Long back, Bhabani Prasad Majumdar wrote a poem mocking a Bengali mother for taking pride in the fact that her son cannot speak Bengali.
“Kisher gorob? Kisher asha? Ar chole na Bangla bhasha…janen dada amar cheler bangla ta thik ashena…” (What pride? What hope? Bengali is a waste… Do you know, Sir, my son can’t speak Bengali)
Probably, Majumdar could predict well. He was not just mocking that one mother, he was mocking an entire generation and the future generations.
But here’s the thing. No matter how many languages you learn, chances are, you will share the most intimate relationship with the language that you said the first word in. Or at least, that’s the idea that writer-journalist Sirsho Bandopadhyay has.
Two years after his daughter was born, Bandopadhyay, quit a lucrative job in Germany and decided to return to India. The main reason for his return was his daughter Raina. He wanted her to be raised in a Bengali environment, learn her mother tongue and have a proper understanding of her cultural background. He feels that a child needs to know the mother tongue because it is essential for cultural roots especially in the formative years.
"If my daughter would have been raised in Germany, then she might have never known her mother tongue or understood how rich Bengali Literature is and it would not have been her fault," says Bandopadhyay.
His daughter will turn eighteen this year. Although you won’t often find her reading a Bengali book or listening to Bengali music, she knows the language. And, understands it. That, itself, is enough for Bandopadhyay. He is happy that he has been able to provide his daughter with a “strong cultural anchor”.
However, what the writer did is an exception, not quite a rule. Parents no longer insist that their kids learn their own languages but are concerned in teaching their children socio-politically dominant languages such as Hindi or English, so that 'they can advance in their lives'. As a result, the intergenerational transfer of several languages has been steadily deteriorating in our country and many mother tongues are dying.
According to a list prepared by UNESCO, there are 40 languages in India that are supposed to be critically endangered and stand a chance of becoming extinct. Many of these languages are mother tongues of small communities and tribes. While linguists struggle to document and preserve them, there has been little effort from the government to protect these languages.
One of the reasons that these languages are becoming extinct is that parents don’t care about teaching their native languages to their children anymore. Urban parents aspire their children to become global citizens. Therefore, most of these children who grow up in big cities, upper-middle-class households are fluent in English and sometimes even well-versed in international languages. However, many don't know how to read and write them, while some can’t even speak their own mother tongue.
In a way, while the new generation is getting connected to the larger world, thanks to the Internet and their globe-trotting parents, they are often disconnected from their own heritage and traditions.
For most middle class and low-income group parents, the first prerogative is to secure a financially viable future for their kids. Naturally, being able to provide good education to their children becomes the first step in securing that stability for their future.
Nisha Bishwakarma is a government nurse who grew up in a Nepali household. She is married to a Bengali man, Kunal Mondal, who runs a cyber cafe. They have a daughter, Pihu, who they recently admitted to an English medium school.
"We don't have enough money to send our daughter to such an expensive school but we are trying our best," says Nisha." I want Pihu to learn English. There is no point studying other languages. She will never get a job if she doesn't know English." she adds.
Maniswar Majhi is an Oraon Adivasi married to a Bihari woman, Bina Paswan. They have two kids, who don't speak in either of their parents' native languages. They can only communicate in Hindi because they study in a Hindi medium school.
Linguist and scholar of minority languages, Anvita Abbi says, "Development and progress are often associated with dominant state language or English. I don't think that kids should not learn them. But they can learn it at a later stage. What children need in their formative years is their mother language. It improves their cognitive abilities."
Abbi recounts that she has seen tribal mothers scolding their children for not talking in Hindi. "Although the mother language of these kids is Kurukh or Kharia, they are scolded if they speak in it. Their mothers say that learning these languages will not help them advance in future," she says.
While advancing in future may be the ultimate parental goal of many parents, Anish Koshy, a professor at the Linguistics department in English and Foreign Languages University says that another reason that many communities and tribes want to disassociate themselves from their language is due to the negative perception attached to their languages.
"In central India, living amidst people who mostly speak Hindi, some tribes are under tremendous pressure to not only give up their languages but also to give up their cultural identities. Therefore, they actively avoid anything that will be directly linked to their tribal status. They don't want to be considered tribal, because in these parts of India, being a tribal is made out be a negative thing by the society. So, another reason mother tongues die is that parents have negative perceptions about them, and they don't want their children to associate with it," says Koshy.
The Indian constitution lists 22 “officially recognised languages”. However, in India, there are more than 1,600 mother tongues and it may not be an easy job to preserve and protect them all. But here’s another fact. There are funds that are sanctioned for research of tribal languages and languages that very few speak, and the NCERT guidelines suggest that primary education is imparted in children's mother tongues. And despite all of that, there has been no collaborative effort from the government's side to protect our linguistic heritage.
Professor Sandhya Singh, NCERT Head of The Department of Education In Languages, says, "Our guidelines of 2005 provide that children receive mother tongue-based multilingual education. For primary education, children will learn in their original language or their mother tongues. The second language is either Hindi or English. And for the third language, if they are in North India they will learn Southern languages and if they are in the South they will learn North Indian languages."
Singh says that by imparting education in mother languages they are also ensuring that it is carried forward for generations. She adds, "We have also observed that if kids learn in their own languages their understanding of social sciences is better. So, if their primary education is conducted in their mother tongue, they will learn better."
Professor D.G. RAO, Director of Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL), says that they have suggested to a UGC committee that there be a collaborative effort in protecting languages.
"We are all working on this on our own. UGC has identified different universities, where studies of endangered languages are being conducted. CIIL has an ongoing project on protection and preservation of endangered languages. We are working in different parts of the country and trying to document various languages. We are developing dictionaries, grammar, and primer. But, we need to come together and work in coordination with different government wings," adds Rao.
While it’s easy to blame the government to formulate policies that will keep languages from becoming extinct, a large responsibility lies on us—the only way to keep a language alive is to pass it through the generations. And clearly, somewhere over the years, we have decided to ignore that.
As we celebrate International Mother Language Day today let’s begin by acknowledging that India has a pluralistic, multilingual culture and if we want it to thrive we will have to learn to celebrate our diversity and encourage all languages to prosper.
The following data set has been downloaded from UNESCO's website. However, in the interactive map on their website, the numbers reflected are slightly different.