Saving Languages

TEJGADH, India — In an academy deep in the agrarian countryside of western India, five students were writing briskly in ruled notebooks. They were in their early 20s and newly enrolled, but there was no discounting the gravity of their assignment: When they are finished, the world will have five more documented languages.

This is so positive and exciting. India has been pretty pathetic at archiving her history – museums, libraries, documentaries are all below world standards. That is such a pity given the richness, depth and diversity involved.

Modern India has 22 official languages that are recognized by the Constitution and there are over a thousand dialects. The Adivasis are India’s tribal people. As the younger generation moves to cities and towns, they steep themselves in the prevailing language in order to integrate and survive. But in doing so, the Adivasis are at risk of losing their language as well as their culture.

He created the school, known as the Adivasi Academy, with a burning question on his mind: Why do we wait for cultures to die to memorialize them?

“There is a continent of culture getting submerged, and that’s why I wanted to take the plunge,” Mr. Devy said.

With financing from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic groups, the Adivasi Academy tries to preserve a culture by steeping a new generation of villagers in their own quickly disappearing traditions.

I’m glad Mr. Devy is doing this – just like the world tries to save species from going extinct, we owe ourselves the effort of saving cultures from vanishing. And along the way, the younger generation embraces its heritage…

“If a community has a strong sense of identity and a sense of pride in that identity, it wants to survive and thrive,” Mr. Devy said. “The new economy is important. The old culture is equally important.”

  • mg

    Wow, this is indeed good news!

  • Krishna

    But why is this additional diversity de facto a good thing? Isn't it a marketplace of ideas & values in which these are losing (for whatever reason?).The youngsters in the Adivasi community (and those responsible for their upbringing) have a choice- to follow their culture/values or choose another.

    While I'm happy Mr. Devy does want to protect those traditions and that the Ford Foundation is funding him (to each his/her own), Isn't he just preventing the natural evolution (and sometimes extinction) of a community? In the competition for hearts and minds, some ideas (and memes) do better, nein? By ensuring they “remain steeped” in their tradition, isn't there a possibility he's denying them a better life?

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  • Dear Krishna,
    Thanks for that comment. Had the competition been 'free', the situation would have been different. First, the land where Adivasis lived for centuries was confiscated by the colonial government and brought under the 'soveriegn domain', declaring the area as 'scheduled' — which means 'having less legal freedom and secutrity'.

    Then, when th elinguistic states were made in India, the speakers of Adivasi languages were denied any statehood, and their languages were denied the status of 'school languages'. This made learning their own mother tongues in a systematic way impossible.

    Since, there is very little chance of them speaking their own language and getting into any meaningful occupation, they are under pressure to give up the language(s).

    This cannot be called 'natural evolution' of a language. Since there is an external interference causing the decline of the languages, external support too will be required to save the fast disappearing stock of traditional wisdom in those languages.

    Of course, at the Adivasi Academy, I have never prevented my collagues and students form learning English or French. One of them recently returned from the University of leeds after completing a Masters. But, I encourge them to use their own languages as well.

    I hope you will appreciate my point of view.

    Ganesh Devy

  • Krishna

    Dear Mr. Devy,
    Thank you for your gracious and instructive response.

    I certainly agree that learning a language often opens a window into the culture, and traditions of a people. I also agree that it is no bad thing to learn another language.

    I only reiterate that it is a serious disadvantage- in these times- to lack a fluency in English (the global language of business). I'm heartened to hear of an alumnus of yours who has gone on to do a Masters at Leeds and I hope more students emerge from your academy bi- (or multi-) lingual.

    Wishing you all the best in your endeavors

  • Brian_Barker

    In my view, at a global level. the international use of English mitigates against the saving of minority languages.

    The promulgation of English as the world's “lingua franca” is both impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  • Prithvi

    I am so glad Dr. Devy is tackling this tyranny of the majority. I particularly applaud the inclusivity of identity affiliations – no person is defined by just one identity – language, sex, race,religion, profession or even politics – the plurality paves the way for a more integrated society and more confident individuals.

  • Brian_Barker

    In my view, at a global level. the international use of English mitigates against the saving of minority languages.

    The promulgation of English as the world's “lingua franca” is both impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

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  • Prithvi

    I am so glad Dr. Devy is tackling this tyranny of the majority. I particularly applaud the inclusivity of identity affiliations – no person is defined by just one identity – language, sex, race,religion, profession or even politics – the plurality paves the way for a more integrated society and more confident individuals.

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