Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Endearing people and their endangered languages

Among the many quotes about language that come to mind it is Virginia Woolf’s words that I remember the most – “Language is wine upon the lips”. Her intention to fuse the timelessness of good wine with language, easily one of the pillars of any culture or civilization, got me wondering if the two were inversely proportional to each other. While wine’s primary characteristic is getting better with age, language seems to have suffered an opposite fate. Yes – evolution is the inevitable attribute of any tongue known to humans but that always depends on the number of people speaking it. It is through usage after all that language much like wine grows in potency and takes on new meanings. And so just like wine even the best languages cease to exist if there are no word vineyards where interested feet are trampling over raw letter grapes to produce the finest in aroma and texture to communicate a thought or an emotion.

The reason I find my mind wandering into the forests of languages is because of a meeting I was recently part of. As I had mentioned in an earlier post my extended family now consists of Tanjavur Marathis (TM). So I grabbed at the opportunity to finally come face to face with a community that is currently in the process of salvaging not just their unique language but also a lot of their customs, traditions and history. Hosted by Dr. Vijendra Rao – an eminent wood scientist with scores of doctoral papers and books on the subject at his warm residence in Bangalore – the event was a resounding success. In his inaugural speech he candidly remarked “My love for wood is perhaps more than my love for food”. This seems accurate given that his current book is going to examine the types of wood used for chariots in ancient India. A work I eagerly look forward to obtaining. Accompanying him in this gala was his better half Mrs. Usha Rao (a teacher by profession) and several veterans from the TM community. These included retired directors of well-known companies and organizations, accomplished doctors, academicians and research scientists to name a few.

After an extremely warm welcome full of good cheer and well meaning humor the focus turned towards one of the main agendas of the meet – language. Such is the nature of the spoken word that it automatically has a direct effect on other key areas such as literature, music and familial customs. These areas were also discussed at length but since language is often the root in such a conversation it will be the primary focus of this piece.

Hearing them express their growing concern over the quickly disappearing count of TM speakers got me thinking about other places in the world where the exact symptom is prevalent. I was reminded of a National Geographic article I had come across a few months ago about the Enduring Voices Project which is a Nat Geo initiative aimed at creating awareness and promoting proactive measures for languages on the brink of extinction. According to their estimate more than 7000 languages spoken on Earth may disappear by 2100. The demographic shows that the epidemic of dying languages is not restricted to just one part of the world. It showcases languages like Chylum, Aka and Yami that are clinging to the last remaining survivors who, with their passing, shall take along with them an entire civilization. While the result seems quite extreme I could certainly relate with it.

Being a native Kannada speaker I have constantly complained about how, even in the most “local areas”, folks in Bangalore no longer speak proper Kannada. Either they have switched over to a badly sculpted version of English (which is specifically designed to be robotic, non-committal and woefully incorrect) or a bizarre amalgamation of Hindi, English and some other native tongue (which I am not familiar with but people tell me it is indeed Kannada). Through greedy commercialization of every street in the country it appears a carefully yet horribly orchestrated erosion of languages has started.

 But the issue with TM suffering as an endangered kind has several factors that are much more than commercialization of one prominent language. Everything from parents choosing the more dominant tongue for their children to the lack of proper resources from where new learning can begin seem to be at play. So, in a quest to familiarize myself better with the problem that seems to have counterparts all over the globe I began by asking myself three simple questions. The answers or recommendations I have come up with are nothing more than a scratch on the surface but hopefully the first grape has been plucked for the oenophiles to come out of their hiding.

Why do languages disappear? 

The primary answer for this seems to be – loss of a reason to use it. All communication in mankind has happened for some foreseeable purpose. But when that purpose is attacked and is replaced by a much higher seemingly better alternative the mode of speech is forced to go into hiding where it dies a slow death by starvation. Like TM every language that is currently under threat has undergone a similar phenomenon either due to invasions, mass migration of native speakers or a gradual shift in the socio-economic landscape of the region. In TM’s case (and this came up during the meeting) the 1857 rebellion seems to be the catalyst for the abrupt halting in its linguistic development. Following that event the gradual decrease it has experienced both in Maharashtra and certainly Tanjavur are plain facts now. With time and the influx of English as the language of both education and trade languages like TM (and I am sure there are hundreds of such native tongues just in Southern India) have had to bear the blow of cowing under the shadows of more dominant languages like Marathi or Tamil. So slowly the belt of people who spoke such tongues moved to different parts of the country/world and with changing generations records of its glorious past were slowly left behind in dusty museums for the unaware public to view dispassionately. Even I, as someone who is viewing this topic with sincere empathy, had previously been guilty of wondering – “So what? Such is human evolution isn’t it? Survival of the fittest? What really happens if a language dies out? Is it not replaced by a tongue stronger and more communicative?” My misplaced wondering was answered by some concrete perspectives.

What happens if a language dies?

In an interview with Bud Lane, vice chairman of Siletz tribal council and a native speaker of Athabaskan (a language of the Siletz tribe in Pacific Northwest), the same question was asked. His response was the following:

“You would lose your people's view of the world, and not just of the world today but you would lose your view of how a world came to be for you. And there's lots of ways to describe things in many languages, of course. But like with ours, I'll just give you an example of how our people view our land here. You always - you hear different stories about how people love the land in many different cultures. But our word for the earth is (speaking foreign language), and what it literally means is made for you, and that's our view of our land. God made these lands for us. It's made for us to inhabit and to benefit from. And so when you take - when you say a world view, there's just a different way of looking at the world... than another culture might have. And I'm not saying it's superior to any other culture. I'm just saying that it's different, and that's what we talk about, about language lost and the culture and the world view that goes with those words.” 

His words addressed some key points of my query about the consequences of a language’s death, the most important being – world view. There are writings in old Kannada etched all over the walls of historic places like Belur and Hampi that I am certain only a handful can read and understand. These are more than just “interesting writings” that a casual tourist might snap as a memento for a Facebook page. These are in fact chronicles of how the people from that era, hundreds of centuries ago, saw their world. Their world – the root purpose of all languages. A way to express the feel, the sights and the sounds of a world that belongs to an age we cannot even begin to imagine. A time capsule that has sadly been masked by the stereotypes of dominant languages like English which, with tragic irony, is my current tool to pen my thoughts. I am certain those writings contain words, expressions and sayings that capture our world much better than any language we currently know. The same holds true for unique languages like TM which document an emotion of those times that is so unlike, almost so alien, to the ones we are familiar with. So I guess to surmise – the only purpose that should matter for salvaging a language should be this – a unique way to see the world so that expressing oneself becomes a globally connected theme.

How to save a language from extinction? 

The ground of the discussions that took place at the meeting was thinking of ways to create practical solutions for not just sustaining TM but also to help it grow. To repeat my analogy with Virginia’s words on language and wine, a seed has to be sown somewhere. And that seed can take up several forms, a few of which I have compiled below.

- All language starts from the mouth of a learner. It is in those first words that the majestic trees of all languages find water. So, the most obvious starting point could be the child of the native speaker. But again, the lack of a reason added to the missing support structure outside the home can be barriers. So to counter that experts recommend continuing home traditions (marriages, prayer ceremonies, etc.) always only in the native tongue. Teaching the child songs and lullabies in that language helps cement a better understanding and appreciation for it. And most importantly, giving the young one a clear perspective of just why s/he should know the tongue always helps. Hopefully it will be something more rational and less intimidating than “Because I said so!”

 - Creating a love for the words is yet another way I feel helps anyone love a language – child and adult alike. Often people learn a foreign language not for job or education purposes but just for the love of it. The fabric of spoken language is full of hidden meanings that go beyond flat dictionaries. I have even heard of languages where there is no word for “me” or “I”, “mine” or “hate”. This tells me something about that culture. To be able to embed an entire community in that sort of brotherhood instantly creates a new world view. So to find hooks in a language that will engage the learner is a key, albeit challenging, aspect.

 - Learning anything new, including language, requires an application. (With the existing haven of technology sources online this is perhaps the easiest thing to do. If people from an era where oral and written were the only modes of communication have left behind such a bounty for us to explore then we should certainly be able to do better?) This takes me back to the prime factor why languages die out – lack of reason. So being able to create feasible deliverable  - like small audio/visual tutorials, stories, talking dictionaries, sing along songs and even translations of some very popular literature out there - would be a great step forward. Creating  a knowledge bank of something so unique would certainly instill a sense of both pride and accomplishment in the learner. Free services like YouTube and SoundCloud can easily be used to design and publish such attempts.

I brought up the last point in since as an invariable part of a schooling ordeal I was made to sit through obscure Sanskrit lessons. At the time (and thanks to an extremely unhelpful and uninterested teacher) I lost whatever little hope I might have found kindled within me for the “language of the gods”. Today at an age when I look at people proficiently speaking the tongue I am stung with the memories of the same unpleasant experience which often has been a barrier for me to ever learn this beautiful language again. A barrier I look forward to surpassing someday. So this last point of being able to create fun and practical applications for the language helps create good memory associations with it and perhaps will motivate the learner to take it forward for the next generation.

What to do after gaining some mastery on the language?

I lived in South America for several years at the beginning of my career. The only language spoken on the streets was Spanish (although it was more a corrupted version of the original). Despite my working place being English I found myself at a woeful disadvantage when I stepped out into the city. Everyone from the supermarket people to the taxi drivers to the barbers spoke only Spanish. I had a choice of whether or not to attend special classes to pick up the language but I chose an interesting alternative instead. I decided to use a medium I personally enjoyed more than sitting through a 3 hour lecture session after an 8 hour day at work. Every evening I would come home and at least for an hour I would watch Spanish soap operas. I would then switch on popular English sitcoms that I enjoy like Seinfeld, Frasier or Friends and read the Spanish subtitles underneath. Within the first year I was actually confident enough to speak some of the language openly in public. I remember stunning my local colleagues by dishing out my polished Español as they would pat my back and congratulate me. So the lesson for me here was this, and perhaps the most challenging thing about dying languages – finding a personal connection. If a connection can be made with a language, be it through any route – mythological, historical, artistic, scientific or literary – the chances of that learning staying longer with us seem stronger.

I returned from the meeting with the deliciously addictive taste of TM on my lips after almost four hours of listening to some scintillating conversations. Woolf was right. Language certainly is the wine on our lips if only we can find a way to grow that vineyard of reasons from where future generations can continue tasting our history’s finest labels.

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