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Protection of Endangered Languages

Under the pressure of globalization, the domains of use of some languages are shrinking with the result that many Indian languages have become threatened and even endangered.

Recent row over the Government's decision to replace German with Sanskrit as third language in Kendriya Vidyalaya has brought to the fore the issue of language of knowledge and employability, and languages that have cultural connect. Although, Sanskrit has long ago ceased to be the mother tongue of any group, alive only in religious scriptures and other ancient texts, many native languages are facing extinction due to the fact that fewer and fewer people are speaking them. What hastens to the demise of these languages is the fact that most of these languages remain unwritten and undocumented. And, if they disappear, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.

However, the this process is neither inevitable nor irreversible, as the UNESCO says, “well-planned and implemented language policies can bolster the ongoing efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalize their mother tongues and pass them on to younger generations”.

UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages

The UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger 2010 lists around 2,500 endangered languages around the world. India tops the list with 197 endangered languages, followed by the U.S. (191) and Brazil (190).

According to UNESCO, 197 languages in India are reported to be endangered of which 81 are vulnerable followed by definitely endangered (63), severely endangered (6), critically endangered (42) and already extinct (5).

Andaman and Nicobar, a union territory of India, tops the list with 11 critically endangered languages, mainly tribal dialects. Among the states, it is Manipur with seven languages, followed by Himachal Pradesh with 4 endangered languages.

Criteria to Declare Languages as Endangered

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), any language spoken by less than 10,000 persons is considered “potentially endangered”. Not every potentially endangered language necessarily faces the threat of immediate extinction. However, that number indicates a threshold.

• Safe: language is spoken by all generation; Intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted, not included in the Atlas
• Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. home)
• Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home
• Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
• Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
• Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently
• Extinct: There are no speakers left included in the Atlas if presumably extinct since the 1950s

Why are Indian Languages Facing Extinction?

• In India, English is thriving and is used widely by the emerging generation, which is one of the reasons leading to the threat of extinction of native or regional languages.
• English has become the language of knowledge and employability, as well as the primary language of the internet. The major content of the digital sphere is now in English, and, therefore, other languages have been marginalised. People have started considering native languages as kitchen languages.
• Indians do not find it necessary to learn or write in their mother tongue. This means advanced knowledge is not produced in these languages. Therefore, other languages have essentially become languages of translation.
• There is a general understanding that languages without scripts face the gravest threat of extinction.
• A language without a script is not necessarily a dialect. Several mighty languages in existence today do not have their own scripts. English, French, Spanish can all be counted in this class. The difference between the two is more a matter of structural identity.
• According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), “Over the last 50 years, the world’s Hindi-speaking population has increased from 260 million to 420 million.  Over the same period, the English speaking population has gone from 320 million to 480 million. However, the growth of Hindi, English and other major languages within India has come at a price: Around 250 languages in India have disappeared in the last 50 years”.
• A language dies when its speakers die. For example, a language of Andaman and Nicobar islands, namely, Aka-Bo has died recently when its last speaker died in 2010.
• Under the pressure of globalization, the domains of use of some languages are shrinking with the result that many Indian languages have become threatened and even endangered. Although, the globalisation is not directly killing local languages, but it is affecting languages in the sense that many languages under pressure are losing oral literature and words related to culture, especially, food items, dress and ornaments, rituals, flora and fauna. But globalisation is not the cause of language death, says the CIIL.

Critically Endangered languages in India 

The Critically Endangered Languages as per UNESCO Report are:

Aimol (Manipur), Aka (Manipur), Baghati (Himachal Pradesh), Bangani (Uttarakhand), Bellari (Karnataka), Birhor (Jharkhand), Gadaba (Andhra Pradesh), Great Andamanese (Andaman & Nicobar), Handuri (Himachal Pradesh), Jarawa (Andaman & Nicobar), Koireng (Manipur), Koraga (Karnataka), Kota (Tamil Nadu), Kuruba (Karnataka), Lamgang (Manipur), Lamongse  (Andaman & Nicobar), Langrong   (Manipur), Luro (Andaman & Nicobar), Manda (Odisha), Mra  (Arunachal Pradesh), Muot (Andaman & Nicobar), Na (Arunachal Pradesh), Naiki (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh), Nihali  (Maharashtra), Onge (Andaman & Nicobar), Pangvali (Himachal Pradesh), Parji (Odisha), Pengo (Odisha), Pu (Andaman & Nicobar), Purum (Manipur), Ruga (Meghalaya), Sanenyo (Andaman & Nicobar), Sentilese (Andaman & Nicobar), Shompen (Andaman & Nicobar), Sirmaudi (Himachal Pradesh), Tai Nora (Assam), Tai Rong (Assam), Takahanyilang  (Andaman & Nicobar), Tangam (Arunachal Pradesh), Tarao  (Manipur), Toda (Tamil Nadu), Toto (West Bengal)

Protection of Endangered Languages

There is no language called minority language. The Census of India has classified languages in the categories of Scheduled and Non-Scheduled languages. There are 22 Scheduled and 100 Non-Scheduled languages.

The Government of India has a Scheme known as “Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India (SPPEL)”, effective since February, 2014. Under this Scheme, the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore works on protection, preservation and documentation of all the mother tongues/languages of India spoken by less than 10,000 people in the country. The scheme will be implemented by the CIIL in coordination with universities across the country. It will identify, document and take measures to protect the endangered languages.

• As of now, CIIL has identified 520 languages. In the first year, that is 2014, over 20 universities in seven zones of the country will study around 70 languages The remaining languages will be researched and documented over a decade, as per the scheme.
• CIIL, as part of its Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL), has launched an initiative to document 77 languages. The languages identified have less than 10,000 native speakers left in the country.
• The objective is to come up with works related to basic grammar of identified languages, write a tri-lingual dictionary on words used, and aspects of folklore of the same. A tri-lingual dictionary in English, Hindi and native language will be written by scholars who have selected different languages for the study.
• Studies related to 77 languages will be taken by experts distributed in six zones identified by CIIL authorities. These include Bondo (East Central Zone), Takahanyilang (Andaman and Nicobar Islands), Paliya (Southern Zone), Khasa (Northern Zone), Atong (North Eastern Zone), Bharwadi (West Central Zone), and others.
• Preliminary research will involve collection of available data related to these languages from experts and educational institutions around the country.

Do You Know? 

There has been no proper enumeration of languages in India for nearly a century. The last comprehensive exercise was carried out by George Grierson—an Irish linguistic scholar who carried out the first linguistic surveys in India between 1894 and 1928, listing 189 languages and several hundred dialects.


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