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HomeEditorialCollective efforts needed to save dying tongues

Collective efforts needed to save dying tongues

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Majority of the Indian languages could become nonexistent if timely efforts are not made to preserve them. As per Indian linguistics statistics, 380 languages are spoken in India and 96 per cent of the list is endangered. In fact, in India, only 4 per cent people speak 96 per cent of these endangered languages while 96 per cent natives speak 4 per cent of the major languages. By allowing languages to perish, we are demolishing what needs to be conserved. The task of saving these languages all over the world has already begun. All we need to do is spread awareness among the people. At present, there are at least 6,000 living languages across the world. Linguistics believe that, of the total languages, 330 have more than one million speakers each while 51 languages have only one speaker each. Most cities in India have a foundation to teach many foreign languages. But how many look inwards to tap the domestic cultural mother lode of more than 1,500 Indian languages?

This question has driven Bharatavani, an online Indian languages platform hosted by the Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysuru, to not only publish content in 121 Indian languages but work towards starting online classes. We should be happy to know such wonderful work is under process. We should also look at various possibilities to add numerous ways — dialect — in which a language is spoken in different regions. Gujarati is spoken differently in south Gujarat and north Gujarat region. The same is with Marathi and other languages too. This initiative is going to make a difference in the field of linguistic research in the Indian context. This is a great initiative taken by the government of India. Let us all at least preserve if not propagate the lesser-known languages. It is a part of this Nation’s growing up over centuries. May the CIIL flourish and contribute more and more to preserve our heritage.

In a little over a year since its inception, the portal offers 262 unilingual and multilingual dictionaries in 50 Indian languages — all of them in a searchable format on Android platforms — which can be accessed on Bharatavani’s free Android app.

These vocabularies can now be linked to create a large database of words across various languages — using English, Hindi or regional languages as the source words. With over seven lakh source words at present, the potential of the database is immense. For instance, the use of Odia source words will result in an Odia-English-Ho-Munda-Khadia-Kui-Oraon-Saura dictionary, integrating a family of Austroasiatic languages spoken in central-eastern India. The integration of these dictionaries is still a work in progress. This resource will help speed up socio-linguistic research and not just themes of structure and descent, thereby ensuring better development planning. One serious challenge is that children from communities speaking non-scheduled languages are pushed out of schools leading to development deprivation.

Constructing digitised databases for smaller languages will be a problem as their script cannot be scanned and converted into text format. Tedious desktop publishing is the only viable option. Another obstacle is that unicode script input drivers are available in only recognised scripts. Incidentally, the Bharatavani portal will soon provide a virtual keyboard, integrating all available Unicode drivers of India languages for users to search for words by typing in a language of their choice. The bigger problem, however, is proofreading. Ideally, for a multi-lingual digital dictionary, we need to carry out a collaborative online proofreading process, experts looking at their language of expertise. In most of these smaller languages, it’s tough to even get language experts. Most are old and not equipped to proofread.

India is home to a huge variety of languages. The survey, which was conducted over the past four years by 3,000 volunteers and staff of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (“Bhasha” means “language” in Hindi), also concludes that 220 Indian languages have disappeared in the last 50 years, and that another 150 could vanish in the next half-century as speakers die and their children fail to learn their ancestral tongues. The 35,000-page survey is being released in 50 volumes.

In my opinion, making dictionaries or grammars cannot preserve languages. Languages live if people who speak the languages continue to live. So we need to look after the well being of the people who use those languages, which means we need a micro-level planning of development where language is taken as one factor. In history, very large languages also go down sometimes. Latin is one example. The (ancient) Greek language is another and the Sanskrit is the third one. A language does not have to be small in order to face extinction. That is the nature of language. In India, linguistic states are created. If there is a very large language for which there is no state, then slowly that language will stop growing. This has happened. For example, Bhojpuri is a very, very robustly growing language, but there is no state for the Bhojpuri language. So after some time, the strength will be lost. Several external elements play a role. Often smaller languages move to the centre, slowly grow and occupy centre stage. So this equation that the government will come, will do something and then a language will survive, has to be taken out of all thinking. It is a cultural phenomenon.

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Vaidehi Taman
Vaidehi Taman
Vaidehi Taman an Accredited Journalist from Maharashtra is bestowed with three Honourary Doctorate in Journalism. Vaidehi has been an active journalist for the past 21 years, and is also the founding editor of an English daily tabloid – Afternoon Voice, a Marathi web portal – Mumbai Manoos, and The Democracy digital video news portal is her brain child. Vaidehi has three books in her name, "Sikhism vs Sickism", "Life Beyond Complications" and "Vedanti". She is an EC Council Certified Ethical Hacker, OSCP offensive securities, Certified Security Analyst and Licensed Penetration Tester that caters to her freelance jobs.
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