Death of a language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jun 8 15:48:10 UTC 2005

>>From the Star of Mysore,

Some three years ago, I read a small news item in a popular English daily
which has a wide circulation. It was not displayed prominently and was
found in a remote corner of a page.

It was about the death of a language which was in existence on a pacific
island, near the United States of America, called Aore. The name of the
country was Vanuwater. The people of the island belong to an ethnic group
called Katauba. Their language was called Aore. n Once the people of this
'country' were quite prosperous. They were a robust and optimistic race,
with the spirit of adventure. They enjoyed life singing and dancing. Their
language was a reflection of their prosperous community and joyous living.
It had become the treasure house of their civilisation culture and art, as
well as their thoughts and experiences. Theirs was a living language,
alive and responding to the aspirations of the people. The inexorable laws
of modern civilisation bulldozed their language and culture. The number of
people speaking Aore language gradually declined. Finally, only one man
was left an old man called Red Thunder Cloud (in English). Even he died!
With his death the language also was as dead as dodo.

Languages and cultures

It is estimated that there were about ten to fifteen thousand languages in
the world. Gradually, many of them withered. Today, there are about six
thousand languages. Their number is gradually dwindling. By the end of the
century, only about half this number may survive.

In Australia, there are about two hundred languages spoken by the
aborigines living there. There are not even ten people speaking each of
some of these languages. The children of one out of every ten such
languages, learn the language. It means that the remaining nine out of
every ten such languages will die.

We have a lesson to learn from this. The number of children learning
Kannada is gradually declining. A situation may arise when Kannada also
will meet its sad end. Even if it survives, it will be insipid and
non-viable. When a compact community of Kannadigas speaking a virile
language becomes a non-entity, its language also becomes non-existent. The
process of globalisation is the death-knell of local languages. With it,
their cultures face an ignoble end.

International communication

Globalisation is both the cause and the effect of consumerism. When the
market extends to the entire world, it pre-supposes a fast and smooth
means of communication. The language which plays the role of an efficient
link and ensures smooth and swift communication world-wide is, of course,
English. English has every qualification to become the language of
communication. La Page, in his book called The problem of Language in
under-developed countries of the World, mentions that a language performs
two important functions. It is not only the means of communication, but
also acts as a means of communion  emotional integration. Communication is
the function of the head; communion is that of the heart. While we adopt
English as the means of international communication, we have to retain and
develop our language as the storehouse of our tradition and culture, as
the channel of our creative activity, if we have to preserve our identity
without which life becomes meaningless.

We have to learn the lesson from the experience of the Australian
aborigines. We have to send our children to school to make them learn
Kannada first. But the Englishmania is sweeping our community. We have to
know the full import of the word mania, if we have to comprehend the
impending disaster. Mania is an extremely strong desire or enthusiasm for
something, often shared by a lot of people at the same time.

One of the problems the country is facing ever since the advent of freedom
is the problem of language. Day by day it is becoming more and more
complex and intractable. Our so-called leaders and experts are unable to
comprehend it and they continue to grope in the dark, often proclaiming
that they have evolved a new policy. As Jawaharlal Nehru once said
(seventeen months in India) instead of discussing the problem of language
dispassionately and with objectivity, we have made it a hot-bed of futile
debate and mutual acrimony. There is a lot of confusion about the medium
of instruction and the place of language in education. The disparity
between Government and private schools and the haphazard way in which the
language policy is handled have contributed to the medley of confusion
that prevails today.

The medium, of course, should be the mother tongue or the regional
language at the primary stage (seven years). As the Education Commission
says in its report (1965), the medium should help the student 'to acquire
knowledge with facility, to express himself with clarity and to think with
vigour and vitality. No one should grudge admitting that the mother
tongue/regional language is best suited to become the medium of

Demand for English

The Education Commission's recommendation with regard to the study of
language as a subject is that, at the lower primary stage, only one
language should be studied compulsorily  the mother tongue/regional
language. At the higher primary stage, only two languages should be
studied on a compulsory basis  the mother tongue/regional language and
English. At the lower secondary stage (classes VIII-X), a study of three
languages should be obligatory. In all its wisdom, the Education
Commission says that it is desirable to stagger the introduction of two
additional languages so that one is started at the higher primary stage
and the other at the lower secondary stage, after the first additional
language has been mastered to some extent.

'The teaching of English in our schools is in a chaotic state today,' says
Prof. V.K. Gokak in his book, English in India, its present and future. It
has become extremely difficult to get trained and qualified teachers.

Introducing English at this stage is ruinous to both the regional language
and English. He discusses the several opinions advanced in this regard,
including that of Wilder Penfield, who advocates what is called the
mother's method  talking to the child before he understands. However,
Gokak and Penfield think it is advisable to introduce English at the fifth
or sixth standard. The tendency to introduce it at an early stage because
of increasing demand for English should be resisted. Let wise counsel

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