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.”