Friday, August 20, 2010

People's Linguistic Survey of India

Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, the Baroda-based organization for indigenous peoples, has launched a People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI). In the words of G N Devy, who is the founder of the Bhasha trust, and who is leading the initiative:

"Bhasha... convened a national meet of language representatives in March 2010 in which representatives of 320 languages had participated. [Among those invited to speak was Probal Dasgupta, President of the World Esperanto Association - Giri.] It was decided during the concluding session that a People's Linguistic Survey of India be attempted by networking linguists, cultural organisations and NGOs working with language issues.

"Bhasha Centre has already commenced the work and has completed the mapping of three Himalayan states, and has initiated work in three other states."

One of those three states is Andhra Pradesh. On 9 August - appropriately, the International day of the world's indigenous peoples - Bhasha and Osmania University Centre for International Programmes (OUCIP), got together at OUCIP some 30 interested individuals from academia, government and civil society to brainstorm. At the end of the session, participants agreed to write entries for the PLSI on 16 languages spoken in Andhra Pradesh. Other languages spoken in the state will be taken up in the next phase of the project.

Prof Devy emphasized that this was a people's survey; the idea was to get as complete a "snapshot" as possible of the language as it exists today, and to do so using speakers of these languages to write the entry.

The proposed format for each entry is also interesting. Apart from a basic, linguistic description, the survey will also record a brief (1000-word) history of the language; a short bibliography; four or five songs or poems and tales (translating them into English and Hindi); kinship terms; proverbs; colour terms; time and space concepts, and so on - a people's linguistic anthropology, in fact.

As many participants affirmed, a massive project such as this promised new knowledge and new understanding of the consequences of our development models. One participant spoke of the need to "re-invent knowledge categories", so that they serve the Indian reality.

It is to be hoped that such a project will also improve the quality of conversation between India and Bharat.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Language policy in Pakistan

Writing in Dawn on language policy in Pakistan, Shahid Siddiqui describes "two competing schools of thought" which tend to "totally reject" each other in Pakistan:

"The school of thought that is in favour of Urdu or the local languages does not see any role for English. The other school of thought, which favours English, considers native languages insignificant. Since the latter is in power, local languages are either ignored or their potential underestimated. No institutional support is provided to them and they are being subjected to a slow death. The painful fact is that many students who are being educated in English-medium schools find it difficult to read a book written in their mother tongue. Many do not know how to count in Urdu or in their mother tongue. The reason is obvious: they are exposed to English primers before any other reading material. They start learning the English alphabet before any other."

This makes it seem that Urdu and all the other languages of Pakistan (Ethnologue lists 72) are in the same boat, "menaced" by English. But earlier in the essay, Siddiqui laments the neglect of "local languages" when Urdu became the national language of the country.

"The other local languages spoken in the provinces, including Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto and Balochi, were unfortunately either ignored or relegated to an inferior status. This attitude was manifested in the lack of institutional support offered to these languages. A case in point is Punjabi: it is the mother tongue of about 50 per cent of the citizens of Pakistan but is not taught as a subject at school level. Thus the children of Punjabi families cannot read or write in their mother tongue and are literally cut off from the rich literary heritage of their language. To a lesser extent this is true of other Pakistani languages as well."

So, English menaces Urdu, while Urdu menaces "other local languages". Siddiqui recommends that "we should be striving for a balance between English and the local languages. Such a balance can only be achieved if our local languages are given respect and validation through institutional support. This would mean introducing them in primary classes as a subject."

As this blog has often remarked, "local languages" (read mother tongues) need to be the medium of instruction, the main teaching language, for the first eight years, not merely "a subject" in primary classes. All the research shows that an "early-exit" to a dominant language does not result in high-level multilingualism.