Mother-Tongue Education is Key for Indigenous Languages

Anvita Abbi, in conversation with A Giridhar Rao at the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF 2024), highlights how Indigenous languages show us unique ways of being human.

Giridhar rao with anvita abbi

At the just-concluded Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) poets and linguists emphasised that the mother tongue must be the medium of instruction in school. They argued that this is especially important for Indigenous children. The task is an urgent one for speakers of Endangered languages. 

This post briefly reports on one HLF session — my conversation with Professor Anvita Abbi.

The 14th edition of HLF (26–28 January 2024) included:

  • 250 speakers
  • 150 events
  • 15 streams

HLF 2024 introduced a new stream, Indigenous and Endangered Languages” (IEL). As the concept note clarifies, This is in alignment with the United Nations which has declared 2022 – 2032 International Decade of Indigenous Languages”. Optimistic estimates suggest that at least 50 percent of today’s spoken languages will be extinct or seriously endangered by 2100. Most of these are Indigenous languages.”

Indigenous poets, storytellers, writers, artists, folklorists, and researchers participated in this year’s IEL stream. Sessions included children’s stories, poetry, panel discussions by experts, and even a workshop on Gondi art. Some of the Indigenous languages represented were the Great Andamanese languages, Gondi, Jarawa, Kui, Lambadi, Onge, Oraon, Santali, and Toda.

Among the prominent speakers was Professor Anvita Abbi. She spoke of her engagement over several decades with minority languages of South Asia, especially the languages of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. 

She said that linguistic and genetic evidence have converged to confirm that these ethnic groups are descendants of some of the earliest human groups to leave Africa, perhaps 50,000 years ago. This led her to describe historical linguistics as a forensic science” which uncovers the past!

United Nations has declared 2022 – 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. Optimistic estimates suggest that at least 50 percent of today’s spoken languages will be extinct or seriously endangered by 2100. Most of these are Indigenous languages.

Professor Abbi shared some fascinating details about the syntax and semantics of Great Andamanese. 

She observed that the structure of the Great Andamanese languages derives from a conceptual division of the human body into seven zones. Each zone has a linguistic marker. As she clarified in a 2023-article in Scientific American on this subject:

The markers… derived from seven zones of the body and were attached to a root word, usually as a prefix, to describe concepts such as inside,” outside,” upper” and lower.” For example, the morpheme er-, which qualified most anything having to do with an outer body part, could be stuck to -cho to yield ercho, meaning head.” A pig’s head was thus raercho [ra means pig”].…

Important, too, was the morpheme a-, which referred to the mouth and, more broadly, to origins. It contributed to the nouns aphong, for mouth,” and Aka-Jero, for his Jero language”; the adjectives ajom, greedy,” and amu, mute”; the verbs atekho, to speak,” and aathitul, to keep quiet”; and the adverb aulu, prior to.”

The title of her article summarises the argument: This Ancient Language has the Only Grammar Based Entirely on the Human Body. But, as she movingly notes, these fascinating languages face extinction:

Of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken by humans today, half will fall silent by the end of this century. Survival in an era of globalisation, urbanisation and climate change forces Indigenous communities to replace their traditional ways of life and languages with those of the dominant society. When the older generation can no longer teach the tongue to the younger ones, a language is doomed. And with every language lost, we lose a wealth of knowledge about human existence, perception, nature and survival.

She noted that these spoken languages are considered primitive” and given no importance in school education. Her proposal for urgent course correction” included early childhood education in the mother tongue (a recommendation that animates our courses at Azim Premji University). 

Other poets and researchers at HLFDamayanti Beshra, Bhangya Bhukya, Ganesh Devy, Jacinta Kerketta, and Karthick Narayanan among others — all noted the many dimensions along which Indigenous and Endangered Languages and their speakers need urgent help. However, several of them also argued that the medium of instruction in school plays a critical role in the flourishing of the mother tongue.

Only then will these unique ways of being human be passed on to the next generation.

Photo credit: Radhika Mamidi

About the Author

A Giridhar Rao is an MA in Education faculty member at Azim Premji University. He teaches courses on multilingualism in education. He is also active in the Esperanto movement, and is a member of the Akademio de Esperanto. He blogs in English on Bolii and in Esperanto at Lingvo kaj vivo, where you can also read this post in Esperanto.