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Latu Rutia, is an 80-year-old member of the Rathwa tribe, wears only a loincloth and earring. He speaks in his native language of “Rathwee” which is a mixture of the ancient local words of ‘Bhil’ tribe and is very different from Gujrati and Hindi. The Rathwas are tribes from the Panchmahal and Baroda districts of Gujarat .

Rutia is worried that elements of the Rathwee language are fading. His grandchildren attend schools and are taught in the state language Gujarati. “They are forced to speak differently,” he said.

As he speaks, it is evident that the Rathwas and other ethnic and minority groups including nomadic tribes are waging a quiet war to retain a sense of community, of identity and of culture, against the forces of economy and conformity that grips so many of India’s small cultures. A battle to keep their language alive. Elders in such communities fear their language, and with it, their culture, history and way of life, is being lost, consumed by an education system that obliges their children to speak the state language and an economy that pushes them towards Hindi and English.

Though India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries on earth, it is losing languages faster than any other place on earth. UNESCO currently lists 197 Indian languages as endangered or vulnerable.

In an effort to counter India’s language loss by recording them before they disappear, linguist Dr. Ganesh Devy is overseeing the largest ever survey of Indian languages, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. It is expected to be completed in another 2 years.

People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) is a non-governmental campaign for protection of languages. It has embarked on documenting ‘live’ languages among diverse communities as part of its efforts to safeguard the cultural heritage of the country. This project aims to capture how people identify, name and perceive what they speak. The survey in its published form will also contain the stories of people’s origin, dispersal and relationship with the neighboring cultures.

Researchers are documenting each language’s characteristics and are also recording its folk stories and songs. They also note how the languages describe time and color.

For example, the Rathwee language labels various stages of dawn: when the cock crows is one part and when the birds start moving is another.

Dr. Ganesh Devy, who created the survey, says embedded in each language are unique ways of seeing the world.

“Some languages in India do not have terms for the color blue,” he said. “I ask them how they look at the sky. So they said they do not think of a blue sky … they think of the sky as so sacred that no adjective (can) be attached to it.”

The challenge is to convince people that their language doesn’t have to hold them back.

“Language is becoming a kind of condition for being counted as modern,” Devy said. “If you speak your language, you are traditional. If you speak some other language, you are modern.” “Over the last 50 years, India has lost about 150 languages. That is three languages per year, one language every four months that is lost forever. That is worrying, because all these languages hold wisdom.

“Every language is a unique world view. We need as many of these views as possible to see our world in its totality. Every language we lose, our ability to perceive the world is reduced.”
It is a paradox, Dr Devy says, that in this modern age of mass, widespread and rapid communication, the most fundamental form of human communication – spoken language – is being lost faster than ever before.

Take an example of a tribal farmer who sells his product at the market. To communicate at the market, he needs to speak either the state language or Hindi. Slowly, words describing the vegetables in his native language become redundant as he embraces the larger language for his livelihood. With such instances gradually on the rise, a language is slowly throttled.

It happens to larger languages too. Dr Devy cites the example of his native tongue, Marathi, which no longer has any cricket commentary on radio or TV. “The sports domain of my language has been shut off, those words are lost.”

Languages are lost over generations. As minority tongues become increasingly unviable, children are less likely to pick them up.

Many studies show that mother tongue-based education increases childrens’ learning and decreases dropout levels. Earlier this year, the Indian linguists started handing over their findings to the Indian government. Devy says the government response was encouraging. He is hopeful it will introduce a program supporting mother tongue-based education.

Now that Devy and his colleagues have gathered details of all the known languages of India, they’re hoping for swift government action so school teachers will once again instruct students in their own language.

To Devy, the Rathwa people living in rural Gujarat are just as modern as those racing to business meetings in downtown Mumbai. Just because they speak an ancient tongue and live far from the city doesn’t mean they should be excluded from proper schooling and progress. Read more here.

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