Language of your voice


When the lockdown due to the pandemic was lifted last year, my maid phoned to ask if she should come to work. She was feeling uncomfortable in receiving regular salary but sitting at home. So, when she did start to come home, she was wearing mask and had hand sanitiser in her bag. But, she was unable to figure out ‘distancing’, and that too the proposed norm of 6 feet. Together, we sorted out how, when and where such distancing is desirable, and feasible. In her vocabulary, understandably, ‘distancing’ was anti-thesis of ‘caring’!

Does language matter? Does mother-tongue matter?

The United Nations has been observing International Mother Language Day for the past two decades, on February 21, yesterday. This year, the theme is ‘inclusion and education’; communication in language of your mother-tongue is important to feel included, and essential foundation for learning and education.

The United Nations is also launching the Decade of Indigenous Languages next year.

Multi-lingualism…linguistic diversity…thus is essential to nurture and sustain cultural diversity. Participation is strengthened when people are encouraged to use their own languages. Learning, literacy and functional skills are best supported in mother-tongue languages, especially in early childhood.

India is home to such linguistic diversity. The 8th Schedule of Indian Constitution recognises 22 languages; English is not one of them! The review of languages undertaken in last decade recorded claims of 38 languages that want to be included in the Constitution; these include Bhojpuri, Khasi, Gondi, etc.

The Census of 2011 in India recorded 1369 mother-tongues, each of these being spoken by more than 10,000 people. The last Anthropological Survey of India recorded 325 significant languages in India. However, another People’s Linguistic Survey in 2012 recorded 780 languages and 66 scripts being used in India by significant numbers of people.

But, the digital ‘revolution’ is resulting in ‘elimination’ of many of these languages. Around the world, nearly half of more than 6000 languages are designated as ‘endangered’ by the United Nations. If these languages disappear, Unesco argues that traditions, memories, cultures and knowledges of these communities would be lost to future generations. Humanity would lose the technical, artistic and intellectual contributions embedded in these languages!

Why is it that less than 100 of these 6000 languages are functional in the digital space? Why is it that only 5-6 Indian languages have made an ‘entry’ in the cyber space?

In this era of digital communications, as further expanded due to the pandemic, languages on digital platforms can restrict expression, education and voice of millions of citizens whose mother-tongue languages (which they speak and think in) are ‘missing’ from such platforms.

When International Domain Names opened up for use of non-Latin script, only a few countries took advantage over the past decade; these are Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Why not any Indian language? Why do we have to rely on Latin script for naming domains (like insan, for person)?

The hardware and software industry has not included Indian languages in the standard protocols. If you buy a keyboard in Japan, Korea or China, it is designed on the basis of their language structure. This design is then used by all hardware and software producers. But, the same is not the case for Hindi or Tamil; why?

As early as 1970s, the standard templates of digital design and use of linguistic structures were being established by American manufacturers and technologists. Policy-makers in China, Japan, Korea (later Russia and some Arab countries) insisted that their ‘mother-tongue’ languages be included independent of Latin script. Perhaps Indian policy-makers and senior officials of that era were themselves comfortable in English language, and did not insist that Microsoft, Apple and other operating systems (OS) design separately for Indian languages. Perhaps there was no agreement then as to which Indian language? Perhaps because Indian technologists, educated in Institutes of Technologies in India in English and working in the then emerging ‘silicon valley’ in California, did not see the ‘value’ of any other Indian language then? This despite the fact that a system for Indian languages had been developed by IIT (Kanpur) around that time!

So, let us ask ourselves how Indian citizens would ‘navigate’ digital spaces? Since 90% of Indians today use languages other than English in their everyday life, how will their own thinking, knowledge and innovations will become part of the contents on digital platforms? How will they express themselves on such platforms? How will voices of future generations of hitherto excluded Indians be heard, in India and globally?

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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