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Nurturing India’s linguistic diversity October 11, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

While we still do not have a definitive estimate of India’s linguistic diversity, the Summer Institute of Linguistics’ Ethnologue (17th edition) reports 461 languages from India, compared to the 122 languages with more than 10,000 speakers reported in the 2001 Census and nearly 800 languages counted by the recently concluded People’s Linguistic Survey of India. But a simple headcount could be misleading because, on the one hand, about 17% of the languages listed in the Ethnologue are extinct or endangered and, on the other, 22 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and their “dialects” together account for more than 95% of India’s population. Furthermore, only 10% of the languages listed in the Ethnologue are used in educational institutions, whereas less than 5% languages account for most of the publications. The rest of the languages are unable to thrive even in fields like entertainment. For instance, in recent years, the Central Board of Film Certification has received submissions in about 5% of the languages. But three languages accounted for 45% of the films produced and more than 90% of the dubbed films.

Minor languages indeed exist precariously despite constitutional guarantees for linguistic minorities. India’s existing language policy is built around linguistic provinces, where the titular language(s) is used in administration and schools and is subsidized in a variety of other ways. This policy has helped about 5% of the languages. The market has also not helped minor languages. Rapid advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have reduced production and dissemination costs. But since a majority speaks one of the major languages as the first or second language, these languages enjoy economies of scale and scope and crowd out the minor languages.

The job market adds to the woes of minor languages in two ways. First, the most coveted jobs are either in the state or the organized private sector, where other than English only a handful of Indian languages are used. While these jobs constitute a miniscule proportion of the market, they influence the language choices of the entire body of job aspirants. Second, most hubs of economic activity are located in regions dominated by major languages. This promotes migration from the margins and the linguistic assimilation of minorities.

In short, India’s linguistic diversity is endangered if we look at any measure of language vitality that is not restricted to counting how many languages there are in the country. But the minor languages cannot be ignored because India’s ethnic and linguistic diversities are not only highly correlated, but also geographically delineated. A number of these minor languages are spoken by ethnic minorities in geographically remote areas, e.g., Nagaland’s two million people speak more than 20 languages. We, therefore, need a fresh approach to address the problems facing minor languages because of the inefficacy of both political support extended by the state and technological solutions offered by the market. But perhaps in the short run even a state-subsidized technological intervention may not be able to help Indian languages, particularly, the minor ones because of structural and historical factors outlined below.

India is far more diverse than the EU and, in fact, any other large country except perhaps Indonesia. India’s 464 languages, including three languages not listed in the Ethnologue, belong to seven language families and are written in about 30 scripts. But less than 51% of India’s languages belong to its two major language families. About 170 languages are spoken in the EU, which written in three closely related scripts and belong to three language families. But more than 80% of EU’s languages belong to one family and 99% belong to two families. At the federal level India recognizes 22 languages, belonging to four language families and written in more than a dozen scripts, whereas the EU recognizes 24 languages belonging to three language families and written in three scripts.

In Europe, like in India, most of the literary and business activity is conducted in a handful of languages. But a longer tradition of translation and, more recently, machine translations help the minor European languages keep pace with the exponential growth of content in Europe’s major languages. In India the number of translation dyads is not only enormous, but also requires bridging very different language families and scripts. Add to this the extensive use of diacritical marks in Indian languages that makes adaptation to ICTs difficult. Even a state-subsidized intervention will be constrained by these factors. But the most significant obstacle to the mutual enrichment of Indian languages via translations is the disruption caused by the colonial intervention, which reoriented all Indian languages toward English and ruptured contacts among Indian languages. The continuation of the colonial linguistic policy after independence ensured the extinction of the multi-lingual Indian intellectual, who would have been the key to the enrichment of minor languages. Now even the bilingual intellectual, who can engage in intellectual discourses in both English and his native language, is increasingly rare to find. The last mentioned development in conjunction with India’s continued inability to catch up with the West in the fields of science and technology, and even social sciences, has reduced even the major languages of India to spoken languages in the intellectual sphere.

What can be done at this stage? Massive and sustained investment is required to adapt ICTs to the needs of Indian languages, particularly, the minor languages. Adaptation and dissemination of these technologies, content development, and development of the requisite human capital may require a generation. But, unfortunately, some languages cannot wait that long. In the short run, the state needs to reiterate its political commitment to linguistic diversity, encourage genuine bilingualism in Indian languages in schools, and promote newer symbolic platforms to give visibility to minor languages, whose use should also be encouraged in schools. Also, legislation should restrict unbridled market competition in industries like entertainment and news media, which are crucial for language survival.


1. Mark Jones - October 20, 2013

If I turn to the Ethnologue (17th edition) that you cite, it tells me that 85% of all of India’s living languages are in pretty good shape (Institutional, developing or vigorous) and that less than 3% are dying. This doesn’t seem to herald the obliteration of the country’s linguistic diversity that you proclaim. Moreover, your proposed measures to remedy the situation— massive and sustained investment in content development, development of the requisite human capital and legislation to restrict unbridled market competition in industries like entertainment and news media— seems a tad over the top.

India’s language scene is diverse and rapidly adapting to the new imagined worlds that people see their lives, and especially their children’s lives playing out in. Enforcing the strict language segregation that you suggest—which I presume means geographically restricting the distribution of cultural products like books, film, television and net based media— has been tried. But even that most draconian of regimes, North Korean, has failed in this endeavour.

Why not just let people speak whatever any language they choose?

2. Vikas - October 21, 2013

Mr. Jones, Thanks for your comment. The comment can be broken down into three parts. You first question if statistics support the central claim raised in the article. You then question the appropriateness of the solutions suggested. Finally, you raise a more fundamental issue, namely, people’s right to choose language. There is another point you raise that spans the second and third points, namely, I seem to suggest strict segregation of languages.

Regarding the first note that Ethnologue indeed suggests that less than 3 % languages are ‘dying’. But according to Ethnologue equally many languages are extinct and that about 12 % are ‘in trouble.’ The main point the article makes is that if you go beyond usual measures, linguistic diversity is far more fragile than commonly believed. Let me add that a great majority of the languages, which are presumably not dying or not in trouble are used by the youth only in conversation with parents/ grandparents. The more fortunate languages are also used in the entertainment industry. Only the most fortunate ones are used in administration and, nominally, in universities. The list of institutional languages, say, those taught in schools is, however, misleading because a number of them are taught only in government primary schools in rural areas and small towns. I know more than a dozen languages that are taught in primary schools but there is no newspaper/magazine that uses them and they survive only on the letterheads of ethnic organizations. In a number of cases the population figures for languages are, in fact, mere reflections of assertions of identity rather than of measures of the vitality of the languages. So, it is not at all unlikely that with growing migration to cities tens of languages will become practically extinct within a generation, if not two. This is not a baseless scenario. As per one account, during the post-colonial period a large number of Indian languages/ dialects have disappeared (or have been subsumed under others not due to any natural confluence of languages, but due to political and administrative forces).

The measures proposed are not unjustified because (a) the impact of market forces on languages can be irreversible (a language that goes out of circulation cannot be revived easily and with a language a lot more intangible heritage is lost) and (b) individual language users do not have much of a choice. But note that I did not call for strict language segregation or restriction on sale of books, etc. I only suggested that unbridled market competition should not be allowed – more on this in a moment. In fact, I clearly stressed the need for greater interaction between Indian languages when I discussed the issue of translation.

Regarding the third point raised in your comment, I will offer an example from my own experience. When I chose to study engineering, I did not also choose English as the medium of instruction. I faced a take it or leave it offer. Things did not change when I joined the industry. Once again English was already there. You seem to be asking people to choose after a few languages like English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, etc have with the help of their political and economic muscles already established an oligopoly in the market. But when my language is not included in the options offered in the market, what am I supposed to choose and what would a choice made under those circumstances reveal about my true preference? It is true that some languages like Bhojpuri have found their feet and are now competing with major languages in the entertainment industry. But languages like Bhojpuri are exceptions for a variety of historical and political reasons.

There is another reason why state intervention maybe needed. Linguistic states are the cornerstones of Indian federalism. The consequences of erosion of linguistic diversity for federalism need to be factored in before the state can be advised to wait for the market/individual (free) choice to clear the linguistic mess.