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How to revitalise a dying language?

Why is it so essential to preserving a language?

Of all the species on this earth, only humans have mastered cognitive language communication. Apart from being a medium of communication, language is also a powerful tool for expressing one’s culture and identity.

Language gives us a sense of identity and belonging. They are also part of a shared inheritance and serve as a medium of group solidarity. Learning in one’s mother tongue helps in improving learning potential. The more language, the more cultural diversity there is.

There are seven thousand living languages in the world out of which three thousand languages are considered to be endangered. An endangered language is a language that is at risk of extinction as its speakers die out or shift speaking to other languages. As per UNESCO, India tops the list of countries where languages facing the threat of extinction are the most among all countries. Since 1961, India has lost 220 languages. If necessary steps aren’t taken by the stakeholders the trend is likely to go upward.

To safeguard the interests of various cultural groups and keep the languages alive, UNESCO has declared the period 2022 to 2023 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. It aims to draw the world’s attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve and revitalise them and mobilise stakeholders for immediate safeguarding actions.

Kokborok Language

In this regard let us bring your attention to an indigenous language that is spoken by the majority of the Tribal groups in Tripura - “Kokborok”. There are 19 tribal groups in Tripura, out of which 8 tribal groups speak the Kokborok language. Kokborok belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language group of the Bodo-Garo branch. It is also spoken by the Tripuri people residing in the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. Although Kokborok is still not considered an endangered language, it is classified as a Vulnerable language. As per UNESCO, a vulnerable language is one whereby most children speak the language but it may be restricted to specific domains (e.g. home). The vulnerable languages are less likely to go extinct but if necessary steps aren’t taken to preserve and promote them, they might become endangered in the coming years.

Kokborok is the second most spoken language in the state of Tripura only after Bengali. Although the majority of the tribals in Tripura speak Kokborok, it was only in 1979 that it was recognised as the official language of the state. To commemorate this achievement, 19th January is celebrated as Kokborok Day every year. Later in 1981, the language was introduced as a medium of instruction at the primary level in government schools. It is only in recent years that it has been included at college and master's degree levels as a subject.

The script used for writing the language is the Bengali script as Bengali used to be the only official language of the state from the start of the 15th century until the merger of Tripura with the Indian Union. It is believed that the Kokborok had its script called ‘Koloma’. However, the script fell out of use after the 14th century and is considered lost. Nowadays there has been a rising demand of replacing the Bengali script with a Roman script by various organisations and also among students.

Other government initiatives taken to promote the language include the establishment of the Tribal Research and Cultural Institute under the Tribal Welfare Department of Tripura in the year 1970. The institute deals with research works related to the socio-economic and preservation of the tribal heritage. Another such step is the establishment of the Directorate of Kokborok and Minority Languages on 14th August 2012. Another important institution is the setting up of the language wing of the education department of the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Council (TTAADC).

Kokborok Sahitya Sabha celebrating its golden jubilee

All these achievements in the field of promotion of this language wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of language advocate groups and notable writers of the language who took an active part in its rise and revival. The most notable organisations are the “Kokborok Sahitya Sabha” and the “Kokborok tei Hukumu Mission”. Some notable writers of the language are Radhamohan Thakur who first wrote the grammar book of Tripura called “Kok-Borokma” (1900), Sudhawan Debbarma who is the first editor of a Kokborok magazine called “Kwtal-Kothoma” (1954).

By giving the language official status, the government has formally recognised the language. Introducing the language into school and college curricula has taken a positive step further but we still need to incorporate it into our daily lives as well. Promoting the language needs the language to be taken and spoken outside the closed walls of their homes and classrooms and bringing it into the public sphere.

This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

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