A New York Times report on September 19, 2007 by JOHN NOBLE WILFORD states that half the 7000 existing languages might become extinct in this century. Does your mother tongue come under this category?
What brought my attention to this matter is an email discussion by some friends that was copied to me. It reflects the widespread apprehension that Malayalam, the vernacular of Kerala might be endangered.
The main reason for this fear is the apparent neglect of Malayalam by many Keralites. They prefer to send their children to English medium schools. Their line of thinking is obvious - a good command of spoken and written English would brighten the career opportunities for the younger generation.
My siblings and I studied in local schools. That gave us a good grounding in Malayalam. Then we went on to learn English. At home we spoke only Malayalam. I don’t think we missed any opportunities because of this.
Conditions are different now, of course. For nonresidents, in their interaction with others - in school, among friends, at workplace and in the daily chores – the mother tongue can hardly be used. At home too many prefer to talk in English.
There is some logic in parents accepting the situation. They themselves were probably educated in the English medium and find it easier to communicate in that language. Also, they might feel that it could help the children to improve their English.
On the other hand, they could be missing much. The Malayalam language, for instance, is rich in all forms of literature – poetry, short stories, novels, nonfiction. Kerala’s book publishing industry seems healthy, launching about 100 titles a month. The writers are making money. Many periodicals and newspapers have high circulation.
What then, is wrong? Perhaps the age group of the readers, though no reliable data is available. One rarely sees a young man with a Malayalam book. Sometimes, though a senior citizen, I get curious looks when carrying a Malayalam book while traveling.
A language dies for two reasons. The first is when its functionality declines. That means a tongue becomes irrelevant in a particular area if it cannot be used effectively there. It fades into the background and is activated only for occasional ethnic social events or on visits home. This is so true in the case of expatriates.
Secondly, a language cannot survive when it is unable to cope with the fast changing requirements of the evolving global village and remains static. Sanskrit and Latin are classic examples of this.
English, on the other hand, is considered to be the ‘killer’ language that threatens the existence of other tongues. Even the French are afraid of this British invasion. How did English attain and maintain such an increasingly predominant position?
It keeps growing continuously by absorbing many new words from several other languages. Then again, it gets adapted regionally. As a result, today we have so many geographical versions of English that are in active use and are well accepted. No other language can claim such flexibility.
A 2007 study sponsored by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society identified five areas globally where the original languages are fast vanishing.
1) Languages Die, but Not Their Last Words
Accessed on Nov. 3, 2008
2) How Languages Die. Salikoko S. MUFWENE,
Accessed on Nov.3, 2008.