Media coverage of my research

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The Asian Age, February 21, 2010


Bijoy Bharathan

The scenic, sun-kissed shores of Andaman and Nicobar islands recently let out a collective sigh of grief and the mainland was shrouded in a veil of eerie silence. The only surviving speakers (Boro and Boa) of two Great Andamanese languages (Khora and Bo) had breathed their last. Their passing amidst the sound of the lapping waves, also echoed a death knell — not just for the two native tongues, but also for the historical, cultural and ecological wisdom accumulated over thousands of years by their ancestors who spoke that language. It might not be too long before we witness a similar tragedy again.

Language Hotspots cropped map

Experts says that as many as 196 languages in India are on the brink of extinction today. According to a study by Unesco, the world loses one language every 14 days. Which means, in less than 100 years, the human civilisation will be bereft of more than half of its 7,000 languages.

A countdown to extinction seems inevitable for several languages in India. While delving over the extinction of languages, one of the fundamental questions we face is why and how does a mother tongue die? Providing his insights on this query is Prof. Panchanan Mohanty from the Centre for Applied Linguistics & Translation Studies, University of Hyderabad. He explains, "The survival of any language depends entirely on its speakers. The language must primarily be able to satisfy the speaker's economic, educational and social requirements. It's interesting to note that a monolingual individual cannot be held responsible for the death of any language. It's only when he or she is exposed to a second language, that the tendency to compare and pass judgements takes shape."

"When an individual finds that one language has a competitive advantage over the other, in terms of providing better opportunities — whether it is in terms of education, employment or lifestyle — the person is bound to gravitate towards that language and that's exactly what's happening in many parts of India these days. Learning a language like Hindi or English that has a national visibility encourages the present generation to altogether give up on their mother tongues and opt for the language of convenience. Even parents enforce this policy with their children these days," he adds.

David Harrison, Ph.D, Associate Professor & Chair of the Linguistics Department at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania and the Director of Research at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages believes there are other factors at play that are responsible for the death of native tongues across the globe. David, a key researcher in a critically acclaimed documentary about language extinction named The Linguists, had visited Orissa during the filming of the same.

David remarks, "Many smaller groups in India are ignored in official discourse for administrative convenience and several are found in the poorest and most underdeveloped or remote parts of the country. So they are 'peripheral' to the popular experience in both a literal and figurative sense."

David has been researching Orissa's Munda languages like Sora, Juang, Ho and Remo, which are highly endangered, and also other Austro-Asiatic languages in Arunachal Pradesh like Aka, Miji, etc. David says, "We have identified parts of India that lie within a language hotspot. I coined this term to designate those areas that have the greatest diversity of endangered languages and least amount of scientific documentation. We found that numerous small languages are endangered, and even some relatively larger ones (spoken by 3,00,000 to 1 million) are beginning to show signs of shift."

Prof Anvita Abbi, from the Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University who has undertaken a project called 'Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese' to document the languages spoken by the tribes in these islands, believes that time is running out for many languages in the Indian subcontinent.

She reveals, "There are just about 50 people remaining who speak the Great Andamanese languages like Sare and Jeru. The other two languages in this category, Khora and Bo, were lost following the death of the last speakers. About 150 years ago, the region could boast of 10 languages under the Greater Andamanese."

So what needs to be done to reverse this process? Prof Anvita says, "The government must consider implementing a system like the Swedish four language formula. Which means, in the first two years of primary education for kids, the medium of instruction should be their mother tongue. For instance, a Tulu child should not be forced to learn Kannada at an early age just for the sake of education. Even psychologists agree that from four years onwards, kids are at the highest power of grasping and if one can impart lessons to them in their own mother tongue, their knowledge would only be supplemented. On a broader scale, we need to endow native languages with a dignity in learning. We need better institutional support for the documentation and preservation of endangered languages and we have to move away from our subtractionist policy of imparting education."

(Photo: Language Hotspots are areas with many languages near extinction.) BBC, February 5, 2010

The tragedy of dying languages

K David Harrison

Kallawaya tribe

The death of the last speaker of an ancient language in India's Andaman Islands highlights the fact that half of the world's 7,000 languages are in danger of disappearing. Linguist K David Harrison argues that we still have much to learn from vanishing languages.

My journey as a scientist exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald's in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers - dignified elders - who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth.

Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. In fact they are often eager to share it. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?

Boa Sr

As the last speakers converse, they spin individual strands in a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia.

We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. Finally, this web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity -epics, myths, rituals - that celebrate and interpret our existence.

Pundits argue that linguistic differences are little more than random drift, minor variations in meaning and pronunciation that emerge over time (the British say 'lorry', Americans 'truck'; Tuesday is CHEWS-day, for Brits, TOOZ-day for Americans).

The Linguists

These reveal nothing interestingly different about our souls or minds, some claim. But that's like saying that the Pyramid of Cheops differs from Notre Dame Cathedral only by stone-cutting techniques that evolved randomly in different times and places; revealing nothing unique in the ancient Egyptian or Medieval French imagination.

All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. We might as well proclaim human history banal, and human genius of no value to our survival.

The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80% of plant and animal species unknown to science, and 80% of languages yet to be documented.

But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well-known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things, but also complex interrelations among them.

Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

Linguistic survivors hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths.

Johnny Hill

Johnny Hill, Jr of the Chemehuevi tribe of Arizona is a big, imposing man, but he instantly wins people over with his gentle humility. Designated "last speaker" of Chemehuevi, Johnny achieved celebrity in the 2008 documentary film The Linguists.

Although he had never previously travelled far from his reservation or flown on an aeroplane, Johnny mesmerized film festival-goers with his life story. Raised by his grandmother who spoke only Chemehuevi, Johnny learned English at school seeking a path out of isolation.

At the other end of his lifespan, Johnny finds himself linguistically isolated once again. "I have to talk to myself," he explains resignedly. "There's nobody left to talk to, all the elders have passed on, so I talk to myself... that's just how it is."

Johnny has tried to teach his children and others in the tribe. "Trouble is," he sighs, "they say they want to learn it, but when it comes time to do the work, nobody comes around."

Speakers react differently to loss - from indifference to despair - and adopt diverse strategies. Some blame governments or globalization, others blame themselves. Around the world, a growing wave of language activists works to revitalize their threatened tongues. Positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive, while negative ones can doom them.

A clan leader - Torres Islands

Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally, and new technologies are being mobilised to the cause.

A Torres Straits' Islander in Australia told me: "Our language is standing still, we need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words, because right now we can't say 'computer'."

The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige, translated software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues, as I've heard among young Aka speakers in India, infuses new vitality.

Language revitalisation will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.

What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know - which we've forgotten or never knew - may some day save us.

We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let's listen while we still can.

K David Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Uncover the World's Most Endangered Languages.

(First Photo: The Kallawaya tribe of Bolivia are experts in the use of medicinal plants)

(Second Photo: Boa Sr, who died this week, was the last speaker of the 70, 000-year-old Bo)

(Third Photo: An archive picture of a clan leader welcoming a dignitary to one of the Torres Islands)