Sunday, August 10, 2014

Baaton, Baaton Mein

The nation was recently treated to passionate debates over language [in connection with the Civil Services Aptitude Tests furor in UPSC exams]. This then becomes a good enough time as any to talk languages again, a topic made even more relevant given that the State celebrated a grand Tendong Lho Rum Faat right on Tendong itself this year. Also, the Lepcha language, despite its few speakers, is among the languages which have displayed more vibrancy than most other languages and dialects recorded as mother tongues in Sikkim. And Tendong Lho Rum Faat used to be the festival when the language would be flaunted most flamboyantly by the community with the celebrations in the past including entire seminars being held in Lepcha language. The language continues to be used more instinctively by its speakers than most other languages of the region and this attitude underlines the community’s efforts at keeping its culture alive because no culture can survive once its language is lost. In fact, a major concern exists in tribal communities across the world over the health of native languages and cultures. While earlier, indigenous communities could rely on traditional educational systems to assure their cultural survival, the institutionalisation of ‘modern’ education and the phasing out of the joint family system has eased this support system out.
Earlier, the language would get passed down around kitchen fires and along with it would slip through the essence of ethnic cultures and traditions. As Sikkim grows more cosmopolitan, outside influences have edged out this form of education. The formal education system which includes many indigenous languages in its curriculum does not include the subtlety with which cultures were earlier fostered. At best, the schools can equip the students with the language, which they should then utilise to learn more. Unlike the present trend where the learning curve ends with the schooling years, the learning should in fact begin once the language has been acquired. And this too is a matter of concern. Indigenous languages are taught as the ‘third language’ in schools, with students picking one from a bouquet of several languages. Almost always, students pick their mother tongue or the lingua franca, Nepali. This trend needs to be revisited. Most students already have Nepali and at least the possibility of learning their mother tongue at home. In school, they should be encouraged to learn a new language. That would help in developing a larger pool of language-users and automatically increase the patronage for literary, cultural and popular productions in those languages. Such a practice will also ensure a more genuine cultivation of camaraderie and communal amity that Sikkim likes to believe it has.
But a wider interest in ethnic languages is obviously not the trend here. In fact, interest even among those born to a particular language is waning and indigenous languages are finding fewer and fewer people learning or using them anymore. The young who have still managed to master their respective tongues, need to record everything they can get the older generation to share so that some element of their identity survives the march of monolinguism. Such a cultural revivalism is palpable only among the Lepchas and to some extent among the Limboos. In most other cases, it is unfortunately more about show-boating and/ or playing the victimized card. Languages and cultures cannot survive on sympathy, but will thrive on pride. Pride here should not be confused with the sense of superiority, but needs to be inculcated as confidence. Unfortunately, not enough is happening on these fronts and the dwindling currency of native tongues stands testimony to this contention. It needs no reiteration that language is the link to identity. It is language that keeps cultures alive.

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