Like the ether that holds life forces,

Which it invisibly, yet constantly caresses;

I nurture the play of life’s essence.

In a toddler or an oldster, you see my presence

Withering am I? Stripped from my versatility,

How can I forsake the sustenance of human vitality?

Roger Bacon once said, “Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom”. Understanding languages is not just limited to anthropological context, as it is widely believed so, but goes beyond that, into the realm of deep understanding of the dynamics of our natural environment ensconcing the beauty and the wisdom of the world which was traditionally passed down orally. While the world is hunting for strategic policies and systems to avoid the catastrophes of climate changes rooted in a fragmented approach, Anvita Abbi, an Indian linguist and scholar of minority languages, known for her studies on tribal and other minority languages of South Asia, reminds us in one of the DEF dialogues the importance of indigenous languages in helping us to live in harmony. The Padma Shri awardee presents a much needed view on the role of local and indigenous languages in our society and learning, the reasons for them dying and the ways in which they could still be saved through her blindsiding anecdotes.

One such anecdote emphasizes on the languages being the carriers of basic knowledge of survival that saved many communities from Tsunami. Reflecting back on the events that followed, Anvita shares, “ It was the early morning of 26th December, 2004 when the Tsunami hit the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. We lost five thousand people but not a single death was reported among the unknown tribes. Before the Tsunami hit the islands, people from one of the communities known as Jarvan were fishing by the side of the seashores and when they saw the waves coming in, they immediately recognized the pattern of the waves and ran into the forest to a higher point to save themselves. When I asked one of my students who was collecting some material for his PhD at the time in the Jarvan reserve about this, he mentioned that on interviewing them, they said that ‘our parents had told that when you see waves like this ever in the sea run for your life because that means a pralaya (a period of destruction) is going to come’.

On interviewing another tribe later, they said that when they were fishing that morning by the side of the sea, they saw the kinds of fish one never sees on top of the surface of the sea water. What I was not aware of was that every tribe knew that the sea has three levels: one is the top level where you get fish that you eat everyday, then there is the middle level which is a twilight level where the sun rays don’t penetrate strongly and those fish are rarely seen on the surface of the sea and there is the deepest level of the sea which is a dark level and the fish from this level are never to be seen on the surface. When these tribes saw the fish from the second level coming up, they realized that the sea was churning waves as high as 10 to 20 feet and as they didn’t have any raised platform around, they went deep into the forest for safety. This is the interesting indigenous knowledge which they had logged in their language which had educated them and we lost other 5,000 people who had no knowledge of this kind and got swayed into the sea. There are many stories like that of survival that you can think of and one can get to know them through these languages.”

Along with acknowledging the wisdom and basic survival education associated with these languages, it should also be noted that the indigenous knowledge or the indigenous vocabulary of these languages is not translatable, for instance it is hard to find ways to translate the tune of 18 kinds of smells. Speaking of the vocabulary within the context of culture and lifestyle, Anvita mentions about the 1500 names in Koraput, Orissa of rice varieties that were predominant before the green revolution. It is said that every variety of rice tasted different, adding that earlier they could taste the rice so well that there was no need for dal (lentils) or sabzi (vegetables) as an add on, unlike now when the rice doesn’t taste anything close to how it did even after adding different kinds of spices. However, this could be just a biased attitude but nonetheless the fact that the variety of rice grew in different kinds of environment and the fact that it did not require any special manure is indigenously captured in these oral languages shows that there exists a mountain of such knowledge that is missed out in written forms.

Presenting a strong argument about one of the reasons to save these languages, Anvita shares another snippet from her experiences with the Toda and Mullu Kurumba communities of South India who lost many varieties of wild mushrooms with unique medicinal properties to the tea plantations. Although the tea plantations brought a lot of economic development and money to the community, a rich reserve of medicinal knowledge was lost. With referent fading out of relevance, the reference automatically finds the exit which is why preservation of language plays a key role in the education of the local society.

Exploring further on the role of languages in a society, it is fair to mention that there is a consensus in agreeing that the language houses wisdom and deep knowledge. Moreover, it is a medium through which food, art, culture, agriculture and science of living comes into practice. Therefore, to truly understand a language and the society, one has to approach it contextually.

There are more than seven to eight hundred languages in India which never came under the written form and hence, don’t even have a script. Anvita stressed on clearing the misconception that every language should have a script of their own. English, Spanish or French don’t have their own script. They have borrowed from roman script. Many European languages didn’t bother about having an individual script which in a way is a good thing as focusing too much on having such individual scripts can hamper literacy across the states. One such example is that of Ol-Chiki script that was created in 1925 for Santali language in Jharkhand because of which it is hard to find people who can read or write in Hindi or English. One way to resolve such an issue is to open a National Commission for scripting languages which still hasn’t been taken up for discussion. In an attempt to evolve collectively, communication that helped in building trust between groups was considered a crucial step. And written forms of communication helped in reaching out to people on a much larger scale because of which literacy, the ability to read and write, was considered to be a necessary step to be able to partake in the collective development. But over time, this has created a very big gulf between what is written and what is not. The linguistic apartheid of the so called ‘marginalised languages’ has deprived the communities of development and often termed uneducated or lackeys. This is where our individual conscience should help us in understanding the difference between being a literate and an educated person. Quite often it’s noticed, after careful understanding of such communities, that people from these indigenous tribes may not be literates in the majorly used scripts but are far more educated with practical understanding of the environment, survival, wellbeing and sustenance.

Steering back to the world’s economic development and its association with the perceived notion of “getting educated”, one can plainly see how languages get monopolized as they are contextual centric and commonly validated only in the written form. The deciding factor on being able to participate in the current path of world’s development is based on literacy and education from the perspective of being able to read and write. Unable to do so becomes an economic issue and eventually a power issue. Hence, the world has managed to convert one or a few languages as a power language or the control language which has left us in a very fragmented and statistic centric state. Just scratching the logical mind a bit would make one question the reasons for losing such rich reservoirs of knowledge knowing the importance of it. The answer lies in looking into the ways in which languages thrived over decades and centuries. Intergeneration transfer helped in keeping the languages alive which has seized recently. The domination and the subjugation by a few economically powerful people over the others certainly made this process much faster than ever, because of which the languages are dying in India. According to the reports of UNESCO, India has the largest number of endangered languages but it also has a larger number of surviving languages.

This could be understood better by looking deeper into the survival of languages than endangerment because multilingualism or bilingualism practiced in India is not competitive but complementary which has made us survive the language. Growing up in a multilingual environment where one gets to naturally learn multiple languages or dialects in social gatherings, given the diversity, an average Indian child is already accustomed to three languages when he or she comes to school. Every language has a function to play in society which cannot usually be replaced by another language. As a result, it becomes a complementary practice to learn different languages along with picking up on the social aspects associated with them. This beautiful mosaic of each language surviving in its own respect has made Indian languages survive for a long time. As per modern education policy, the moment a child comes to the school at the age of four or five, the teacher asks the children to converse in English only. Most schools punish children who speak in their mother tongue. This attitude has initiated the process of language endangerment. Such an attitude is not just limited to urban areas. One can see mothers bashing children for not talking in Hindi fearing exclusion. This ideology which has been honed in every tribal community that one has to learn Hindi is very unbecoming of and robbing their knowledge as well as indigenous identity.

To ensure inclusion in the learning environment, policy changes that help in embedding indigenous languages within the educational content through digital means, as many are exposed to it recently, along with other official or formal languages is something that can be taken further.

Reflecting on this, the New Education Policy, 2020 is a step forward in one way as it advocates teaching in mother tongue. But the problem is that according to the 2011 census, there are 1,639 officially recorded mother tongues, while the unofficial number would be around 1,900 languages. So, it would be a mountainous task to develop teaching material in all these languages although the intention is commendable. In this regard, a diverse set of digital material would have a very prominent effect which could also retain the age-old oral tradition of learning, which has been a much richer tradition than written in India before the British rule. Oral traditions, which is a very natural medium, have the quality of encompassing diversity and variations in the educational content which accelerates learning among children.

There is much more than what meets the eye under the gamut of oral traditions. It is not just limited to speaking in a narrative style. With no boundaries in expression and divisions, it even encompasses performing arts unlike restrictive frameworks of the written from. One example could be seen in the expression of Chitrakatha in Orissa where two people start singing, slowly transitioning into couplets, someone takes up the sarangi (Indian string instrument) by this time and they start singing the whole narration using the instruments, occasionally accompanied by dance and sometimes move on to paintings. They try to emote the same feelings through different media. Imbibing such local oral traditions in at least the first three years of learning would grab the attention and interest among them and the dropout rates would eventually come down. Drop out rates, for example in Chhattisgarh, is mainly associated with the medium of instruction and interaction where Hindi is imposed on children instead of interfacing the learning content with their mother tongues because of which children tend to feel hostile. Another misconception that should be addressed is that the oral traditions limit one to stay backward. So a complementary approach rather than a competitive one would help to resolve it.

Looking back on the scale of the endangered languages, Anvita pointed out that most of the endangered languages are in Jammu and Kashmir, especially Kashmir, and North Eastern states with just three speakers left in certain regions. In places like Andaman islands, there are two languages like Jarvan which will live for another 50-70 years because of the intergenerational transfer and most of them being monolingual. One of the indicators of languages becoming endangered is when the only active speakers of the community are those who belong to one’s grandparents’ age. There are many languages with less than 100 speakers left as per her studies, but she adds that one should always keep in mind that languages change everyday. Now, the question that many come up with is, ‘Why do we have to preserve a language like a pickle?’. Although one cannot force a community to save their language, it can be done in case they want to reclaim it some day like what happened with Israelis. Just before Hebrew was totally lost, people wanted to reclaim it, which didn’t come back to life in its authentic form, and the written documentation helped them in the process.

But written documentation has no room to accommodate the way in which songs were sung, language was pronounced, the style adopted while communicating in that language like intonation patterns, gestures, etc. This is where digitization plays a huge role in preserving the language in the best way possible. Digitization is the only recourse in either reviving or reclaiming language as it can always be traced back to the spoken form. This way of preservation should include audio and video recordings of the oral languages in all its realm, capturing the context of its usage, instead of focussing only on the folklore because a person’s day to day lifestyle and culture finds expression through the language which has to be included. Anvita also added that the methodology to be adopted in this process could be an elaborate one but keeping in mind that as these languages are unique in nature, the recordings need to be done right away with priorities based on analyzing the relevance of its context on reaching the field. If many recordings are collected in different domains, then there would be a chance of documenting the essence of the language. Sensing the urgency and significance of the issue, DEF , with the help of the A-CODE platform, would hope to collaborate and ideate to implement the preservation process using digital means. With the help of methodology provided by the linguists and the help of institutional set up and resources, both human and digital, whose presence is seen in most rural parts of India, DEF would look forward to participating in this endeavor.

This article is an excerpt from the DEF dialogue with Anvita Abbi.

DEF dialogue with Anvita Abbi