‘We cannot afford to be without this heart’

Language of a place is a repository of its history and the primary index or symbol of identity and to make sense of a community’s identity, we need to look at its language, SUHAIL AHMAD writes

One of my distant relatives calls her two grandchildren deaf and dumb sometimes. They are not physically impaired so what makes the elderly lady say such a thing about the perfectly normal kids? Out of curiosity, I asked her and she expressed her disappointment for not being able to communicate with the kids. She can only speak and understand Kashmiri and since the children in question don’t know their native language, so for her they lack the sense of hearing and ability to speak. Calling her dearest grandchildren ‘deaf and dumb’ stems out of the deep love which she cannot share in the only language she knows.

The two kids were raised in Kashmir, but their parents chose not to teach them Kashmiri. There are many such 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 do not bother if their wards cannot utter a Kashmiri word. 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.

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 cannot call it a ‘living language’ either.

Death of languages is a reality across the world and we cannot afford to take the fate of Kashmiri language forgranted. 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. David Crystal, a leading commentator on language issues, has written a book on the subject ‘Language Death’. The book is aptly titled and provides 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 the 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.  I am reminded of a Welsh proverb: “A nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” We cannot afford to be without this heart.

suhaillife@gmail.com

 

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