Saturday, February 26, 2005

ANALYSIS:The Mother Tongue Day

The health of a handful of languages is said to be pretty good, the sheer size of their speakers will ensure that they survive well beyond 100 years, but here again the question would be in how vibrant a form would they exist. Will they be around just to perform kitchen chores or would they lead the debates of the world?
The Mother Tongue Day
SUGATA SRINIVASARAJU

The one day in the year, Ekushey February (February 21), designated by the UNESCO to celebrate mother tongues is spent more in the anxiety of losing them.

As far as mother tongues are concerned, we are migrants in our own land. Every passing day, we seem to be moving away from their nuances and vibrancy. We seem to be excluding them from the active business of life. As a result, the one day in the year, Ekushey February (February 21), designated by the UNESCO to celebrate mother tongues is spent more in the anxiety of losing them.

The Mother Tongue Day has its origins in the Bangla language movement of East Bengal or East Pakistan or the current Bangladesh. It was on this day in 1952 that the police opened fire against language demonstrators in Dhaka and killed five of them, instantly catapulting them to martyrdom.

The demonstrators were demanding that Bangla be recognised as one of the state languages of Pakistan, besides Urdu. The momentum of distrust built up against mainland Pakistan during this language movement was what ultimately led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

Returning to the anxiety I refered to earlier, here are some of the reasons as to why we feel so: Take the instance of the Kashmiri tongue, spoken by 56,693 people (1991 census). A newspaper recently mourned the demise of its script, Sharda. The script once gave Kashmir its former name, Sharda Desha, and only a few decades ago horoscopes and birth records were written in the script. Now, most Kashmiris use Urdu (while those in Jammu use Devanagari) to write their language. The script is said to have vanished with the large-scale migration of Kashmiri pandits.

According to an independent report (cited by David Crystal in his book Language Death) of the estimated 6000 languages of the world, nearly 3000 of them would be lost in the next 100 years. That would mean, one language would die, on an average, every two weeks or so! This does not guarantee the safety of the rest of the 3000 languages, considering the fact that 96 per cent of the world’s population today speaks only 4 per cent of the languages.

The health of a handful of languages is said to be pretty good, the sheer size of their speakers will ensure that they survive well beyond 100 years, but here again the question would be in how vibrant a form would they exist. Will they be around just to perform kitchen chores or would they lead the debates of the world?

Kannada writer U R Ananthamurthy often predicts that mother tongues like Kannada would end up being a kitchen language, meaning it would be confined to the four walls of the home, but would have no largescale public use. But another humour writer in Kannada countered him recently on the edit page of a Kannada newspaper: "Ananthamurthy does not seem to know the reality. How can Kannada survive in our modular kitchens. Most of the utensils we use in these kitchens and food items we consume have no Kannada names," he pointed out.

Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, with English of course, form an elite group. Among them they share 2.4 billion speakers of the world’s 6 billion and odd population. The top 20 languages of the world, that would include French and German, share 3.2 billion speakers among themselves. But which among these languages, other than English, stares confidently into the future, armed to handle the challenges of a telectronic age and the genomic tide? Only English appears to be picking up the registers of science and technology, as well as the idiom of the modern times.

It was the IT boom that made the unevenness of growth among languages stark. It exposed the fact that the computer could understand only one language: English, and a highly reductive, hyper-rational and analytical worldview was embedded into the software that ran it and this was causing a certain global monoculture.

Kenneth Keniston of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been studying local language computing and the cultural implications of information technology. He narrated a very interesting Latin American story that had trigged his mind to look at the Silicon Valley experiments in a different light "I went to a school which had been computerized on an experimental basis in a remote district of Argentina and I asked a teacher if she had any problems. She said the software that was being used was North American, though beautifully translated into Spanish and the assumptions were are all North American and not Argentine. It is an alien way of looking at things for us and the software could very soon turn Argentine children into little North Americans."

Stories like these have alarmed even the Germans and Chinese. It is another fact though that there is a graveyard silence on the issue in India, the land of linguistic diversity. Here, I can only recall how a revered software icon in Bangalore had caused a controversy by unabashedly recommending English language education at the cost of his own Kannada tongue and other Indian languages. The apparent reason he assigned to this statement was that India was a software giant and had to sustain its leader position by working on its distinct advantage, that is felicity in the English language, compared to the rest of the European and Asian world.

If English holds the larger threat of wiping out or causing a clipped and compromised existence for the other languages of the world, a strange form of cultural immaturity and political brazenness, is encouraging a competition among local languages. Look at the instance of the Maithili language with rich literary traditions. In Nepal, it is being discouraged for the sake of Nepalese and in Laloo’s Bihar it is being clipped in order to promote Bhojpuri and Urdu. Laloo had even attempted to remove Maithili, a language he attributed to the Brahmins, from school curriculum first and then from the Bihar Public Service Commission. In December 2003 the BJP government played a trump card against its political opponent and included Maithili in the Eighth Schedule along with Santhali, Bodo and Dogri languages.

There is no active networking among regional languages to fight the bigger threat of English. But many centuries ago when the cosmopolitan vernacular, Sanskrit, threatened the existence of Indian languages, regional tongues had devised ways to retain their identities. The absence of a similar effort now allows politicians to use the language issue to their pecuniary benefits and that is the reason why we often read statements arguing why a particular language should be part of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.

Take the case of the Rajasthani language. Just before Rajasthan went to polls in November 2003, the State Assembly passed a unanimous resolution urging the Centre to give the language a constitutional status. The demand has been revived in 2005, but can anybody recount what concrete steps successive governments have taken to ensure the survival of the language and its nearly a dozen dialects? Or is there at least a survey in place to record the condition of the language? Most apparently, the language is not part of public discourse. The only time you get to hear the language is when a feudal Rajput uses it to extract a ‘hukum’ from his retainer or when housemaids speak the language in the lobby of a Jaipur apartment building. If such were the case, what purpose would the special privileges to the language serve? Political correctness and flaunting pride would certainly not save a language.

So how do local languages survive globalization and resist the cloning of English in every cultural context? Will internationalising the issue help? Let us accept that Globalization cannot be wished away, essentially because human migration is the most defining feature of our times, and there is the revolution that has taken place in the modes of communication to complement it. Globalization can only be converted by persistent effort to healthy Internationalism and to promote this idea of internationalism, languages need to actively network.

An essential conceptual difference between globalization and internationalism need to be made clear here. Globalization means the absorption of all the countries of the world into a single economic entity: a bleak vision of a choiceless future, in which 'choice' nevertheless figures so prominently. Internationalists speak of other forms of integration, more harmonious, less violent and more just. In a globalize environment the fear is to function with a clipped and compromised identity, with true or well-constructed internationalism the promise is that a culture and a language, however small, would retain its full voice.

Geographical borders are no longer impenetrable walls, but are as abstract as the idea of the nation itself. The problem of Dogri, Maithili, Rajasthani, Kannada and others is not therefore that of their linguistic boundaries alone. Local languages and cultures should join a collective international effort to block cultural and linguistic imperialism. They should strategise together to survive. Using the English script to write regional languages in e-mail communication was one such experiment in the early days of the Internet. This was more an unconscious resistance technique by some language groups in cyberspace. Bilingualism has been another plausible strategy. Language purists of course have sneered at these experiments.

In the new environment of internationalism, Indian languages should be able to consciously interact with Catalan, Swahili, Slovene, Breton or the Basque languages. This effort could slowly, but steadily, turn the situation around. But for all this to happen we need a determined cultural and political leadership.