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As mute as a fish: the broken links with mother tongue

“To write in an indigenous language today is far more than a political statement: it is a heroic act of survival…” Víctor Terán, an eminent Mexican poet of Isthmus Zapotec language, expresses himself in the preface to the book, “Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry”.

“Heroic because it means pain and suffering before the indolence of many of its speakers, who forget their responsibility to their mother tongue, due to their desperate struggle to earn their day’s bread; because it means to endure the disregard of governments and institutions, which promote a double discourse, on the one hand passing “progressive” laws but on the other not allotting the resources that would enable such laws.”

Zoque is an endangered language victim of the Spanish dominance in Mexico among Zoque youths; language activists are trying to keep it alive. The idea fueling this combat is more than the survival of mere words that comprise Zoque but of a spirit that each mother tongue holds.

Language is not just words or a way to communicate; language is a whole mindset that holds emotions and words have a feel of their own.


Language when spoken by a native holds a melody to it that a foreigner can feel but can rarely copy. This music of each mother tongue is the spirit of the language that shows that languages are alive but only when spoken.

Kim Hyesoon, a South Korean poet, says “The rhythm of my body is the same as my mother tongue. It is in this rhythm where I find sanctity, that I can return to my mother who is everywhere in the universe.”

According to Ethnologue, a research centre for language intelligence around 7,117 living languages are found across the globe. This number is an approximation either because linguists are constantly discovering new tongues or due to the endangered tongues.

About 40% of the languages are endangered with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Ethnologue reminds the world with a startling figure that living languages are also vanishing from the face of the world. A survey of the world languages by Ethnologue also revealed that just 23 languages are spoken by more than half the world’s population. This shocking fact is hard to digest when there is a population of approximate 7.8 billion around the globe.

Which languages are vanishing forever? How do these mother tongues die? Why just a few languages are dominating the world? These are some important questions to be sought.

Taking the case of Pakistan as a country dotted with diverse languages, with a peak of 75 languages, mostly regional and many at the verge of extinction and few already given up during the race of survival.

Dr Ahmed, a professor at the Center for Language Computing at Mohammad Ali Jinnah University, Karachi, states “two old languages – one belonging to 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-Daro (mound of the dead) civilisation and the other Domaaki, which used to be spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan – are treated as dead or extinct by the linguistic experts.”

Now as in Pakistan, most of the regional people want to learn Urdu, English and now even Chinese because either helps in business. So to get a good source of earning most of the people in urban areas to need to learn a dominant national or international language most likely English. English is also a highly regarded language in the social hierarchy of Pakistan. Elites and the middle class prefer English to win a higher social status.

Zubair Torwali, working at Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), an institute for education and development, in his article The Languages of Northern Pakistan tells that “Only a few — Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi and Seraiki — are used in media, teaching materials and any kind of national database.” This fact is predicting the eventual death of the dozens of mother tongues spread over Pakistan.

N|uu language

Pumza Fihlani, an online radio and TV correspondent at BBC News, South Africa, talks about the first language of South Africa at BBC, “Trying to save South Africa’s first language.” The author reveals that “Ms Esau is one of the last three fluent speakers of N|uu… with no other fluent speakers in the world apart from this family, the language is recognised by the UN as “critically endangered”. Esau is trying to preserve the language by teaching it at her home for the last 10 years.

N|uu language died because the region was taken over by the white people. They branded the language “ugly”. People were punished when found speaking their native mother tongue. Thus people adopted Afrikaans “which is related to the language spoken by the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 17th Century.”

Many other regional languages are facing the same fate in Africa.

Ainu in Japan

Ainu a language in Japan is also critically endangered with approximately only 10 alive speakers of the language and even their fluency is partial as reported in an article, “The disappearing languages of Asia” authored by Shirley Whiterhold, a contributor to the Asia Society’s Asia Blog.

She states “The Ainu traditionally practised animism and had no written language. The Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act of 1899 declared the Ainu to be Japanese people — banning the Ainu from speaking their language, practising their religion and partaking in Ainu cultural activities. Official figures suggest that 24,000 peoole speak Ainu live in Japan today, many of mixed ancestry, many more in denial of their roots for fear of discrimination.”

Manchu in China

The same story goes with Manchu in China. Manchus ruled China before the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

There are now millions of Manchus still living in China with adopted Han Chinese surnames to escape the killing. They mixed with other people and now rarely anyone can speak Manchu.

Kusunda in Nepal

Kusunda in Nepal is also breathing its last as one of the two elderly women speakers of it died on January 25, 2020.

So there is little hope of preserving this mother tongue of a tribe. Kusunda is an oral language without any written script. However, some local linguists are trying to preserve it.

After a struggle of five years, a Kusunda dictionary has complied.

Jarawa is fading away

Jarawa, a language of the Jarawa tribe from one of the Andaman Island, India, is dying as the native tribal people are outnumbered by the Indians who have settled on these islands. These people are facing many problems like many other indigenous peoples around the globe.

A land of over 300 languages

At one time in Australia, over 300 indigenous languages were spoken but only 90 are still alive. Because of the European settlers in Australia, the natives of Australia tribes faced great danger.

People were discouraged to speak their native tongue but people kept speaking secretly.

Pertame on the verge of extinction

Pertame, one of the indigenous languages of Australia is critically endangered as only 20 people are fluent in the language. They are trying to preserve it by teaching the children in their area.

Why do languages disappear?

These languages facing the danger of extinction because of political or cultural suppression of particular tribes or community members.

Anouschka Foltz, a lecturer of psycholinguistics at Bangor University, states that even disastrous natural calamities are also a source of dying language as tens of thousands of people die in earthquakes or tsunami.

For instance: “Researchers had just discovered the Dusner language, which had only a handful of remaining speakers, when flooding in 2010 devastated the Papua region of Indonesia, where the Dusner village is located. Luckily, some of the speakers had survived and the language could be documented.”

The areas that are often affected by natural disaster as a result of climate change usually exhibit great linguistic diversity and are home to languages with small numbers of speakers that are quite vulnerable.

The islanders in Vanuatu are facing a threat as the tectonic movements lately have caused parts of some islands to sink.

A whole coastal village had to be relocated further inland from 2002 to 2004. These climate change refugees reside in a country that has one of the highest levels of linguistic diversity in the world.

As the survival of such people is a challenge so is the survival of their regional mother tongue.

As a common belief, a language or mother tongue dies when it has no users. Its natives prefer using another dominant language and no more teach the language to their next generation.

Now the new regeneration only hears it from their parents or elders. Over time, its script is no more practised gradually lost.

This spoken version also loses its place as the natives adopt another more important language of communication.

Migration plays an important role in the disappearing of mother tongues. For example, immigrants from around the globe pour into the USA, Canada or Australia. These people tend to speak English more to fit in socially and economically in the new land.

Reyna Grande, the author of the bestselling memoir “The Distance Between Us” writes about her life as a Mexican child immigrant to the USA.

She shared her experience (in an article I lost my mother tongue – and almost my mom): “The message I received was that if I wanted to be seen and heard, I’d have to speak English. As I sat in that corner (of the classroom) day after day, invisible, the trauma of realizing that I spoke the “wrong” language weighed on me and my head swam with debilitating thoughts: I am broken. I am wrong. I am not enough…. Little by little, my Spanish was supplanted by English until I began to think and dream and write only in that language…” This even raised a rift between the children and their mother who was unable to speak English.

Human mobility is becoming easier and quicker because of the new technology. In regions were population mobility is faster there lies the possibility of the extinction of regional languages as people adopt dominate languages to communicate or trade.

The international scholarship is dominated by the English language. Scholars and learned people have to learn English to present their researches at international forums.

Students interested to study abroad have to learn or focus more on another language that would be the medium of instruction in their required institute.

Studies have highlighted migration, cultural or political suppression, natural disasters, human mobility and international scholarship as the main reasons for the loss of mother tongues.

It is likely for a regional language to be preserved when it has a written script and has some literature.

A language that is adopted as the official or institutional language has higher odds to sustain over a longer period.

Nevertheless, all the endangered languages or extinct languages are not just a loss of words but a whole spirit that is an important part of human and culture.

Once died a part of culture also dies. The cultural diversity that is a thing to be celebrated diminishes over time in a region.

George Steiner, a famous literary critic, essayist and philosopher once said the truth in simple words: “When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.”