Losing One’s Language


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

The world has already lost hundreds of languages and the trend continues unabated. It is estimated that there are about 6500 spoken languages today of which approximately 5000 will become extinct by the end of the 21st century. These vulnerable languages are mainly spoken by the indigenous people living in several remote parts of the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Due to the economic and social challenges these people face, their languages are being lost. Even in Australia, New Zealand, Greenland northern Canada, many of the languages spoken by relatively few peoples are facing this risk. When the languages die their cultures and traditional knowledge systems also disappear.

A similar loss of cultures and languages is taking place in India, especially in Andaman and Nicobar Islands which are inhabited by a large number of indigenous tribes or Adivasis.

Not only is this phenomenon taking place among the so called primitive people, a similar phenomenon is occurring among some well-established languages like Irish, Welsh or Scottish in UK. Here due to the preponderance of English, many people use English in their day to day lives at the expense of their own languages. A few years ago an academic in one of the Universities of Netherlands mentioned that since all the literature in science was in English should the university not switch over to English as a medium of teaching? The suggestion was however turned down.

A similar phenomenon is being observed in India. India has 22 official or scheduled languages and in addition about 400 more languages are in use by different sections of people. Hindi is the most dominant language where about 41 % admit is as their mother language and about 20 % people know it as a second or third language. English is also one of the official languages of India along with Hindi. Languages like Rajasthani, Bhojpuri and Haryanvi are spoken by many people in their respective states but they are losing ground to the dominant Hindi language. Many Indian languages also feel threatened by the dominance of English in India.

The case of Sindhi language in India is unique and as a child born in a Sindhi family I can feel the brunt of the loss of this language in India. Sindh is a prominent province in Pakistan and the language is spoken by about 15% of Pakistan’s population. The major language of Pakistan is Punjabi spoken by about 45% people.

When India was partitioned in 1947, the Hindus of Sindh province moved to different parts of the India including Delhi, Mumbai, Indore, Pune and parts of Rajasthan. There was no Indian state or region where Sindhi was spoken. My mother who was a teacher in Lahore found a job in a Sindhi primary school when we arrived in Delhi. With children opting for Hindi and English, the school was transformed into a Hindi medium school after a few years. The University of Delhi had a teacher of Sindhi language. Again a similar situation has arisen and there are almost no students who want to learn the language. According to the 2001 Census figures, Sindhi is spoken by about 0.25 % of the Indian population.

There is a Sindhi academy which tries to promote the language but one usually sees only elderly people participating in its programmes. The loss of this language in India is obviously linked to the loss of its culture including songs, idioms and even its special cuisine. A loss that so many speakers of other small languages feel worldwide is also shared by Sindhi speakers in India.

Incidentally Mohenjo Daro is a Sindhi expression which literally means Mound of the Dead. It was a prosperous urban settlement and site of the ancient Indus Valley civilization till it was abandoned towards the end of the 19th century BCE. Like the ancient civilization that disappeared, the Sindhi language in India is facing extinction.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia –Educationist and peace researcher retired from Delhi University. ravipbhatia@gmail.com

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Aug 2015.

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