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21st Century Challenges to Adivasi/Tribal Languages

The following article bagged the first prize at the Adivasi Awaaz Summit 2022.


“I am a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act and how we act then determines our lives and other people’s lives” –Ntozake Shange


The base of communication is language and language is the source of life, traditions, culture. There are more than 1000 tribal languages across India among which some are dead while some are endangered. The globalized world has a demand for a single language through which they can connect to each other. From schools to job sectors, everywhere English has become a global language. It’s highly ironic that most tribal youth have a strong command over English and Hindi languages, but unfortunately not over their mother tongues. They have lost their roots, because language is the link to one’s roots and culture. Considering the immense importance of languages, the NEP 2020 proposed to promote Indian languages, culture and traditions, through changes and improvement in the educational system. However, nothing concrete is visible on the ground.


Moreover , there are many tribal languages and introducing one language implies discriminating against other spoken languages. For instance, if we take the case of Jharkhand , there are tribals speaking Munda, Ho, Kharia, Santhali, Kudukh and many more. What is a tribal person supposed to do in such cases? Language acquisition begins at our homes. In the modern 21st century, tribals don’t encourage their children to learn their mother tongue. Generally speaking, the youth as well, are not aware of the importance of their culture, traditions and languages. Discriminations against the culture, language, traditions and way of living of the Adivasis /tribals have led to self disregard and embarrassment for the tribals, in every aspect of their lives, including their languages. Acceptance of their own language and culture should be encouraged. The value and importance of tribal languages in the lives of the tribals should be emphasised. Parents should stop telling their children to ‘talk in English’ and start using their mother tongues.

Alex Ekka in his book "Status of Adivasi /Indigenous Peoples Land Series 4 Jharkhand " introduced a term called "interior colonialism " for the non-tribals who were occupying tribal lands like the colonizers of the past. Similarly, in the texts written by African writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong ( "The Language of African Literature "), one can find how the colonizers used language as a medium of colonization by treating their languages as inferior and savage. Subjugation of tribal languages and alienating it as something different and not normal, is one of the reasons why tribals are moving away from their roots and languages. The mainstream still depicts tribals/Adivasis and their languages as wild. I remember how an individual called our dance and music "jungli" when I decided to do that dance in one of the functions held in my college. Questions and bullying comments like " what is the origin of this dance and languages? ", “from where have they come?”depicts how tribal culture is seen as something weird and alien, in the eyes of mainstream.


Hemant Soren, the chief minister of Jharkhand, proposed to make indigenous languages compulsory in all government exams. A recent article showed that Satya Bharati, Ranchi [Jharkhand] has started classes for tribal languages. However, it should be noted that these classes are attended more by non-tribal students/ persons than tribals. This is so because the tribal youth have been denied exposure to their own culture, language and tradition.


Hence, the tribal youth should be guided and mentored to uncover their heritage, roots and languages; thereby they can also critically analyse these aspects of their history and decide for themselves about the advantages and disadvantages of their culture, traditions and languages. The idea of being alien and inferior, in terms of language and culture, should not be superimposed by the mainstream. Writing academic and non-academic books, articles, etc, is the first step towards this. Introducing the tribals and the mainstream with these works comes next. Conducting seminars and conferences can be another way of bridging the gap between the identity and language of the tribals.

Discrimination often leads to inferiority complex amongst the tribals, especially the youth. Since decades, tribals have been discriminated against. Hence, for generations we have lived with inferiority complexes. This often results in tribals leaving their roots and trying to fit into the mainstream, by indulging in the cultural practices of the mainstream, including leaving their own languages for dominant languages like Hindi and English. Thereby they leave their own identities. Therefore, tribal youth who have knowledge in areas like tribal studies, law, forums, groups, activists, different tribal languages, and studies on marginalized communities can educate the teenagers and tribal youth about the importance of language and identities.


“If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowering.” – Ngugi wa Thiong.


About the author:- Alisha Horo has obtained her Bachelor’s degree from Jamshedpur Women’s College and Master’s degree from Jyoti Nivas College in Bangalore. She belongs to Munda Adivasi community from Jharkhand and has also presented a paper at a National Level Seminar on ECONARRATIVES 2019. After being exposed to tribal studies, Alisha realised how important her Adivasi identity is. Through writing, she attempts to connect with and learn about her language and culture.

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