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Mother tongue

Early in life, learning through our mother tongue helps us to form concepts and understand the ways of a strange world. If this learning process is not aborted before we become aware, we may discover how our mother tongue has also helped us build up a sense of identity. And then the dreaded question may one day trouble us — how does our mother tongue stack up in a rapidly globalizing world? When languages are dying out all over the globe due to primarily economic and technological reasons, does our mother tongue at all stand a chance of surviving? Some doomsday figures go roughly like this: nearly half the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today will be extinct by the end of this century, in every two weeks a language is getting snuffed out, around half the world’s population speak one of only 20 languages as their mother tongue. In schools and playgrounds, in streets and marketplaces, in offices or in media — indigenous tongues are succumbing to domint languages, mostly English. Can we beat the odds and stop this carge by holding fast to our mother tongue? The UNESCO does not believe it is that one-dimensiolly simple. Its mantra is ‘multilingual education’, which it is pushing as a vital means to secure a sustaible future for all. This begins with ‘first-language-first’ education, initial schooling in the mother tongue to lay a strong foundation in reading, writing and numeracy. Then it is to be followed by guided transition to learning through another tongue, to help the learner connect or ‘build bridges’. On February 21 this year, celebrated as Intertiol Mother Language Day, the UNESCO’s theme was ‘Towards Sustaible Futures through Multilingual Education’. This was again a part of its ideal to build up intertiol understanding and safeguarding traditiol knowledge through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

Ideally, learners should gain the ability to move back and forth between their mother tongue and other tongue(s) acquired. But in the non-ideal world we live in, not all learners will be able to mage this transition well, particularly if more than one tongue (apart from mother tongue) is to be learnt. There is also the question of order of priority with which other tongues are to be learnt, which can get quite complicated. A case in point is Axom Xahitya Xabha’s strident opposition to Bodo Sahitya Sabha’s demand last year to relegate Assamese to third language in BTAD area schools. Children at play in a BTAD village may switch easily between Bodo, Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and other tongues, or speak a mixed or pidgin tongue all of their own. But this will get them nowhere in the formalism of school learning, more so with the urgency to learn English ‘for survival in today’s world’. Communities smaller in numbers and economically weaker are meanwhile shifting to major languages; what is more, they are not encouraging the younger generation to learn their mother tongue. The advent of digital technology has also put spoken languages, particularly many tribal dialects, at great disadvantage. It is small wonder then that the UNESCO has listed over 190 languages of India as endangered. But language experts believe the threat is more serious, pointing to iccuracies in survey methods, like deciding the status of a language by the number of its speakers — when it is hard to determine their actual number. According to 2001 census, there were 29 languages in India with more than a million speakers, 122 languages have above 10,000 speakers, while those having lesser numbers are not listed at all. Overall, 31 languages including Assamese enjoy official status in different states and union territories. The Axom Xahitya Xabha’s centery session in Sivasagar, the run up to which was marred by interl dissension, adopted 15 resolutions to press for using mother tongue in schools and government offices, and to popularize the language and literature of indigenous communities. It remains to be seen whether it at all has a reliable business model to set up vercular schools under its aegis — and thereby arrest the flight to English-medium schools. It is therefore for the Assam government to implement the mother tongue policy wisely in education and administration. But all stakeholders need to brainstorm how to get the young to use their mother tongue effectively in the digital age.

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Ankur Kalita