PRESS

K. DAVID HARRISON

Media coverage of my research

Please note that I do not endorse any of the following journalistic articles or take responsibility for any inaccuracies in their content.

The Asian Age

The Asian Age, February 21, 2010

Tongue-tied

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.

cropped Language Hotspots 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.)