Almost 200 Indian languages are endangered, the highest number in the world. They are regional and tribal languages ignored by the growing English and Hindi speaking masses. According to a recent UNESCO study, threats to tribal languages continue to increase and urgent efforts are required if communities want to preserve their languages.
India's Adivasis are the largest group of indigenous people in the world, but many of their languages are endangered
Concerned over findings that around 196 languages were considered endangered in India, linguists and experts have maintained that efforts be made to preserve them and communities take a lead in reviving their languages. India is closely followed by the US that stands to lose 192 languages and Indonesia, where 147 are in peril.
According to UNESCO findings, there are around 44 endangered languages in the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand while there are about 42 endangered languages in the eastern region of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal.
Number of languages decreasing rapidly
The galloping rate at which languages keep disappearing has been alarming. The Indian census uses different criteria from UNESCO, counting less dialects and small languages in its list. But it mirrors a similar trend: The 2001 census shows India having just 122 languages, whereas in 1961 there were over 1,600 languages as per the survey.
Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, a leading scholar who has also served as education secretary, says the problem is serious and the government should give these languages a place in schools.
"How serious is the problem? The seriousness of the problem is that just as biodiversity is shrinking, so is linguistic diversity shrinking in this world. It is an extremely complex question because this means acknowledgement and legitimization of these languages, bringing them in the developmental process, i.e. they have to be recognized in the educational system."
Most languages which are endangered are out of the loop of the education system. And the shrinking of languages used in the Indian education system was not only because of infrastructure and resource constraints but also because of what the market demands.
While the advantages of using Hindi are many, it has significantly contributed to the loss of languages, with many tribals now preferring to speak Hindi rather than their mother tongue even at home.
Mainstream languages needed for work
Kamalini Sengupta from the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage, a non-profit organisation to protect and preserve India’s natural and cultural heritage, says market forces also play a role.
"The government of India does not recognize languages with less than 10,000 speakers. That means all these languages are therefore not given any resources and not recognized in any way. So they have to struggle first to get recognized, after which they will be given certain resources, perhaps allowed to use the language in schools and so on. The main factor, of course, is that they have to get their jobs in the mainstream languages and that is the pushing factor."
According to UNESCO, nearly one-third of all of the world's languages are spoken in sub-Saharan Africa, and it is estimated that 10 per cent of them will disappear during the course of the next century.
While linguists and policy planners can only do so much in preparing material for preserving these languages, their survival will depend eventually on the communities and their desire to preserve their own language.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Grahame Lucas