Indian Languages in a Pickle

by Ganesh Raj B R & Nishtha Chhabra

As the Ph.D. scholar Rishi Atul Rajpopat cracked the 2500-year-old Sanskrit grammatical problem, Indians across the world were euphoric. The 27-year-old’s ability to accurately fathom Panini’s grammar rules made Indians proud of their heritage.

One of the most celebrated and unparalleled traits of India is its diversity. Diversity in all shapes, sizes, colours, ethnicities, and of course, tongues. The eighth schedule of our Constitution enumerates 22 official languages (plus English). Apart from these, our country is home to over 1600 languages and dialects, more than any other country in the world. Historically, this is the result of numerous factors, including invasion, assimilation, state policies, colonialism, royal decrees, the expanse of Indian commerce, and much more. This incredible bouquet of languages, however, is shrinking, slowly but surely. While some of the flowers are drooping, others are wilted, and the rest are, well…not too far behind.

Language is not merely a form of communication. It enables one to think and express oneself freely and it helps one to connect with their culture. “…a sense of identity, belonging as well as an appreciation of other cultures and identities”, states National Education Policy (NEP), 2020. The promotion of a language enriches the arts and literature and cultural ethos of the community. In recent times, there is an enormous disinclination towards Indian languages, not just in India but also abroad. The UK has reported a sizeable decline in British students taking exams in Indian languages.

The reason behind the dwindling patronage of the Indian languages cannot be pinpointed to a singular cause. It is, in fact, a grave consequence of scores of policies that have led to the static state of Indian languages. The most prominent cause is the domination of the English language. English, a symbol of our colonial hangover and prestige, has garnered more speakers than any other Indian language since Independence. English has seeped into every part of governance, be it Court orders, parliamentary laws, or education (and ironically, even this article). It has become the lingua franca for communication between different linguistic communities, which has contributed to the decline of other languages. Rest assured, this trend will continue with the surge in globalisation.

The upward trend of urbanisation and modernisation in India has not only affected our linguistic roots but has also led to the erosion of traditional cultural practices in many areas. Economic and social changes, such as the association of a language with lower social status or its lack of relevance in economic advancement are also leading to language decline. Finally, the lack of initiative by the government, as well as the native speakers to promote languages, has exacerbated the state of affairs. Fortunately, this sedation of Indian languages can be reversed.

One of the most simple yet effective ways to preserve a language is for communities to encourage it through communication in their daily lives. Writers and readers must encourage books, journals, and newspapers in Indian languages to enrich the literature by ensuring that the vocabulary is updated and relevant. Students are increasingly opting for foreign languages like French or Spanish as third languages to seek a career abroad in the near future. Educational institutions must thus shine the limelight on Indian languages to reverse this trend.

India’s most vibrant hallmark is its uber-diversity. However, the reason behind our English obsession stems from this very trait of diversity. There isn’t a single Indian language that binds us as a nation. The constant tussle between states that were historically drawn on linguistic lines makes matters worse as English nestles itself in the vacuum created by communication. Government efforts must be streamlined towards encouraging learning at least one language from each belt (north, south, east, west, northeast).

The ‘Red Book’ published by IUCN is a term that is often used to refer to a comprehensive list of species that are at risk of extinction. Perhaps creating a similar list could channel the preservation of endangered languages. Apart from this, OTT platforms are a good way to learn another language and culture (despite the mediocre quality of subtitles).

The linguistic growth of India must also be inclusive. The government recently added over 10,000 words to the Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary in February 2021. Last year, state governments launched engineering courses in 8 regional languages, including IITs and NITs. The government also plans to establish an Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation (IITI) to foster efforts in this arena. A recent scheme launched by the Ministry of Education was the PM YUVA Mentorship Scheme wherein 75 aspiring authors penned novels in 22 official languages of India, along with English. Thus, promoting indigenous languages amongst the youth is of utmost importance.

Thus, an integrated approach by the state, along with the community and advocacy groups, can resuscitate the fragrant bouquet of Indian languages once again.

About the Authors:

Ganesh Raj B R is currently working at Tata Consultancy Services as a Data Analyst, he is passionate about playing with data and numbers. His hobbies include writing, playing chess, and watching movies. One of his works has been published in “The Sterling Point”, the annual print journal of Loyola Press Club. He like to write about the challenges faced by the contemporary world. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Nishtha Chhabra savour reading, writing, theatre, documentaries, and current affairs. She loves engaging with people, weaving stories, and reading poetry. She was recently selected as one of the 75 authors for PM YUVA Mentorship scheme and has penned a historical fiction novel for the same. Being a civil service aspirant, she hope to work in the field of education and women’s safety. She can be reached at [email protected] 

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