A large number of indigenous and tribal languages of the world are on the verge of extinction. While globalization is one important reason behind this trend, the absence of appropriate and effective measures by the governments is also to be blamed for so many languages facing extinction. The United Nations has taken serious note of this trend of increasing threat to indigenous languages across the globe. According to UN estimates, at least one indigenous language is facing extinction every two weeks. The world body has repeatedly said that indigenous languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge that have developed over millennia. According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, and this is not a very healthy sign as far as the progress of human civilization is concerned. If this trend is allowed to continue, up to 90 per cent of the world’s languages could be lost before 2100, with indigenous varieties – those native to a country, or region – deemed most vulnerable.
The social, economic and environmental impacts of the loss of languages among some of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people could have a catastrophic effect on the communities. Experts have identified various reasons behind this increasing threat to languages. One way languages are being lost is quite simply through the marginalization and massacre of tribal peoples. Another reason that experts have pointed out is forced schooling and development, with children of many communities being compelled to study in another language which is not their mother tongue. There’s also homogeneity and globalization, which has led to the fragmentation of some indigenous communities by way of uprooting and displacing them from their homelands and places of domicile. Loss of land means people often have no other alternative than to migrate to towns and cities in search of work and they have to speak another language in order to be able to work and survive. Experts have also pointed out that the ultimate human right for anyone is self-determination, it is the right to decide how you wish to live. Language is a vital part of that, its part of the choice. Language is also part of identity. So, when a language goes a community loses its historical and geographical context. Indigenous and tribal people across the globe have amazing traditional knowledge; they are botanists, they are zoologists, they are healers, and their knowledge of the natural world is often massive. And language can be extremely valuable in terms of the future of this planet and as well as science, experts have said. According to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, at present, 96 per cent of the world’s approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by only 3 per cent of the world’s population.
Although indigenous peoples make up less than 6% of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages. The Forum has also said that indigenous languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge that have developed over millennia. They are central to the identity of indigenous peoples, the preservation of their cultures, worldviews and visions and an expression of self-determination. While indigenous languages are under threat, so too are the indigenous peoples themselves. It is against this backdrop that the indigenous languages of Assam – Bodo, Rabha, Mishing, Tiwa, Deuri, Karbi, Dimasa etc – must be protected by various means. The governments – both at the Centre and in the state – have a responsibility to protect and propagate the indigenous languages. The high-power committee constituted by the Government of India on implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord also has to play a crucial role and recommend strong measures for protecting the wonderful indigenous languages of Assam.