Atrophy of languages in times of digitization

ASHA SARANGI

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DIGITIZATION has revolutionized the way human beings connect to one another in the world today. It has invented new forms of communication and transmission of knowledge systems. The changes brought in by the invention of railways, printing press, television, telephone, computer and mobile phone, among others, has resulted in the creation of unprecedented national and transnational network of relationships predominantly in the spheres of economy, education, health, politics and culture.

The technological revolution precipitated by arrival of the Internet has transformed the world in ways unseen before. David Crystal considers it important to ‘investigate whether the Internet is emerging as a homogeneous linguistic medium or it is a collection of distinct dialects or whether it is an aggregation of idiosyncratic usages that defy any given classification.’1

Language as a system comprises of three broad sub-systems – words (lexicon), grammar (grammatical structure) and sound (phoneme). These structural properties are constantly in relation with the extra-linguistic variables situated socially. Whether it is langue and parole in Saussure’s theory of sign-system or Voloshinov/Bakhtin’s ideological sign system, it refers to both abstract and material components that together characterize language as a system. However, languages and their distinctive structural patterns are products of a given historical cultural context. A wide range of scholars from the fields of Social Sciences and Humanities have dealt with language as a structure and culture using a variety of approaches.

Gal and Irvine suggest how particular linguistic ideologies provide ‘rationalization, coherence, order and boundaries maintained through maps, grammars and monographs.’2 As a productive activity indicative of forms of cultural patterns and hegemonies, it entails the possibility of a dialectical relationship between the individual and collective, and between the social and political.3 For Bourdieu too, language is ‘not simply an instrument of communication but contains the potentiality of an act of power.’4

With more than 7000 languages in the world spoken by thousands of communities, how will digital technology enable all or some languages to become the languages of communicational power and resources of cultural, economic and political capital? Would it not be the case that digitization of languages will lead to far greater endangerment and weakening of their linguistic habitus? How will the minority languages survive this overwhelming digital invasion?

 

The proponents of digital revolution have argued that digitization will usher in greater accessibility and non-hierarchical parity among learners of languages of the world today, and the digital modes of learning or dissemination of information will create democratic, discursive and egalitarian public sphere that could possibly result in greater participation and inclusive citizenship. However, digital economies and their exchange values will create newer cultural and political ideologies as constituted, encoded and enacted in and through languages contained within the borders of the national sovereignties and their global networks. The digitization of languages will predominantly penetrate three domains of education, media and politics as a powerful and inescapable form of communication reflective of a collective social and political order in a particular society.

Digitization in the sphere of education uses digital technology consisting of computers, Internet, software applications of various sorts and mobile devices for purposes of teaching and learning in schools, colleges and universities. The acquisition of languages through the digital techniques will draw upon a kind of technological determinism affecting and shaping learners understanding about the grammatical, visual and phonetic components of the languages. In their race for control over the universal need of learning and communicating in languages of the day by people of all age groups, the software companies – small or big – celebrate the virtues of easy and equal access to learn new and more languages without any social or cultural hierarchies.

 

The digital instructional methods and modes required to learn particular language/s promise much faster pace of learning and a sense of rapid integration into the emerging world language system. The new images, signs, pictorial representations and sensory standardizations are used to de-individualize the process of learning language/s and make them into tools of machine learning based on computational linguistics, digital automation and artificial intelligence applied at every level. The digital replay of recorded lessons to learn language skills for purposes of reading, writing and speaking depart from the traditional ways of collective and shared human world of learning processes at large.

However, the individual and collective improvizations in the domains of accent, natural expressions, spontaneous mixing and marshalling of new coinages of words and images can’t be easily simplified or standardized through digitized modules and lessons. The latter acquire the character of rapid language learning courses as a singular individual exercise undermining the primary idea of language itself as an art to signify thoughts and thought structure in a collectivity. Language both as mental construct and socially-culturally mediated activity, is lost to technical rationality in the age of mechanical reproduction facilitated by the Internet revolution. The three fundamental domains of the mind – conceiving, judging and reasoning – applied through the uses of language and its repertoires are overpowered by the digital literacy and learning capsules in this drive for digitization.

 

The speakers of minority and endangered languages will experience the digital language divide much more due to the hegemonic control of dominant national or international languages in the cyber world. The inaccessibility to Internet, digital devices and technical-pedagogical skills required for learning or teaching languages to large sections of people inhabiting far-off and remote places in different parts of the world creates a digital literacy divide on a daily basis. In such a situation then, instead of rebuilding the multilingual or plurilingual social order, the world will be moving closer to defined linguistic uniformity or digital linguism of a kind that will aim at simplifying the linguistic diversity and density. Both syntactic and semantic aspects of a language will have to be placed within the modular digital rationalization.

It is important to unravel the ideology of digitization underlying states’ decisions to promote digitalism in the post globalization times. How does this reinforce the domination of dominant languages and marginalization of the minority languages? It is to be noted that certain languages are seen to be purer and more sacred than others for their excessive use of the digital platform. However, aren’t there subtle discriminatory strategies at work and how do they reinforce the hierarchization of various sorts while considering some languages more digitally equipped than others?

How will digitization capture the essence of a proverb ‘kos kos par badle pani, chaar kos per bani’ (that water changes after every ten miles and language after every forty) characterizing the relationship between mobility and linguistic heterogeneity of people in India? Will digital technology be able to express this changing repertoire of languages, their speech varieties, languages of ‘front yard and backyard’ and their vernacular spheres?5

 

How will the languages of migrants, homeless, displaced and stateless refugees be retained in the digital world? Who will speak for them to give names to their languages or dialects? Here language is not a stable or static entity but in ever growing relational flux or fluidities of various sorts. The meaning of words and utterances acquire locational signification in their songs and passages of travels transcending the defined geo-linguistic boundaries. The religious pilgrimages and congregations show intimate assemblage of verbal registers, idioms and multiple oral linguistic expressions that can’t ever be digitally recorded.

The linguistic pluralism and its hetero-normative modes of articulation shows us a variety of literary forms, narrative styles and communicational aesthetics whether in the form of dastangoi, quissas, raj jat yatras or rath yatras evolved for centuries in different regions and sub-regions of the country. This multi-vocal semantic diversity of Indian languages finds itself in the domains of homes, marketplaces, transactional sites of land and labour or affective emotions of pain, suffering and love.

The multilingual dialogical interaction among people as followers of particular religions or sects shows how languages as community perform through their scripts, vocabularies, literariness and syntactical improvisations brought in the religious sermons preached and shared by clergies, gurus, saints and preachers. These communicational sites characterize the unique shared world of beliefs and practices like rituals and rites among the followers. Here languages are living species intersecting and borrowing from each other in their historical continuum at times divided and separated but also bounded entities creating boundaries among nations and states to mark differences among the people and their cultures sociologically, politically and historically.

 

The ‘print capitalism’ brought in the desacralization of Latin and literalization of dominant regional languages, which emerged as languages of the new markets, commerce, pedagogies, school textbooks, newspapers and literary works.6 It showed signs of linguistic secularism whereby the languages of God and Church began to be taken over by the languages of people and common masses. The invention of new scripts and their standardization became a marker of modernity. New nations and states began to assert their linguistic sovereignty through these new languages of power and hegemony. These languages became languages of empire and imperial expansion creating the ‘command of language and language of command.’7

For the colonial state and its officials, translation carried new modes of communication privileging the written over the oral languages. The multilingual translations (translating one dominant language into many languages or vice versa) of religious texts, literary tracts and school textbooks, among others, provided people to see the internal working of a language and its meaning system in its multiple, plural and relative ways. The languages in print began to be used as instruments of new forms of communicative power to highlight cultural differences based on identities of caste, religion, race, gender and region. The linguistic and religious pluralism and its identification with categories of caste, class and race began to reflect in the idea of nation and nationhood.

 

A number of language movements since the late 19th century in colonial India showed how the ethno-linguistic identity of groups and communities expressed and preserved through their languages became a rallying point for everyday practices in the social and political lives of individuals. The symbolic and material imageries drawn from the mother tongues, pidgins, creoles, vernaculars, dialects and non-specified speech varieties began to be used in powerful ways to confront the colonial state and its violence. People used indigenous and linguistic-cultural modes of proverbs, satires, rhetorical utterances, idioms, analogies and allegories to communicate their disavowal of colonial authority and its arbitrariness.

The notions of swaraj (self-rule), swadeshi (self-reliance) and samaj (society/country) were part of the modern vocabulary of national sovereignty and nation-ness of India in post-colonial times. The languages of democracy whether in the spheres of politics, economy, education, occupation, culture or ideology go beyond mere digital representation which, if truly democratic, must rescue the voices of the marginalized, oppressed and unspoken masses of the society and their speeches of resistance and counter-hegemonic narratives.

 

A language must build as well as borrow from other languages. While words may be borrowed, these must be firmly woven into the fabric of the language, expanding it and making it more expressive. Technological digitization will lead to greater monopolization of the information-based knowledge system moving towards a more homogenized market of global political economy that will favour only a few languages to compete in the transnational ethnography of communication.8

What would this digital culture do to languages and their life worlds? Would languages acquire the character of moving and shifting images? The contemporary digital world thrives upon a more autonomous and non-collective kind of individual life with limited social interaction. Would this not have an impact on the river like flow of languages and their emotive habitus?

The world of feelings whether of pain, suffering or outburst of laughter and happiness is being sustained and experienced privately through digital technologies of various sorts by an individual. Digitizing languages also means digitizing cultures and their habitus in the contemporary world. In this way, the language-culture relationship in both ideological and material spheres can be seriously affected and compromised. No technological intervention can be outside the process of ‘mechanical reproduction’9 which will affect the production of literature, dance forms, songs, literary sensibilities, music and linguistic registers of various sorts.

 

Digitization thrives and survives through hybridization of various sorts. It invents new names and coinages and works by inserting new lexicons and phrases borrowed, sometimes indiscriminately, from different languages and their word power. It brings up some sort of exclusive exoticization to the assemblage of words and phrases that are used instantly without much of an understanding about the language system. In a way, it leads to the gradual atrophy of languages and shrinking of their vast cultural and linguistic habitus. It creates new norms for recognition of a language through ‘demeaning image of themselves or oppression of certain forms’ resulting in considering some languages less salient for use or appropriating certain titles based on perception and conception of the group or community of language users in the spheres of market, occupation, economic activities, political participation and global networks.10

Digitization works more through langue (sign system) and less through parole (utterance), the latter involving human agency and its critical innovativeness in reconstructing the linguistic structures and practices over a long period of time. For example, the use of Bihari by Grierson clubbed together geographical, cultural, regional and linguistic repertories to label something like a Bihari – a stereotypical term with certain prejudices and misrecognitions merging several lesser known languages and dialects under this label that has continued to be in use for more than a century now.11

 

How will the Indian state ensure that the principles of social justice and equality are extended to the category of language even when a large number of languages are not taught or used as mediums of instruction? Would digitization only apply to the twenty-two languages of the Eighth Schedule which have been accorded a constitutional status? What will be the criteria for the selection of digitization of languages? Languages like Bhojpuri, Maithili, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu and others are transnational global languages with a large number of people using these languages in different countries and continents.

Even though a large number of Indian languages are already being used in radio broadcasting, TV channels, newspapers, and internet communication, the Indian state has specified only select languages that are to be used in entrance examinations whether for JEE, CBSE, NEET or any other. The NEP 2020 promises to reinforce multilingual school education through an excessive use of digital technology aimed at teaching and learning of the mother tongues.

It is in this regard that the translation of books, reading material and standard teaching tools for use in multilingual classrooms has gained prominence in policy documents and preferences of the government in India at present. The digital access to printed books and periodicals in different disciplines through an open access system and other gateways reduces institutional hierarchies and their restrictions to learners of the day.

 

The global hegemony of the English language and its intrusion in all spheres of life in different parts of the world today, is further reinforced and institutionalized through multiple digital networks. Even if people of a multilingual country like India or Nigeria, for example, speak hundreds of languages as mother tongues and local dialects, English has come to be seen as the language of mobility and progress linked to the national and global economy. Will digitization deprive children from the comfort of their mother tongue learning and living? How will hundreds of mother tongues of a country be made part of the world language system consisting of languages like English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi and Persian as the world hegemonic languages.

For less commonly learned languages to survive, it is important that national governments, civil society organizations, and state institutions come together to develop and produce new online content and techniques of teaching and learning these languages. To promote and preserve their knowledge systems, it is pertinent that both digital and conventional modes of literacy and writing programmes are put in place for language planning. Writing of languages is internal to their survival and it ‘outlasts the spoken word’ and is like a ‘process of translating time into space.’12

The multilingual social fabric of India is being tested in times of a health emergency arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic during which the minority and tribal languages have begun to perform the task of public communication and dissemination of information about safeguards from the Corona virus. Interpersonal communication whether with the medical staff, health workers or other sections of the society was not limited to use of dominant languages recognized by the state or media alone. The crisis of communication was most effectively made sense of through people’s own tongues and vernaculars of the home and market, of local and global images and signs using digital technology and the electronic media.

 

The Digital India project maps out in domains beyond the technological tool kits for imparting education whether of languages or subjects. With only about 25 per cent of Indian households having an Internet facility, which plummets to about 15 per cent in the rural areas, the worst affected are the marginalized, rural and poor population. Whether it is in the domain of education, economy, employment, occupation, hospitals and medical facilities, the dream of a digital India cannot be possible without an uninterrupted power supply and broadband connectivity for several hours a day, along with equitable distribution of connectivity to the poor and the marginalized population at large.

The digital multilingual media – both electronic and print – in India has shown the underlying ideological-political structures communicated through several digital platforms under the state regulatory mechanisms and disciplinary regimes. The institutional surveillance will affect the world of vernacularized alternative modernity, a sphere of continuous cultural and political articulation, negotiation and assertion of individual and community rights of dissent, resistance and radical transformations.

 

Digitization has shown a new communicational order using tropes, metaphors, metonyms, analogies, synecdoche in various regional languages and their dialectal variations in the political oratory and speeches of leaders’ use of political ideologies of exclusive nationalism. The historical and political project of building up the heterogeneous and heteroglossic notions of modernity in multicultural India can be possible if the democratic iterations and enunciations find resonance in its multilingual traditions, histories and publics. This might unfold both the symbolic and material worlds of communicative network beyond digitization of languages.

A dialogical pluralism will bring forth new forms of intellectual radicalism with analytical tools to make sense of social, cultural and political differences drawn from the polyphonic traditions of languages, religions, regions and cultures. Both cyber culture and cyber space exhibit a world of linguistic communication putting in place interactions and relations between people and technologies with issues of representation, images, meanings and significations, all of which are central to the idea of a language and language system. The digitized language world system is one based on unequal access, distribution of information and its political economy of newer hierarchies. Yet the digital communication across linguistic, geographical, cultural and political borders and boundaries can possibly open up possibilities of a new order of a world language system.

 

Footnotes:

1. David Crystal thinks that the Internet is proving to be very different from our earlier linguistic behaviour and is truly revolutionary. See David Crystal, Language and the Internet. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

2. A number of anthropologists, historical sociologists, literary and cultural historians, linguists and political scientists have analysed the category of language conceptually and empirically by alluding to it as a structure and culture. For example, Susan Gal and Judith Irvine have shown the ideological uses of a language on the institutions of family, schools, courts and nation-states. See Susan Gal and Judith Irvine, ‘The Boundaries of Language and Disciplines: How Ideologies Construct Difference’, Social Research, Winter 1995.

3. Charles Taylor argues that language expresses and constitutes the self through certain communicative practices. See Charles Taylor, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, Vol I. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.

4. P. Bourdieu, ‘The Economics of Linguistic Exchange’, Social Science Information 16, 1977.

5. U.R. Ananthamurthy used this expression to indicate the plural linguistic order of his parental home in his essay ‘Towards the Concept of a New Nationhood: Languages and Literatures in India’ in Peter deSouza (ed.), Contemporary India: Transitions. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000.

6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, London, 1991.

7. Bernard S. Cohn, ‘The Command of Language and the Language of Command’ in Cohn, An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1987.

8. Following Dell Hymes’ famous model of ‘ethnography of speaking’, the discursive character of languages would be represented in spaces/places, people participation, ends and objectives, speech acts or events, stylistics, representational modes from formal and informal writing systems, interactional patterns or networks of relationships among users of a language and a specific literary genre. See Dell Hymes, ‘The Ethnography of Speaking’ in T. Gladwin and W.C.Sturtevant (ed.), Anthropology and Human Behavior. Anthropology Society of Washington, Washington, DC, 1962.

9. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. Schocken Books, New York, 1968.

10. Charles Taylor’s idea of recognition can be aptly applied here to languages too. See Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’ in Amy Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1994.

11. G.A. Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India, Vol 5, Part II. Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, 1967 reprint.

12. Amalia E. Gnanadesikan rightly points out that writing turns words into objects in, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet. Wiley-Blackwell Publication, UK, 2009, p. 2.

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