Why do our languages die?

Monday Musing

[ Amar Sangno ]

While en route to Naharlagun from the Guwahati airport on a Sky One chopper, I was struck by a three-year-old toddler speaking with her Apatani mother in English, with an American accent. My curiosity nudged me into eavesdropping on the toddler’s incoherent English but impeccable American accent.

I impulsively came to the conclusion that they were non-resident Indians (NRI) going back to their native place Ziro.

My conjecture changed the moment I found her maid sitting on the next seat, carrying the toddler. At the end, I had to ask her, “Aunty where you from?”

“I am from Ziro,” she replied.

“How come your kid has an impeccable American accent?” I asked her in consternation.

“Learnt from YouTube,” she responded, chuckling.

A part of me was envying the toddler for her fluency, and a part of me worried over the future of the languages spoken in our respective communities in Arunachal. At home, I hope the toddler’s mother communicates with her in Apatani too.

A similar incident occurred once when I was window-shopping at a departmental store in Itanagar, where a pair of modernised parents in their 30s was communicating with their kids in English.

From the modern civilisation’s perspective, modern education is necessary to earn a living and to grow. However, losing one’s mother tongue is a serious threat to one’s cultural existence.

Dr Seino van Breugel, Assistant Professor in Linguistics, University College Roosevelt, Middelburg, Netherlands, who worked extensively on Atong grammar (a Garo sub-tribe) said, “In the eyes of a linguist, language death is certainly a most tragic thing. With the death of every language, a unique way to see the world also disappears.”

Dr Breugel opined that language death is on par with the extinction of any other living species on this planet. “Once a language is dead, even when one manages to ‘revive’ it, one never ends up with the same result,” he said.

He further pointed out that certain factors are contributing to the death of one language, for example, parents not communicating in their own language with their children, negative image of their own language, and repression of the native language by another, more prestigious language.

Unverified statistics indicate that one-third of the children born to intratribe married parents in Arunachal have lost their mother tongue. Even for some of the intratribe parents, the children have lost their mother tongue, especially those who reside in urban towns or the capital. Hindi is the only popular medium of communication for them.

Indigenous languages faced early assault from Hindi just after the Sino-India war in 1962, when the Indian government started imposing Hindi language among the tribal people. It overnight took over Assamese medium teaching in the government schools, and thus overshadowed the native languages to a great extent.

The UNESCO listed 192 languages of India as ‘vulnerable and endangered’ in 2022. Among them, five languages of Arunachal, including Tangam and Milang in Adi group, Nah in Tagin, Meyor, and Bugun, have been categorised as ‘critically endangered’ and another six languages, including Puroik, Singhpo, Aka (Koro), Miji and Mishmi (Idu, Miju, Digaru) are classified as ‘definitely endangered’.

For instance, the Tangam language is considered one of the most critically endangered languages in the Adi group. As per the Centre for Endangered Languages (CFEL), Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) survey in 2016, the total population of the Tangam community is only 253 and they reside only in Kugging village in Upper Siang district.

“So far, the Tangam community has been retaining their cultural practices in its true form. However, there are very few older people who have knowledge about their folklores. This is very critical to the language that they speak,” said Roing (LDV)-based RIWATCH research officer Kombong Darang, who is working extensively in making documentaries on the Tangam community.

“The community members are realising the importance of their language and culture, and they are working on various preventive measures. This is a positive thing happening within the community. The initiative to speak the language by the younger generation a need of the hour,” Darang said.

Similarly, Nah is a critically endangered language; it is spoken by less than 1,000 native speakers.

“Nah is one of the least documented languages of Arunachal Pradesh. Extensive researches are highly required to promote and revitalise this endangered language at the earliest,” suggested RIWATCH research officer (linguistics) Dr Mechek Sampar Awan.

Nah belongs to the western Tani branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family (Sun 1993). The native speakers live in 14 villages in and around Taksing headquarters in Upper Subansiri district. They are multilingual and are highly proficient in Hindi, Assamese, Tagin, and Nyishi, besides Nah, Dr Sampar summed up.

CFEL assistant coordinator Lisa Lomdak said that “the CFEL has outlined that a language becomes endangered when it is on a path towards extinction; when the older generation ceases to pass it on from one generation to another and its speakers cease to use it.”

“It is also reflected in the shrinking of communicative domains of the language use. Endangered languages in some worst cases are spoken only by a few living elders,” Lomdak added.

Lomdak in a presentation titled ‘Language endangerment in Arunachal Pradesh: Current issues and future prospects’ further pointed out that the multilayered acceptability of languages of wider communication like Hindi, Assamese and English have caused a major language shift towards the mainstream languages and has resulted in a critical state of language loss of the native languages of the tribal communities.

Even the numerically larger tribes like Nyishi, Adi, Galo, Tagin, Apatani, Monpa, Mishmi, Tangsa, etc, whose population exceed 10,000, are not safe from endangerment, and are hence marked as ‘unsafe’, she said.

Lomdak suggested that, “to continue speaking the mother tongue around children, we should create enough cultural spaces to use the mother tongue in natural ambience,” and concluded that “the loss of any language is a loss for all humanity.”

The tribal languages of Arunachal show serious signs of endangerment, mainly caused due to negligence and faulty provisions of the government, which has not facilitated the mother tongues of the tribals to be functional and useful outside the home domain.

The Chief Minister Pema Khandu-led government has initiated introduction of local languages in schools as third languages of the respective communities. The Khandu-led government cabinet recently approved an honorarium of Rs 1000 per month to third language teachers of Nyishi, Adi, Tagin, Galo, Tangsa, Wancho, Idu Mishmi, Kaman Mishmi, Taraon Mishmi, Apatani, Aka, Singpho and Tutsa. The government has also enhanced the honorarium for Bhoti language and Tai-Kampti teachers.

Dr Breugel suggested that promotion of educational materials for children to start learning fundamental skills such as reading, writing and maths in their native languages at the elementary level, giving space to native language on social media, and bilingualism for the communities who speak an endangered language could be one of the effective mechanisms to preserve endangered languages from the death.

One community elder suggested that all children born and brought up in the Itanagar Capital Region and are modern should be allowed to spend at least a month in their traditional villages. “Hope it may save our languages from natural death,” he said.

As we embrace modernity, giving top priority to English as a symbol of modern education and intellectualism, our towns and cities are turning cosmopolitan, and we are losing our mother tongues at an unprecedented rate, letting it die every day.