Friday, February 21, 2014

How many languages are there in India?

This is a tricky question! Depending on how you define language and dialect, you get diverse answers. Here are three answers.

1. PLSI. "There are over 780 languages and 66 different scripts in India." Ganesh N Devy, Chairperson of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), announced this in press conferences in Kolkata and Guwahati in July 2013. As the report in The Hindu said: "Arunachal Pradesh is the richest among the States with 90 languages.... Researchers found that Assam with 55 languages, Gujarat 48, Maharashtra 39, and West Bengal 38 are among the most linguistically diverse States.... The survey, Dr. Devy said, has revealed that the north-eastern parts of the country have one of the highest per capita language densities in the world." Another report quotes Devy as saying, "While it surely is a fact to celebrate the diversity of the country, the sad part is we have lost nearly 250 languages in the last 50 years or so." More elsewhere on this blog.

2. Ethnologue. "The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 75 are institutional, 127 are developing, 178 are vigorous, 55 are in trouble, and 12 are dying." This is how the internet's biggest language-database, Ethnologue, characterizes our languages. A-Pucikwar, Adi, Agariya... when I first saw this list many years ago, it was only the 25th language that I recognized -- Assamese.

3. Census of India. "122 languages" says the 2001 census. But wait -- how do they arrive at this number? Well, the enumerators "recorded faithfully" 6661 mother-tongue names from all over the country. These were then "subjected to thorough linguistic scrutiny, edit and rationalization." This resulted in 1635 "rationalized mother tongues" -- each of which is spoken by at least 10,000 speakers -- and 1957 names "which were treated as 'unclassified' and relegated to 'other' mother tongue category." These 1635 "rationalized mother tongues" were further classified following "the usual linguistic methods for rational grouping". The result was 122 languages.

One result of these reclassifications is that under the language-name Hindi, there are 49 "mother-tongues" (from Awadhi to Surjapuri). Besides, there are also 14.8 million "Others", speaking mother-tongues with 10,000 or fewer speakers. 14.8 million "Others": as Wikipedia tells us, there are about 174 countries and dependent territories with smaller populations than that!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Language and environment - a response to Madhav Gadgil

Professor Madhav Gadgil gave a talk at IIIT Hyderabad today. Among other things, he stressed the need to empower local communities with information on and knowledge of how various decisions by governments and corporations will impact their environment. Government-generated environmental information is poor, not-transparent, and frequently manipulated, he said. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2013 came in for special castigation (see also this analysis of the bill by PRS Legislative Research).

He was tremendously optimistic about citizen-science initiatives (like the Australian WaterWatch) and using the Right to Information Act to generate knowledge for informed debate. He was equally optimistic that machine translation "within about 30-40 years" will make this knowledge available in any language.

In the Q&A that followed, I took the following line (spelt out here in greater detail than I had time for in the session):

(a) biodiversity hotspots are also hotspots of linguistic diversity -- researchers in fact speak of "biocultural diversity";

(b) knowledge of biodiversity maintenance is typically encoded in indigenous languages, and many of these are very small languages indeed -- the median number of speakers of the world's languages is a mere 7000 (compare it to the mean -- 878 thousand);

(c) thus, even from a purely instrumental point of view (setting aside any ethical arguments), there is a good case for the flourishing of these languages;

(d) but this linguistic diversity is disappearing very fast -- "between 1970 and 2005 the number of languages spoken globally has decreased by 20%";

(e) among the most effective mechanisms to ensure that a language disappears is an assimilationist language policy in education -- specifically, the use of  a non-mother-tongue as medium of instruction -- what we have elsewhere called "silent ethnocide -- a low-intensity warfare through formal education";

(f) thus, if information and knowledge are to benefit the environmentally most vulnerable in society, a mother-tongue-based multilingual education is necessary -- machine-translation technologies, while welcome, will not by themselves be enough.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

ASER 2013: no significant improvement in learning to read

The provisional Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for rural India is out.

Highlights from the section "The National Picture".
  • Enrollment in the 6-14 age group continues to be very high, with more than 96% of children in school. The proportion of out of school girls in the 11 to 14 age group has declined since last year.
  • Nationally, there is a slight increase over 2012 in private school enrollment. The proportion of children taking paid private tuition classes has also increased slightly since last year.
  • Since last year no significant improvement is visible in children’s ability to read - nationally, 47% of 5th class children in government and private schools were able to read a 2nd class text. Among Std. V children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children able to read Std. II level text decreased from 50.3% (2009) to 43.8% (2011) to 41.1% (2013).
  • Children are still struggling with basic arithmetic.
During ASER 2013, 14,724 government schools with primary sections were
visited across rural India. Observations:
  • Teacher attendance holds steady, but student attendance drops.
  • The proportion of “small schools” in the government primary school sector is growing (with total enrollment of 60 students or less).
  • Compliance with most measurable Right to Education (RTE) norms continues to grow.
  • the percentage of schools with no drinking water facility has declined from 17% in 2010 to 15.2% in 2013. In 7 states, more than 80% of schools visited had both the facility and drinking water was available.
  • significant increase in the proportion of schools with a useable toilet, from 47.2% in 2010 to 62.6% in 2013. In 2010, 31.2% of all schools visited did not have a separate toilet for girls. This number has declined to 19.3% in 2013. The percentage of useable toilets for girls has also increased from 32.9% in 2010 to 53.3% in 2013.
  • steady increase in the provision of libraries in schools that have been visited. The All India figure for schools with no library provision dropped from 37.4% in 2010 to 22.9% in 2013.
  • mid-day meal was observed being served on the day of the visit in 87.2% of schools. This year, in 14 states, mid-day meals were seen in more than 90% of schools visited.
The report notes the increasing prevalence of private schools and private tuition in rural India. On this matter, the article in the report by Wilima Wadhwa : "Private inputs into schooling : Bang for the buck?" notes:

"One thing to note here is that while private school learning levels may be higher than those in government schools, children in private schools also are far below grade competency. For instance, in 2013, the proportion of Std. 5 children who could read a Std. 2 level text is 41.1% in government schools. The corresponding number for private schools is 63.3%- indicating that one third of children even in private schools are at least 2 grades behind in reading ability."

Friday, November 15, 2013

English impact in rural India -- Report

A new report has just been published -- Viven Berry (ed.), English Impact Story: Investigating English Language Learning Outcomes at the Primary School Level in Rural India (London: British Council 2013). The 74-page report is available as a PDF on the ASER website amidst several other reports.

This collaboration between ASER, British Council and Pratham consists of the following essays:
  • Foreword by Martin Davidson: "There is a growing interest in what the world's children are learning and how this learning can be measured and assessed."
  • Message by Madhav Chavan: "Working with children, Pratham has identified another challenge for learning English – the fact that many Indian children have difficulty reading their own language."
  • Message by Rob Lynes: "However, research shows that all’s not well with English learning across India, especially at the primary level where the foundations are supposed to be laid."
  • Introduction by Ranajit Bhattacharyya and Debanjan Chakrabarti: "While this report is primarily for those involved in the framing and implementation of English language policy in education systems in India, it has wider implications for countries with a similarly wide cache of multicultural and heteroglossic capital."
  • "Multilingualism in an international context" by Jason Rothman and Jeanine Treffers-Daller: "They illustrate how being able to communicate using several languages benefits society through fostering intercultural understanding; they also outline the cognitive advantages gained by multilingual individuals who switch between languages on a daily basis." (From the Introduction)
  • "An English for every schoolchild in India" by Raghavachari Amritavalli: "It is common sense to use our existing knowledge, including the knowledge of other languages, to help us make sense of what is said or written in the new language. One’s other languages can also help to scaffold expression in the new language."
  • "Evolution of the ASER English tool" by Rukmini Banerji and Savitri Bobde: "The evidence generated in all three years points to the fact that language reading skills, both in regional language and even more so in English, need urgent attention throughout India."
  • "English language learning outcomes at the primary school level in rural India: taking a fresh look at the data from the Annual Status of Education Report" by Jamie Dunlea and Karen Dunn: "The paper describes the application of various statistical analysis techniques to investigate trends in English as a second or foreign language (L2) reading performance over time, as well as the relationship between first language (L1) literacy and L2 reading ability."
  • "Looking back and looking forward" by Barry O’Sullivan: "The view, therefore, that emerges from the three chapters that set the background to this report, is that while English is a hugely important element of the educational process in India, its true value should be seen in terms of its role in the multilingual society that is India."

Friday, October 4, 2013

Edu-crisis a threat to national security

The other day, in a talk at Manthan Samvaad called "India's Faultlines" (reported here), Ajai Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management outlined some of the "multiple vulnerabilities" that the country faces. Among them, he noted, is an education system that is failing to impart skills and knowledge.

The evidence that he presented is familiar to readers of this blog. Here is some of the evidence from my article "The English-Only Myth: Multilingual Education in India" (Rao 2013; abstract here).

ASER reports. In 2012, in rural India, only 45% of enrolled students in the fifth grade were able to read a grade two text. That is, 55% are not able to do even that. Over half of the children are at least three grade levels behind where they should be. Further, this is a declining trend -- over 50% students were able to do this task in 2008. This is in rural India, and mostly in the mother tongue (ASER 2013).

The EI-Wipro study. What about India’s “elite” schools? In 2011, Educational Initiatives and the IT company Wipro together published Quality Education Study (QES), a study of 89 “top schools” (as the report called them) -- all urban-Indian, and English-medium. It concluded that “performance in class 4 is found to be below international average.” However, Indian students catch up in the eighth grade, “mainly due to their higher achievement in procedural questions (i.e. questions that require straightforward use of techniques or learnt procedures to arrive at the answers).” (EI-Wipro 2011)

This study also compared students in these schools to an earlier study (conducted by the same organizations). As in the ASER reports (noted above), “learning levels were found to be significantly lower than what was observed in 2006 in the same schools tested and on the same questions.” The fall was highest in maths and English. The study remarks: “our top schools don’t promote conceptual learning in students. QES results show that there has been a further drop from the already unsatisfactory levels of 2006.”

The PISA study. Sahni did not mention this study. A recent international comparison was the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test which compared 15-year-old boys and girls from 74 countries and territories in maths, science and reading; India figured 73rd (ahead of Kyrgyzstan). Students from only two Indian states participated. The report concluded that “the 15-year-old student populations in Tamil Nadu-India and Himachal Pradesh-India were estimated to have among the lowest reading literacy levels of the PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+ participants with more than 80% of students below the baseline of proficiency. Around one-fifth of students in these economies are very poor readers” (Walker 2011: 22; also see Pritchett 2012).

This comprehensive, systemic failure, Sahni concludes is producing large numbers of unemployable young people. He sees this as a "volatile group" whose disempowerment is fertile ground for violence and recruitment into insurgency.

References (all links valid as of October 2013)

ASER (Annual Status of Education Report). 2013b. Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2012.

EI-Wipro. 2011. Quality Education Study. Educational Initiatives and Wipro.

PISA (OECD Programme for International Student Assessment). 2009. Database PISA 2009: Interactive Data Selection.

Pritchett, Lant. 2012. “The First PISA results for India: The end of the beginning”. Ajay Shah’s blog. 5 January.

Rao, A. Giridhar. 2013. "The English-Only Myth: Multilingual Education in India", Language Problems and Language Planning, 37.3: 271-279. Abstract:

Sahni, Ajai. 2013. "India's Faultlines", talk at Manthan Samvaad, Hyderabad, India, 2 October. Abstract:

Walker, Maurice. 2011. PISA 2009 Plus Results: Performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science for 10 additional participants. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Over 780 languages and 66 scripts in India - PLSI

It is a year since our last post on the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), and we have the welcome news that the 50 volumes of the Survey will appear between September 2013 and December 2014.

Ganesh N Devy, Chairperson PLSI, announced this in press conferences in Kolkata and Guwahati in July. As the report in The Hindu said: "There are over 780 languages and 66 different scripts in India. Arunachal Pradesh is the richest among the States with 90 languages.... Researchers found that Assam with 55 languages, Gujarat 48, Maharashtra 39, and West Bengal 38 are among the most linguistically diverse States.... The survey, Dr. Devy said, has revealed that the north-eastern parts of the country have one of the highest per capita language densities in the world."

A report in The Telegraph informs us that there are "130 living languages, including variants, in five states of the Northeast, some of them probably spoken by only four or five people".

Reflecting on this, another report quotes Devy as saying, "While it surely is a fact to celebrate the diversity of the country, the sad part is we have lost nearly 250 languages in the last 50 years or so."

Indeed, as Dr Devy remarked in a February 2013 interview: "While PLSI would easily be the world’s largest language survey, let me tell you that I am not proud of doing it. It was like going for rehabilitation work after an earthquake. It should have been done 50 years ago....

"We called a confluence of language experts in Vadodara in 2010 and called the place ‘ground zero’. This term (ground zero) was widely used by victims of the nuclear attacks in Japan in World War II. India, and the world, is becoming a graveyard of languages and we wanted to draw attention to that."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Nitobe Symposium on Languages and Internationalization in Higher Education

The 6th Nitobe Symposium is on "Languages and Internationalization in Higher Education: Ideologies, Practices, Alternatives", July 18-20, 2013, at the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland.

From the Symposium website: "The symposium will be particularly concerned with the expanding use of English-medium instruction in higher education and the repercussions, positive and negative, of this development. The symposium will also examine alternative approaches."

Organized by the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems (CRD),  the Symposium's multilingual Background Papers themselves are useful reading. And here is the list of Paper Summaries.