“I recognise but one mental acquisition as a necessary part of the education of a lady or gentlemen, namely, an accurate and refined use of the mother tongue” – Charles William Eliot
After having been writing for quite a while now, on one such occasion, I had a well-wisher who wrote to me to express his concern for the errors that I used to make in my articles and even offered to edit it for me. I thank him for the gesture but personally, I was okay with how I write, which I feel is the best way of expressing myself. I admit that I don’t speak Milton and Shakespearean’s English, nor do I desire to do so, my only worry is how well versed I am with my mother tongue and how I have been ignoring it.
Every time, I try to pen down something in my mother tongue, I struggle! The flow is not there, I am not familiar with relevant words to use for various things and most importantly there is an endless number of mistakes that I make with spellings. Even while I receive text (SMS / Whatsapp) from my Khasi friends, I noticed we jumble up a lot of words which at times we are not sure which is correct. So if I have to ask, ‘do you come to Shillong often?’ it would be ‘phi (shet/shit/shait) poi bha sha Shillong? Another simple example is saying ‘yes’, some would text as – ‘haoid’, some ‘hoid’ and some as ‘hooid’. ‘Okay’ is spelt as ‘toa’ some would spell it as ‘toh’ or ‘to’. There are ample such examples and I feel it is about time that we carry a Khasi dictionary everywhere we go, just like we used to do in our school days with an English dictionary.
It has become almost a tradition for us, humans, to take our own mother tongue for granted. We don’t give it its due importance as we feel we know the language inside out since we have been speaking it since we were young. Unfortunately, we still hear of news around us that a certain language/dialect has become extinct or only a few families are speaking it. Since the time we were young, we were encouraged in our schools and in our homes to converse in English as that would help us develop good vocabulary and command over the language. This is the same scenario with most school-going children in the cities in India. While some families consciously make an effort for their children to learn English (which has, of course, become a mandate in today’s world), they also made sure that their children are well versed with their mother tongue irrespective of the place that they go to study/work.
The ignorance that we have towards our mother tongue may not have been purposely done, but claiming to not know one’s own language/dialect can be precarious, in particular for those who come from smaller tribes and areas. In a tribal set up, such as the North-Eastern region where family ties and bonding are unique and are still strong, we are still required to stay rooted to our origin and our mother tongue is very much an important component of our identity. This is perhaps why February 21 has been observed as International Mother Language Day (IMLD) held annually since the year 2000. According to the United Nations, languages have complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development.
Personally, I am embarrassed to state that I have not been reading much of Khasi literature (which is my mother tongue) or try to develop the interest to learn it well, but I am sure at any age, it is never too late to start learning. As much time, effort and expert help we seek and spend in learning English as a language let us also enthusiastically do the same with our respective mother tongues, more so, to instill passion and promote an interest in the learning of the mother tongue amongst our young ones. The existence of a language is dependent on the people who speak it. People start neglecting their own language when they lose pride in their own culture.
Language and culture are two sides of the same coin, and culture will survive only when the language survives. People should preserve local and regional languages for the future generation. Many regional languages are facing the threat of extinction due to people’s love for English. Though the language should be learned, it should not be at the cost of one’s mother tongue (Outlook, 2020). Perhaps in a globalising world where Hindi and English hold currency, mother tongues are becoming endangered. Our linguistic diversity is under threat because linguistic minorities are gradually letting go of their mother tongues. This coupled with the government’s passive attitude towards preserving these languages has earned India the dubious distinction of being the country with the most number of endangered languages in the world. Altogether, there are many languages in India which are under threat of disappearing, some are already extinct.
In India, more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues, according to the analysis of the 2011 census. There are 121 languages which are spoken by 10,000 or more people, which has a population of 121 crore. Those mother tongues which have returned less than 10,000 speakers each and which have been classified under a particular language are included in “others” under that language. The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution consists of 22 languages. Besides these, 14 languages were later included in the Constitution. Sindhi language was added in 1967. Thereafter three more languages viz., Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali were included in 1992. Subsequently, Bodo, Dogri, Maithili and Santhali were added in 2004. At present, there are demands for inclusion of 38 more languages in the Eighth Schedule.
“As the evolution of dialects and languages is dynamic, influenced by socio-eco-political developments, it is difficult to fix any criterion for languages, whether to distinguish them from dialects, or for inclusion in the Eighth Schedule. Thus, both attempts, through the Pahwa (1996) and Sitakant Mohapatra (2003) Committees to evolve such fixed criteria have not borne fruit. The Government is conscious of the sentiments and requirements for inclusion of other languages in the Eighth Schedule and will examine the requests keeping in mind these sentiments, and other considerations such as the evolution of dialects into language, the widespread use of a language etc” (Source: Constitutional provisions relating to Eighth Schedule). Our South Asian neighbours fall far behind. Nepal has 71 endangered languages, Pakistan has 27, Bangladesh five and Sri Lanka, just one. This, despite the fact that linguistic rights are protected both under the Indian Constitution (Article 29 (1) and Article 350 A) and by UN legislation, Article 27 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 107 (3).
What has been observed is that participation of kids in any family discussions is dramatically reduced, especially when they involve parents or grandparents. This is because they cannot understand much of the conversation that is going on in their family language and they might walk out feeling bored. In the long term, they might start considering themselves somewhat different from the rest of the family and might not think of themselves as a part of it. Experts from the English as a Second Language (ESL) program have researched that kids who know and continue to learn their mother tongues can learn any language much faster and better than kids who do not know their mother tongue. The reason is, as a baby grows, s/he is continuously listening to noises around her. With an effort to communicate with people, she learns to recognize sound patterns hidden in these noises and guess their meanings. This cognitive skill is best acquired when learning his/her mother tongue in this way.
Also, the trick of guessing the meaning of words from context clues, important skill incomprehension, is also best learnt in the process of learning a mother tongue. Curiosity towards exploring other cultures and languages should always be there, but first the desire to understand our own family culture and language should be so deeply rooted that our children should feel proud in making conscious efforts of passing this rich heritage to their next generation (Abhyankar, 2013). (The writer can be reached at [email protected])