We often hear about the ‘death’ of Kashmiri language. It is debatable whether it is dying or not, but the element of endangerment cannot be ruled out. It’s true that a language can be termed dead only when no one speaks it anymore, but unless it has fluent speakers one can’t call it as a ‘living language’ either.
Death of languages is a reality across the world and we cannot afford to take the fate of Kashmiri language for-granted. Infact, United Nations has declared 2019 as a year dedicated to raising awareness about languages of indigenous peoples all over the world.
UNESCO defines mother tongue or mother language as a child’s first language, the language learned in the home from older family members. Unfortunately, there are many parents who do not encourage their children to learn their mother tongue. I have seen some parents reprimand their kids for not speaking proper Urdu, but they don’t bother if their wards can’t utter a Kashmiri word properly. These people are doing a great disservice to Kashmir by not passing on the language to the next generation.
The early discouragement to speak in native language is not only confined to home. There may not be any overt hindrance to speak in Kashmiri at schools, but there are many such institutes, particularly the missionary ones, where you rarely find a kid speaking in his mother tongue even outside the classroom. We are making our language a sort of ‘taboo’ for our children.
The extinction of many dialects is a matter of worldwide concern, not only among the linguists and anthropologists but among all concerned with the issues of cultural identity in an increasingly globalised culture.
When it comes to learning, mother tongue can be the most effective medium. A UNESCO study titled “Mother tongue matters: local language as a key to effective learning” concludes that there is clear evidence in favour of mother-tongue-based bilingual education to enhance the learning outcomes of students significantly.
David Crystal, a leading commentator on language issues, has written a book on the subject ‘Language Death’. Crystal cites facts and figures about a phenomenon which many people compare with large-scale destruction of the environment.
Crystal cites the five-level classification used by famous linguist Stephen Wurm. They are: potentially endangered, endangered, seriously endangered, moribund and extinct languages. Potentially endangered languages are socially and economically disadvantaged, under heavy pressure from a larger language and beginning to lose child speakers.
Endangered languages have few or no children learning the language. Seriously endangered languages have the youngest good speakers age 50 or older. Moribund languages have only a handful of good speakers left, mostly very old; and extinct languages have no speakers left. It’s not that difficult to imagine where Kashmiri language is heading in this classification. Note the emphasis on child speakers!
Unfortunately, the parents are responsible for giving rise to a feeling of shame among their wards about using the native language. They use less and less Kashmiri with their children and outside the home the kids stop talking to each other in the mother tongue.
In his book, Crystal traces the slow death of a language which we can easily relate to Kashmiri as well. As they become increasingly proficient in a language other than their mother tongue, children identify more with it (for instance Hindi or Urdu) and find their first language (like Kashmiri) less relevant to their needs. If we have to preserve our mother tongue, we have to teach it to our children.
Language of a place is a repository of its history. Language is the primary index or symbol of identity. To make sense of a community’s identity, we need to look at its language. One can go on and on with such reasons for preserving our language. But unless we act on these reasons, it’s hard to save our language.
We can’t blame government for not protecting the mother-tongue. The onus lies squarely on us for ignoring the threat. On the other hand, the government cannot ensure success of any language-promotion programme unless there is proper planning with active involvement of the community at all levels. With commitment and careful planning, it is possible for any nation to save this treasure.
The Welsh proverb “A nation without a language is a nation without a heart” succinctly underlines the importance of mother tongue and should remind Kashmiris about the need to save heart of their nation.