Tuesday, 12 October 2010
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Endangered tongues
October 8, 2010

With more than 40 Nepali languages facing extinction, more needs to be done to preserve the dying indigenous languages.


More than 11 Nepali languages have already died, 19 are almost extinct, and 23 are endangered. Despite efforts by the United Nations to preserve and revitalise languages, the rate of language extinction, especially in developing countries, remains alarming.

There needs to be two front efforts to preserve dying languages in developing countries. The first should be focused on the preservation of languages, and the other on revitalisation – the first is to prevent languages from becoming extinct, and the second tries to reverse language decline by promoting its use.


If indeed the current trend continues, 90 per cent of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of this century.

If indeed the current trend continues, 90 per cent of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of this century.


The United Nations’ Declaration of Language Rights recommends that besides government policies, the survival of languages also requires support from linguistic communities and intergovernmental agencies. In Nepal, for example, indigenous languages are recognised, and some indigenous languages have already been represented in media in an effort to revitalise them. In fact, Radio Nepal has been broadcasting the news in some major ethnic languages for over a decade.

Still, many Nepali languages have gone extinct, while some historically marginalised languages like Nepal Bhasa and Limbu have thrived. The Newars have preserved and revitalised Nepal Bhasa by establishing primary schools where Newari is the language of instruction, and promoting Newari literature. Furthermore, internet portals have promoted the language by acting as an information hub for Newah culture and another website (currently under construction) aims to serve as a Nepal Bhasa dictionary. Similar efforts have been effective in the preservation and revitalisation of the Limbu language. Progress made by these linguistic communities indicates that the will of the indigenous peoples is fundamental in order to save their languages.

With cohesive efforts from the governments, indigenous speakers, intergovernmental agencies, and the continuous works of linguists and anthropologists, preservation efforts should continue by recording languages and preparing glossaries.

Kusunda grammar is a good example of preservation efforts that have demonstrated that even near-extinct languages can be saved. Kusunda is a language that is on the verge of disappearance with only a handful of speakers. By conducting intensive research in 2004, the late linguist David Watters, with the support of NEFIN, was able to record the language and prepare a Kusunda grammatical description. Similar preservation efforts are ongoing with the Dura language.

The popularity of English medium private schools has also discouraged language preservation.

One of the major causes in the increasing rate of language death is probably due to many indigenous people having false assumptions that disregarding their mother tongue for commonly spoken languages such as Nepali or international languages such as English is the only way to become successful. The popularity of English medium private schools has also discouraged language preservation. While it is important to speak a common language, it is as important for students to be fluent in their respective mother tongues.

A multi-pronged approach that includes collaborations between linguists, anthropologists, students and teachers is needed to develop education policies to educate indigenous children, and help these children bridge the gap between linguistic and indigenous communities. If the indigenous youth are multilingual in at least Nepali, English and their respective mother tongues, they can can more about their traditions while revitalising a dying language, and assist researchers and linguists in preservation efforts.

Thus, more outreach programs are needed so that indigenous speakers are able to participate in educational programs, assist in research projects, and get actively involved in formulating policies to revitalise their own languages. It is possible for Nepalis to obtain financial help to pursue higher education in linguistics. A list of over a dozen international funding sources to support language studies is available at https://linguistlist.org/sp/Funding.html.

It is commendable that Nepal has already made much progress in preserving languages; however, the depletion rate of the Nepali linguistic diversity remains alarming. It is evident that in the context of Nepal, only following the United Nation’s Declaration of Language Rights is not enough to preserve dying languages. Implementing grassroots projects may educate the indigenous communities about the importance of their languages, a digitised medium of language preservation may excite the youth and collectively these efforts may not only preserve languages but even revitalise them. Successful policies to preserve Nepali languages can not only save our languages, these policies can serve as models for preserving other endangered languages of the world.


This post was originally published on V.E.N.T. Magazine in June 2010.


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