Sunday, April 15, 2012

What English has done to other languages

I hadn’t heard about International Mother Tongue Day until 2004 when I took part in a Mother Tongue Day celebration at which, however, no light was thrown on the significance of observing February 21 as Mother Tongue Day.  Later, I learnt that, in the year 1999, UNESCO had declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day in response to a request from Bangladesh.  On February 21, 1952, in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the police opened fire on a mass-rally demanding the declaration of their mother tongue, Bangla, as a state language of Pakistan, and a few young men who took part in the rally died of gunshot wounds.  Bangladesh still observes the day as Martyrs’ Day.  Incidentally, the love and respect that these language martyrs had aroused for their mother tongue, Bangla, laid the foundation for the war of liberation in Bangladesh.

One has the right to use one’s language and one has the right to maintain and develop one’s culture.  These are inalienable personal rights, according to UNESCO’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights.  But there are millions of people all over the world who have “lost” their mother tongues by opting to study, right from their childhood, through the medium of English, the language of opportunities, and by opting for, in addition, a dominant language other than their mother-tongue.  This has led to the marginalization of thousands of languages, particularly tribal languages, all over the world.  It is for this reason that language right activists call English a “killer language”.

How serious is this problem?  Here are some facts.  Alawa, in northern Australia, has only about 20 fluent speakers left.  Achumavi, in northern California, has just 10 elderly speakers.  There was only one speaker of Eyak in the year 2004 and he was 84 years old at the time!  Jiwali has no native speakers at all; the last native speaker died in 1986.  Manx as a native language became extinct in 1900 on the Isle of Man.

In the South Asian region, a number of languages are likely to become extinct in the near future.  In India, according to the 1961 census, there are only 98 speakers of Agariya and 17 speakers of Andamanese.  In Pakistan, there are only 250 speakers of Khowar.  In Bangladesh, Kumi is spoken by just 2000 people.  In Nepal, Kumal and Byangsi have only 1000 speakers each. 

In my own state, Andhra Pradesh, the study of the mother tongue, Telugu, has been made compulsory only recently. Until then, the tendency had been to avoid Telugu even as a Part I language in schools and colleges.  In English-medium schools, English was the medium of instruction and Hindi was the Part I language for hundreds of young people.  This was true of all the other southern states. (Tamil Nadu, which did not opt for the three-language formula, is perhaps an exception.)  Even though the study of the mother tongue has been made compulsory, people are by and large indifferent to the mother tongue. Mother tongue illiteracy is, therefore, an alarming problem.  At the global level, it is even more alarming.  According to a prediction by Krauss, a linguist, this century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind’s languages.  They will be alive only in language documents and on the web. 

“Linguistic genocide”, “linguicide”, “language death” – the obiturial terminology is frightening.

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