Many have a general feeling that at this moment, the nascent discipline of ‘Language Planning & Management’ may not have a mechanism in place to protect and promote minor and endangered languages. There have been moves and attempts by different governments to engage with this subject though. The trouble is that many often point to small countries where Constitutional provisions and in Universal Education documents are specifically mentioned. In case of India, the sheer size of the country and complexity of the administration are such that her situation cannot be easily compared with other contexts. This is the first problem researchers in this area face as a challenge.

‘Structure’ of Endangered Languages has also developed as a theme of serious research in informed linguistic circles for about two decades now. This is of course of purely linguistic and typological interest. But it is the ‘Function’ of endangered languages, and their ‘Consequences’ that have drawn public attention thanks to a media coverage the UNESCO Atlas has received under which India was found to be on the top of countries with 197 endangered languages.

Traditionally India is viewed as a pluralistic society that is supportive of all languages-big or small. Our constitution too is committed to the language rights of all, including the right to mother tongue education. However, the education system has encouraged the growth of dominant languages more, and in practice most of the smaller languages are not included. This has resulted in marginalization of diverse linguistic communities and enhanced threat perceptions to their languages. To safeguard these languages we also need to formulate clear cut plans for the empowerment of these languages and their speakers. This would involve linking languages with literacy and education, with technology and with economic opportunities.

A clear assessment and understanding of this sense of danger is possible where one finds that Language Planning is used not only as an extension of governance over a plural linguistic space, which is usually done with proclamations, orders and legal instruments, but they often become a mechanism of state repression or dominance of the majority linguistic group(s) that rule the state. If Language Planning is an extension of struggle to build civil societies, those who would study language endangerment to suggest any remedy, would have to have their rightful place in decision making as they have an understanding of the total nature of the language endangerment inherent in a given situation. The three kinds of tension as described earlier, added to the laws of majority-minority configurations (Samuel P. Huntington, 1993, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ Foreign Affairs 72: 22–49, and 1996, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster) as well as the forces at play in the game of managing ‘scarce opportunities’ – all of them together create a ‘total’ sense of danger, the metaphysics of which must be understood before one recommends any cure.

The issue has already reached the Indian Parliament where the consequences and remedies were thoroughly discussed by the members. Therefore, the academic bodies and institutions are now asking if many of our smaller languages, several of which belong to tribal and marginalized communities, are indeed seriously threatened, and what steps are to be taken in order to safeguard our most precious linguistic heritage, and document the same. Here lies the genesis of the attempt of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to set up Centers for Endangered Languages (CFEL) in both Central and State Universities.

One of the major tasks would be documentation of endangered languages and mother-tongues in India. Documentation of languages and literature in oral traditions is recommended as an activity for support, including digital and photographic archiving and documentation of socio-cultural contexts important for our understanding of the nature, production processes and creative aspects behind emergence and sustenance as well as social function of such literature. The documentation activity that could be supported should also include compilation of scholarly/historical/generic/style-based and period-based/dialectal/diachronic/ thematic anthologies of available written literature in such languages. The activity will also include re-production of works of earlier ethnographers, linguists and freelance researchers having bearing on literature. It will further include preparation, publication and dissemination of such literature aimed at wider readership. The dissemination can be in electronic, digital, print or mimeograph medium. Such documentation should also include collection and conservation of previously documented literature in their ‘original first editions’ or ‘original manuscripts’ as a record of orthographic conventions in a given language. It is also expected that a metadata would be created for ease of accession of all such documented literature by the Institute or by an agency (for the Institute), and such tasks could also be outsourced under this category of support. The expected output would be:

  • books and/or edited collections,
  • multi-lingual or multi-cultural anthologies, or anthologies of genre- or literature-types,
  • information databases and search engines,
  • programming codes and database structure and/or metadata designs,
  • research papers,
  • broadcast quality visual documentation, and
  • Still photographic archives.

The second possible task could be formulating or designating scripts and typography codes. The activity under this type will include projects in historical and sociological research related to scripts and orthographic conventions of smaller languages (where there is a demand), typographic and design projects for creation of scripts and writing systems for smaller languages although under strict quality control and parity with demands of modern-day key-board and UNICODE requirements. The focus of these projects will be towards designing typographic codes/scripts for producing textbooks that will be user-friendly for school students in these languages. Grants could also be made available for linguistic and lexicographic research projects using these writing (and printing) systems. The expected output would be:

  • Creation of a de novo or modified writing system for a given language,
  • Documentation of their existing or old variety of scripts,
  • preparation of case sheets for the UNICODE and national consortia
  • Production of text-books or on-line teaching materials with a focus on writing systems.
  • Reports, books and research papers on single scripts and multi-scriptal situations.
  • Standardization of Graphemic and/or Spelling Conventions.

The third set of activities could include preparation of Pictorial Glossaries. This set of activities envisages conceptualization, preparation, production and distribution of word lists/glossaries (with a standard format to be created by the Institute) of these languages in state script or community’s preferred script(s), or in multiple scripts (especially for the use of teachers whose mother tongues are not these languages). These language glossaries shall be prepared for specific regions or for specific locations. The glossaries could also be pictorial or illustrative, so that they form a bridge between the unlettered pupils, and the teachers for whom meaning concepts in these languages are not easily accessible. The languages that already have such glossaries, which may also be in circulation, can also produce specialized (or, revised/elaborated/abridged) pictorial glossaries for use in economic transactions or else related to areas such as housing, costumes, jewellery, festivals, rituals, craft, medicinal practices, law, the IPC, various developmental schemes, local history, etc. The expected output would be:

  • Books and/or edited collections on lexicographical issues,
  • Multi-lingual or multi-cultural glossaries, or collection/expansion of such glossaries for special or general purposes,
  • Web-version of such glossaries, and
  • Creation of software/databases/designs of such glossaries.

Fourthly, one could also prepare dictionaries and grammar books of these languages. Such specialized research projects will include graded grammar books for use in schools as well as general-purpose grammar books for use among linguists and scholars. Similarly, the dictionaries to be prepared under the activity will be assorted dictionaries including the following:

  • General and/or special-purpose dictionaries for language use to facilitate standardization of languages,
  • Mono-lingual dictionaries for use of the mother-tongue speakers;
  • Intra-dialect dictionaries for standardizing languages;
  • Bi-lingual dictionaries for language learners and for translation purposes,
  • School/College Grammars, including Contrastive Grammars; and
  • Full-fledged/Comprehensive Grammars or Linguistic Descriptions of the entire language or of certain components or comparative grammatical works involving two or more languages.

The fifth and next task is with respect to preparation of textbooks of primary and secondary education, where support of school-teachers, pedagogists, linguists, and scholars are needed for preparing the same language and bi-lingual school textbooks, at par with the state language textbooks for all subjects in primary schools. The activity should extend support to curricular experimentation of such books in established formal schools. The school textbooks will make optimum use of locationally relevant illustrations and concepts in explaining the contents conveyed through the books. In preparation of secondary school textbooks, priority will be given to preparation of books of scientific subjects, particularly computer literacy books. The textbooks will be expected to remain sensitive to the theological/religious practices rooted in the language, as well as the ecological and gender sensitive issues valued by the language community. The expected output would be:

  • Text-books and/or edited collections, or Supplementary Read-ings for language teaching
  • Text-books on different disciplines using the languages under question
  • Literacy Books and Materials; and
  • Practice-books and Testing materials.

Sixthly, one needs to help these threatened languages so that they could begin to use their language to bring out little magazines and periodicals. Specialized journals devoted to study of these languages or produced in these languages would also fall under such tasks. One should encourage and help or advise individual periodicals, ‘little’ magazines, occasional publications, weeklies, fortnightlies, folios, etc published in these languages by way of annual financial grants – in the pattern of GIA for Little Magazines (published in 8th Schedule languages) already operated by CIIL. Similarly, magazines of serious nature promoting the study of these languages but published in Hindi, English or other Indian languages, could also be included in this activity for support. The extent of support could vary between Rs. 10,000/- per annum to Rs. 30,000/- annually.

Training of Teachers in Schools Using these Languages

Teacher training is proposed for those school teachers who could be engaged under this project – preferably from among the community or near-by places/languages to teach in local schools or literacy centres using these languages. It is expected that this structured training – to be handled by the 13 regional outfits jointly with one or the other university would sensitize them in all aspects of teaching/learning of these languages and in comparing them with other languages as well as in work on oral literature, lexicography, translation practices, and material production in order to relate them with state language(s), English and/or Hindi, as the case may be. This will also ensure effective use of textbooks and other teaching materials produced in these languages. This part of the scheme does not pertain exclusively to training of ‘language-teachers’, though they are not excluded. The scheme will be applicable to teachers of all subjects who wish to use the local language(s). The output would be certain number of trained manpower resources for these smaller languages, and also provide them with opportunities to teach in their regions, and offer them appropriate post training support for this purpose.