In western India, in the state of Gujarat, lies the small town of Chhota Udaipur. Many people from the Rathwa tribe live here. Down a narrow dirt road, past cotton plants and piles of harvested corn husks, 80-year-old Latu Rutia rises from the cot on his back porch. Rutia wears just a loincloth and an earring. He speaks in his native language of Ratwee. Rutia says in the schools his grandchildren attend they are taught in the state language, Gujarati. “They are forced to speak differently,” he says.
Rutia worries that elements of the Rathwee language are trickling away, even though it’s believed there are nearly a million speakers. However, the number of speakers may be less important than how and where the language is spoken.
That’s where the People’s Linguistic Survey of India comes in. They have field workers spread across the country documenting Rathwee and hundreds of Indian languages.
Researchers are documenting each language’s characteristics and recording its folk stories and songs. They also note how the languages describe time and color. For example, the Rathwee language labels various stages of dawn — when the cock crows as one part, and when the birds start moving, another.
Ganesh Devy created the survey. He says embedded in each language are unique ways of seeing the world. “Some languages in India do not have terms for the color blue. I ask them how they look at the sky. So they said, they do not think of a blue sky, they just think of the sky and they think of the sky as so sacred that no adjective be attached to it,” he said.
Of the roughly 900 languages spoken across India, many are closely related. Some though, vary wildly, especially when it comes to concepts like color. According to Andrew Garrett, linguistics professor at the University of California Berkeley, it’s these singular ways of describing things that are the first to go when a language like Rathwee assimilates into dominant languages. That’s one reason documentation can help.
“If your government is interested in supporting small languages, then it’s helpful for them to know that the language of your village is really quite different from the language of the other villages nearby. They might actually put some effort into doing what’s needed in education or in language documentation,” Garrett said.
UNESCO has listed nearly 200 Indian languages as endangered. Some regions of India are experimenting with offering mother tongue-based education — that’s when students are taught in the same language that they speak at home. Many studies show that approach increases children’s learning and decreases dropout levels. It’s something the Indian linguists support.
Andrew Garrett says it can help slow the death of languages. “In the face of thousands of endangered languages, not all of them are going to still be used in a hundred years. Many of them won’t be. But I think some efforts will be successful,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Indian linguists started handing over their findings to the Indian government. Devy says the government response was encouraging. He is hopeful they will introduce a program supporting mother tongue-based education.
Now comes another challenge — convincing people that their language doesn’t have to hold them back. “Language is becoming a kind of condition for being counted as modern. If you speak your language you are traditional, if you speak some other language, you are modern,” Devy said.
To Devy, the Rathwa people living in rural Gujarat are just as modern as those racing to business meetings in downtown Mumbai. Just because they speak an ancient tongue and live far from the city, doesn’t mean they should be excluded from proper schooling and progress.
Now that Devy and his colleagues have provided details of all the known languages of India, they’re hoping for swift government action so that school teachers will once again instruct students in their own language.