern from the Assamese who should have been proud of their language having a vibrant creole like Nagamese.
This reminds me of how Dr. Bani Kanta Kakati perceived the situation of the Assamese via-a-vis their own language and culture. It is said that he once said that the Assamese are a dead people (“etā marā jāti”). Asked why then he had worked so hard and produced his Assamese, Its Formation and Develpment, he reportedly replied with his famous cynical laughter and a question: “Don’t people work for dead languages of dead people? There are researchers, for instance, who are busy working on civilizations and languages that have disappeared from the earth!”
The thought of even the possibility of the death of one’s language can be frightening, and you don’t need to be the speaker of a very small language to have this fear, as what Australian author David Malouf’s statement, quoted by the British linguist David Crystal, seems to suggest: “When I think of my tongue being no longer alive in the mouths of men a chill goes over me that is deeper than my own death, since it is the gathered deaths of all my kind.”
However, it would be wrong to suppose that the reasons for respecting our mother tongues are all emotional reasons, or are always connected with things like culture and identity. It is through mother-tongue learning that a person absorbs language universals, and language universals are like the building blocks of all learning and all thinking.
Psychologists and linguists working on the connection between learning and language-learning, i.e., between acquiring expertise in any field of knowledge and one’s language-skills, have said again and again that mother-tongue learning is crucial to the development of learning abilities in a person.
In other words, a child who learns his or her mother tongue well will be better equipped to learn anything, be it science or arts or commerce, while a child who has not learnt his or her mother tongue well will not be able to excel in any field. Here, I’m not talking about just passing examinations. I’m talking about acquiring true excellence in one’s chosen field of study. A person who has learnt his or her mother tongue well will always be on an advantage while trying to excel in his field of activity.
If we wish that our languages do not die, we need to use them as much as possible in common, everyday situations, in literary pursuits, in all kinds of conceivable situations for language use.
Considering the undeniable importance of English in today’s world, we must learn English well, we much equip our children with excellent skills in English, but at the same time, we also need to respect and use our mother tongues, and encourage children to learn and use their mother tongues well.
(Sanjeev Kumar Nath, English Department, Gauhati University, email@example.com)
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