Our Vanishing Heritage

Preserving Languages

 21st February or Ekushe February in Bengali usage is an iconic day in the history of the Bengali-speaking people like me. The history is worth recalling briefly. In 1948, the Government of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language for the newly formed country sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. Facing rising sectarian tensions and mass discontent, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. The students of Dhaka University and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on 21 February 1952. The movement reached its climax when police killed student demonstrators on that day leading to widespread civil unrest. After years of conflict, the government eventually relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956. The insult to their language was never really forgotten by the Bengali people and this suppressed discontent was to eventually explode in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh. Till this day, on both sides of the border, Bengali-speaking people commemorate the uprising of 21 February and honour the martyrs. 

In remembrance of that occasion, 21st February has become to be observed as the International Mother Language Day worldwide to promote the awareness of cultural diversity, linguistic and multilingualism. The day is a recognition that whether spoken by a handful of people in a small village or by millions of people all around the world, a language can unite, create a sense of belonging and give its people a way to connect with each other. It is a glue that keeps generations connected, spiritually, culturally, and emotionally. They are a way for values and traditions to be passed down for generations. 

When a language is lost, part of that culture is lost. Language is not just grammar and syntax, it is also culture, history, and discourse, customs and heritage, which in summary UNESCO terms intangible, human heritage. There are 370 million people groups today, representing over 5000 cultures and speaking a majority of the world’s estimated 7000 languages. However, with many of them starting to disappear, there is looming the possibility of losing touch with ancient cultures and their history. Languages and ancestry have been under threat of extinction due to various factors, such as migration, economic uncertainty, educational barriers, and cultural assimilation and if it isn’t passed down from one generation to the next, its days are going to be numbered.

UNESCO has estimated that over 90% of the languages spoken today could be lost by the end of the century Languages usually reach the point of crisis after being displaced by a socially, politically and economically dominant one. In this scenario, the majority speaks another language – English, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu – meaning that language becomes key to accessing jobs, education and opportunities. Sometimes, especially in immigrant communities, parents will decide not to teach their children their heritage language, perceiving it as a potential hindrance to their success in life. Modern development has come to mean that minority ethnic and language groups have to give up their language and traditions to climb up economic and social ladders. 

Many languages may not be as commonly used as the more widespread English, French or Chinese or Hindi in the case of India. But wee still bear a collective responsibility to invest resources in the revitalisation of dying languages. After all languages are far more enduring conduits of human heritage. Writing is a relatively recent development in our history (written systems currently exist for only about one-third of the world’s languages), so language itself is often the only way to convey a community’s songs, stories, and poems. The Bible was an oral story before it was written, as were the Vedas, the Quran, and other religious texts that shaped the world views of billions across the world.

In India, after the 1971 census, the government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people need not be included in the official list of languages. This means that almost half of the planet’s current linguistic diversity is under threat. India may have lost 220 languages since 1961. Another 150 languages could vanish in the next 50 years. Examples of such languages would be Wadari, Kolhati, Golla, Gisari which are languages of nomadic people in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana. Then there are several tribal languages as well, such as Pauri, Korku, Haldi, Mavchi.

In many continents, the colonial impact wiped out the native languages. In India that did not happen. Our languages survived. However, colonial times brought us the print technology and only a few of our languages got printed. The one that got printed eventually got states to themselves since in India our states are designed in linguistic terms. The other languages did not get states for them, they did not get official recognition and therefore became secondary citizens in the language republic of India.

All this might not seem important in the day-to-day life of an English speaker with no personal ties to the culture in which they’re spoken, language loss matters. This loss is something beyond all the other losses. The real tragedy of all this might just be all of the people who find themselves unable to speak their first language, the language they learned how to describe the world in. 

Although some people argue that language loss, like species loss, is simply a fact of life on an ever-evolving planet, the argument is not really sustainable. When we spend huge amounts of money protecting species and biodiversity, so why should it be that the one thing that makes us singularly human shouldn’t be similarly nourished and protected? The Bible describes human beings as the crown of God’s creation, no matter what language they speak and how many people speak that language. The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is to remind us that we should not be apathetic towards the disappearance of ancient languages. On the contrary, we need to approach this issue just as we would the destruction of a tangible culture – after all, language and culture are intrinsically linked and we cannot expect for the one to continue existing long after the death of the other.

Published by Pippa Rann Books and Media on February 2, 2022

By Dr. Shantanu Dutta

A former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.

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