The problem

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Avinash and Rekha, a young couple, live on a farm in the midst of an evergreen forest in the Western Ghats. Avinash, educated in Germany, always wanted to lead a life in harmony with nature, and Rekha joined him in this venture. Farm work kept them busy, and they had to raise two children, Geeta and Rakesh, that required extra attention.

They were shocked when they realised that their four year old child Rakesh, had stopped responding at the age of two years. He had been a normal child interacting with parents and his sister. Initially they did not notice this change, thinking that child was not particularly responsive due to his quiet nature. It is only when he stopped communicating they began to worry. Was he dumb? That was not the case as he used to respond normally. Why did he stop responding?

The parents discovered the cause only after they took the child to the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing in Mysore. It took several months of treatment for him to became normal again. It turned out to be an addiction to the mobile phone that had resulted in this affliction. As both the parents were busy, they gave him the mobile to play with instead of personally interacting with the child. He soon got himself immersed in the gadget and was able to watch videos and channels showing children’s programmes, thinking that there was no need to respond. Soon he became detached from the parents and his sister, as he was conditioned towards one way communication with digital tools. This interfered with bonding and parental attention.

A child spontaneously acquires language skills though observing others, reading facial expressions and how to manage their emotions based on everyday experience, first interacting with the immediate family and gradually with other people. When they are given mobile phones and other gadgets at an early age, they miss these natural steps of learning language, impairing their cognitive skills in dealing with others.

Obviously, this is the impact of digital tools moulding the brain at a tender age – blocking the spontaneous path to acquiring basic skills for communication or learning a language. The digital era has ushered a fundamental change in the way the child is learning language skills, adapting to the needs that may lead to new ways of wiring the brain to deal with the virtual world. It is a game changer in the life of the children and childhood with drastic impact on parenting.

It is quite normal that parents and grandparents approve, appreciate and even envy the ability of toddlers to handle digital gadgets with high levels of sophistication, which they presume to be a feat. Similarly, children see their parents using these digital tools constantly, instead of interacting with family members or other people around them, as was the experience of Rakesh.

For Noam Chomsky, American linguist and philosopher, the capacity to learn language is hardwired in the human brain and linguistic tools are merely a trigger for developing language skills. For others, it depends on the environment in which the child-adult interaction is crucial in learning the language. In today’s world, with the digital realm overarching every sphere of our lives, do we need to develop new theories about how children behave and adapt to this new digital reality?

The lockdowns in the Covid era has led to closing of schools and switching to online classes. This has forced children towards mobile/digital addiction impacting not only their behaviour and health but also impairing the ability to communicate with peer group and wider society.

What language is accessible to people online? Is there any possibility of learning a child’s mother tongue using digital tools? Or will one be forced to opt for the dominant language that is represented in the cyber world? What are the implications of such limited choices for a multilingual subcontinent like India?

With the immense diversity of cultures and varied ecological zones stretching from the high Himalaya to the coastal regions, linguistic diversity runs deep in the Indian psyche. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI) has documented 780 different languages in the country. Unfortunately, these stands threatened as almost 400 of these languages are at the risk of dying.

This diversity emerges from different linguistic origins that often include diverse scripts. Our language family traces its roots to the Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic origins. These long-standing traditions are linked to the linguistic diversity existing in different regions that have resulted in multilingualism. For an ordinary Indian citizen speaking, reading, doing business, and writing in more than one language is not unusual.

After independence, the formation of states that comprised the Indian Union was based on the dominant language spoken in each specific region. The ‘identity’ politics of language was one of the modes of political and democratic struggle. One of its objectives was to facilitate people’s active participation in developmental and cultural programmes through the usage of local language.

India is the only country to have declared 22 languages as official ‘scheduled’ languages, and six (Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia) languages as ‘classic’ languages with a history and lineage of more than a thousand years. Unfortunately, the way we framed our language policy has had devastating impact on hundreds of languages that became invisible for official purposes as they are categorized as ‘unscheduled languages’.

Though our Constitution provides rights to speakers of minority languages, the ground reality shows that dominant languages like Hindi and English are gradually becoming entrenched in the minds of the younger generation as they get lured by these languages that provide livelihoods, prestige and raises their social status.

However, in recent years the spontaneous trait of multilingualism is under threat from the central government that is keen to propagate Hindi as a national language and to revive Sanskrit as the heritage language. The imposition of Hindi on the southern region of the country, especially Tamil Nadu, has resulted in strong opposition. The South, over the decades, had reconciled itself to accepting the Three Language Formula (TLF). In addition to Hindi and English, the regional language of the state was given priority in governance and education.

Today, the threat to multilingualism is inherent in the digital era. Most of the communications and business is conducted online. Invariably English is the only dominant language on the internet, forcing people to become bi-lingual rather than multilingual. Though the government has launched the Digital India Mission to develop digital content in scheduled languages, it is doubtful whether this will succeed in providing equitable access to people who use multiple languages.

The first language used on the internet was English and by the 1990s it made up 90 per cent of the content. However, this pattern is changing at a faster pace than expected. A large share has been taken over by French, German, Spanish and Chinese, and the share of English has shrunk to 30 per cent over the past couple of decades. The use of Chinese grew by 1277 per cent in a decade since the 2000!

According to Ethnologue, of the ten most spoken languages in the world, Hindi occupies third place with 637 million speakers, after English and Chinese. A survey of 10 million websites revealed that only 0.055 per cent of sites have content in Hindi. Though India’s central government prides itself on promoting Hindi as a national language, its presence online is dismal. It clearly shows how the cyber world has reinforced digital colonization in favour of dominant languages. If this is the online reality of our national language, the fate of regional languages and their exclusion seems to be a forgone conclusion.

China has the largest number of internet users in the world, and they use the Chinese language. Compare this to the second largest internet user, India. Though India is the second largest digitizing economy in the world, the ordinary people are forced to consume digital content in English as the cyber presence of Hindi or other scheduled languages remains almost negligible.

Initiating a more proactive policy, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, GoI, has mandated that all mobile applications to be sold in India from July 2017 should have access to different Indian languages. Nevertheless, we find that its use is very minimal as most people prefer to type the regional language in roman script rather than their mother tongue.

To enhance the IT skills of the rural masses, the central government launched the National Digital Literacy Mission in 2019 with a budget of Rs 2351 crore. It focused on luring rural communities into the formal financial sector – banking, insurance and Mutual Funds – rather than building people’s skills to handle digital resources. It is more interested in entrenching the rural population into the mainstream financial sector, ignoring the social and cultural needs that are intricately linked through using the local language.

Bharatvani app, developed by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, is an attempt to make Indian languages and mother tongues visible on the internet, and help younger generations to use them online, and also provide cyber space for endangered languages. These are worthy goals to help scheduled and unscheduled languages to establish themselves online. However, the reality is discouraging. I tried to use this app to find information in Kannada; it was not only difficult to navigate, but was least interactive.

It is the ideologies of the ruling party that dominate while allocating funds in favour of languages that have political support. According to the data released by the Ministry of Culture, GoI, from 2017 to 2020 Sanskrit received Rs 643.84 crore, Tamil 23 crore, Telugu and Kannada 3 crore while Malayalam and Odia received no funds at all. Thus, the priority of the government was not to save endangered languages but to pump in funds for heritage language like Sanskrit and other languages which are already well established and do not need governmental funds to survive.

The language policy in India lacks vision, commitment and passion. More than funding, we need barefoot engineers with a deeper understanding of language skills and technology to help the language acquire a digital presence. This will help in building the competence of native computational linguists that can empower the endangered languages and infuse much needed vitality to overcome the digital divide.

In contrast to government funding, digital Czars like Google, Amazon, and Facebook that reap enormous financial benefit from the data generated by Indian netizens, have pumped in funds towards digital empowerment. During the Covid crisis, Google’s CEO announced a Google for India Digitalization Fund, committing to invest USD 10 billion or Rs 75000 crore over the next five to seven years. It is somewhat bizarre for a foreign company to commit such an exorbitant amount to facilitate the dream of digital India. This amount is several times more than what the government is spending on language digitization.

India is the second largest country of active internet users with a base of more than 540 million; their annual spending power is USD 300 billion. The next generation users will be from the rural hinterland, looking for digital content in their own languages. It is this micro market that Google wants to reach through its digitization fund that will bring windfall profits. It makes good business sense, increasing market share through their payment portals like Google Pay. It is the profit motive that is the driving force behind this massive funding rather than facilitating digital inclusion of vernacular languages.

It would be naive to think that through charity these digital giants want to enable every Indian citizen to access online content in their own languages like Tamil, Punjabi or Kannada. For them language is merely a ‘commodity’ rather than a repository of a world view transcending commercial interests.

India has the largest number of qualified software engineers that work for multinational companies. Nevertheless, we have failed to harness their knowledge to build for us the appropriate language software in the many different languages we use. Language standards are now being defined and set by companies based in the US, with little understanding of the nuances of our linguistic diversity.

Smartphones, laptops and other devices sold in India are designed for use in English, neglecting the local language interface. This is in complete contrast with Japan, China or Korea where these gadgets are made for native language users. In order to resolve such issues, Indians cannot depend on foreign companies, we need to take charge and find our own solutions to access the digital world, allowing an easy interface.

Language reflects an evolution of the diversity of culture in different contexts of regions and ecosystems. It represents the repository of accumulated knowledge over the generations. Each language is unique because it teaches us to think and know the world in a different way. The language is deeply related to how we think, formulate our ideas and our relationship within the society and its links to nature. It is the product of a particular ecosystem that has relevance to the soil and the way people live.

Unfortunately, this thinking process rooted in the mind of local people is likely to be destroyed when the dominant language replaces the native language. It is not a simple shift from one language to other, but sets in a process of colonization of the mind, entirely changing the way people think and relate to themselves in the society. Eventually, it leads to the replacement of one’s own culture and values by the colonizing language.

The decimation of indigenous languages is an outcome of the destruction of the survival base of these communities, especially the tropical forest ecosystems, coastal areas or common grazing land for animal herders in the dry regions. Large developmental projects like mining and thermal power plants are appropriating the survival base of indigenous communities in the hinterland of central and eastern India. This process has forced the tribal community to become ecological refugees, often uprooting them from their survival base. It has severed the link that the language has with its ecosystems, and their surroundings. Millions of people have been displaced, not only depriving them of their livelihood but their identity of language.

In recent years the spread of globalization and economic liberalization has led to the weakening of local languages and cultures. The homogenization and integration as part of economic development has forced societies and nations to quit their vernacular languages in favour of the dominant languages that rule the market.

Efforts to replicate the Singapore model in the Andaman’s is bound to take a toll of language diversity. Jarwa and Onge, spoken only by few hundred people will disappear, severing the link of Africa and Asia. The last speaker of Bo language in this island died recently. She was the lone speaker of this historical language that originated 70,000 years back in Africa.

Sharada, the ancient language of Kashmir is already on the way to extinction as there is hardly anyone who can speak the language or read its script, which resembles ancient Brahmi. The whole world knows about the conflict in Kashmir, but the people, even in India, are not aware of the death of a language called Sharada, once a flourishing language in the entire western Himalayan region in the 9th century AD.

Is it possible to save these dying languages using digital technology of recording sound and speech? The National Geographic Society launched its ‘Enduring Voices Project’ to document oral languages using digital formats and multimedia. As part of this initiative, Koro, a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by less than 1000 people in Arunachal Pradesh, was documented and hailed as a solution to conserving endangered languages.

Despite such initiatives, it is doubtful if we will succeed in saving endangered languages through the top-down process of documentation and digital tools. This will, at best, result in creating a repository of documents resulting in language museums. This would be similar to attempts at seed conservation in safe vaults in the cold region of Norway. Language survives when it is spoken by people in their own environment; it is living through the expression of people. It is dead when taken out of its context and immediate environment where it has evolved.

It is feared that of more than 6000 currently spoken languages, 50 to 90 per cent would be lost by 2050. The silencing of native languages will only lead to the erosion of diverse cultures and the different ways to know the world. Like monocultures in agriculture and forestry, the homogenization of languages will greatly reduce the diversity of life forms. According to Wade Davis, an authority on endangered languages: ‘Native languages are driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to.’ He further remonstrates that ‘genocide, the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of peoples’ way of life is not only condemned, it is universally – in many quarters – celebrated as part of a development strategy.’

Alarmed by the accelerated threat towards extinction of languages, UNESCO has launched the register of good practices for language preservation. The objective is to empower endangered languages to adapt to the changes with hands-on experience and learning from the successful ventures where languages like Basque and Catalan have been successfully rescued. In reality it is impossible to learn from other models. Each case is region-specific and ecosystem-specific and needs a unique innovative approach. Under such critical circumstances, it is doubtful if the preservation of languages can withstand the onslaught of economic and cultural globalization.

In this context we need to analyze ‘The Endangered Languages Project’ sponsored by Google. The main aim is to document 3000 languages that are on the verge of extinction, helping people to create high quality recordings of last speakers of language and facilitating language learning through social media. It is ironical that the world’s search giant that is responsible for reducing the diversity of languages online is claiming that through the same technology it wants to save the endangered languages. It sounds like the green washing efforts of another giant, PepsiCo, that destroys the freshwater resources in rural areas through its plants to manufacture cold drinks and then launches projects to save water through watershed projects as part of corporate social responsibility.

Despite these discrepancies, India is definitely one of the hotspots of language diversity. Will we succeed in maintaining this diversity in the context of the ongoing digital revolution? With the spread of information technology (IT) and increasing number of Indians gaining access to internet based mobile applications, should we hold out any hope for the revival of endangered languages? Will the minority languages find space to ride on the information highway? Or will languages like English and Hindi overtake them, forcing them to make an early exit?

Crowd sourcing and internet connectivity has certainly made it easier to produce materials online. Dissemination and consumption of minority languages has become cheaper than the expensive print material. This has paved way for flourishing language subcultures. The release of numerous language learning applications has provided great opportunities to learn new language skills.

According to linguists only five per cent of all the living languages are digitally ‘ascending’. About 250 languages can be called well established online, whereas the remaining 6700 plus languages remain on the margin, threatened by a digital tsunami. India is home to numerous indigenous communities that have an oral language without a script. They will never be able to occupy the digital space.

Despite this dismal scenario languages like Tulu, Byari, Bhojpuri, Khasi and Mizo are charting a different path towards revitalization. Tulu is one of the regional dialects in costal Karnataka spoken by 1.8 million people around the Mangalore coast and in the bordering Kasaragod district, Kerala. Within Tulu, the diversity is astonishing. It is one of the major languages of the Dravidian family, with a 2000 year history.

Though it has no digital presence as it does not have any script, it is thriving. The basic reason is the commitment and passion with which the native speakers have been using it in their daily lives, thereby passing it on to younger generations. Though Kannada, Hindi, Konkani, Malayalam and English coexist in the region with a strong culture of multilingualism, Tulu has retained its integrity and vitality. This uniqueness and pride of speakers may help them to survive in the digital world.

The unique idea of Oral Literary Festivals called ‘The Listener’ planned by the Imsai Foundation in Manipur and INTACH Tripura, is an innovative strategy to empower endangered languages that do not have a script. In this the participants tell stories, recite poems and perform ballads, representing oral languages of the north-eastern region of India. In contrast to the regular literary formats, this effort provides an opportunity to witness the passing on of the oral traditions that have survived from mouth to ear for centuries.

Coming back to Rakesh’s story, he is now six years old. He is almost normal with improved communication skills and controlled access to digital tools. Thanks to digital exposure, he speaks English and Hindi fluently, and although his English accent is totally foreign, he speaks good Hindi. Both these languages are not spoken at his home and surroundings. He barely manages to speak Havyaka Kannada, a dialect spoken in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka. His mother tongue accent is akin to a foreigner speaking Kannada.

From the point of acquiring language skills, he is definitely multilingual. Shall we say digitization has had a positive impact on his language learning skills? Or is it the outcome of a limited one way exposure to the dominant languages in the digital realm? Will he acquire the skills to communicate in a real time frame of speaking local colloquial Kannada rooted in daily life?