Problems of Unrecognized Speech Forms in India


Aspects of  Language Study


I am using the expression language study in the widest sense possible, so as to include not only the study of this or that language for achieving a practical command of it but also the theoretical study of language under linguistics, psychology, and sociology. It should be obvious that all these different aspects of language study have a part to play.


            We are also assuming that the so-called ‘tribal’ or ‘Adivasi’ or ‘preliterate’ peoples of India, in spite of their racial, linguistic, cultural and ecological variety and wide geographical spread, do constitute a well-defined segment of the Indian population. The three terms suggest different ways of drawing the line around them—the first indicates their position outside the communal framework, the second represents a historical claim, and the third marks them off from the illiterate. They are not literate in their mother tongues simply because these tongues have never been written at least until recently. (They may of course be literate in some other language—like the regional language or even English).


We” and “They


            Now in what way are the Tribals a “problem”? Or is it simply that “we”—the non-tribals—are presuming too much? The very posing of this question hints at the answer. It is not as if “they” are a burden on “us” or “we” to take in “both” in spite of the fact that tribals and non- tribals alike are in the same historical, geographical, economic, and political boat. It is the creation of a more meaningful “we” that is a problem. Their problems should become ours and, yes, the other way round too. Does this sound, “romantic nonsense”? No, this is hard commonsense. The happenings in the various tribal areas in the last few years have brought it home to us. For the purposes of this paper, I shall simply assume that integration based on reciprocity is a desirable and desired goal; that is, we are not envisaging for the tribals either wild life preservation or conservation into eminently exploitable, unskilled labour.


            Now, why would any one take the trouble to learn a language to which he has not been exposed in early childhood? Learning a language (or even more than one language) in early childhood is no problem; a child cannot help doing so. Learning a language is of course not the same as becoming literate in a language; though the latter presupposes the former and can indeed be taken to be extension of the former. (This point is important and we shall have occasion to return to it later).

Mother –tongue


            A different though related question is: why does any language group maintain a language it has learned? Why does a group maintain its mother tongue, rather than let it be displaced by some other adoptive tongue? Again, why would a group take the trouble of adopting bilingualism as a way of life?


            The cost of learning a new language and the cost of maintaining a mother tongue or an adoptive language are both justified by the services to the individual and the community performed by the languages concerned.


Three Main Functions of Language


            Language (whether we choose to spell it with a capital or not) fulfils certain functions in human life. These functions may be grouped into three headings:


i)                    utilitarian

ii)                  sociative

iii)                 spiritual





First, language helps its user to gain a better control of its non-human environment. A tribal walking through a forest feels more at home with its flora and fauna: the plants have their names and categorizations—poisonous, edible, medicinal and so forth; and so have the animals, birds, insects, fish. The forest is not merely a riot of colours, sounds, smells, feels. The fact that the tribal language vocabulary is likely to be far richer than the mere townsman’s is only a symptom of a general principle—namely, that language crystallizes this ‘at-home’-ness in the specific environment. The environment includes the human environment, too—indeed, language has grammatical devices like questions, imperatives, and optatives and lexical devices like terms of endearment and insult specially designed for the effective designed for the effective manipulation of this social environment. But man’s relations to his fellow-beings are not all exploitative or manipulative. (After all, this is precisely the reason we are worried about the tribals!).




This leads us naturally to the next, sociative function of language. If you have ever been surrounded by people, with whom you don’t share a language, you may notice that people often take pleasure in talking to you even when they are fully aware that they are not being understood. The simple greeting to a passing neighbour or the endless babble-game indulged in by a mother and the infant are other charming manifestations of the same principle. More seriously, language holds a community together across generations, across social and geographical barriers. Language is the most important vehicle for the transmission and maintenance of a group’s culture. People who interact more, share more things, and the other way round.




You may find yourself a little intrigued by my third heading—“spiritual”, a term which is as much at a discount in some circles as is at a premium in others. I hope to have steered clear of both these usages of the term, by the spiritual function of language I mean nothing more than the use of language as it were for its own sake and not as a means to an end, whether utilitarian or sociative. Man—even child—has the capacity to enjoy language, to play with it, to become engrossed in it. Simple word games, poems, riddles, philosophical puzzles are varied manifestations of this aspects of language. People who, in the interests of some utopia, lightly speak of stamping out sight of the spiritual function altogether and grasp the sociative function in a one-sided manner. Being wrenched from one’s language, can be as much a threat to an individual as it can be to a community.


A Western parallel


Some of the points touched on above are vividly illustrated in the U.S. National Education Associations report on the Spanish- speaking Americans of Mexican descent (summary quoted from New-york Times, 8 Aug, 1966).


            “The child of Mexican descent knows some English, but has used it infrequently. The language of his home, his childhood, his first years is Spanish. His environment, his experiences, his very personality have been shaped by it. And yet in some schools the speaking of Spanish is forbidden, both in the classroom and on the playground, and not infrequently students have been punished for lapsing into Spanish even with corporal punishment. In addition, the Mexican-American child encounters a strange and different set of culture-patterns, an accelerated tempo of living and more often than not, teachers who, though sympathetic and sincere, have little understanding of the Spanish-speaking people, their customs, beliefs, and sensitivities. The end result discloses a grim prevalence of low grades and high rates of dropping out from school. The National Education Association, who made a year’s study of this state of affairs recommend bilingual instruction in pre-school programmes and early grades, the explicit teaching of standard English as a second language instead of leaving the children to fend for themselves, the employment of Spanish-knowing teachers or teachers’ helpers, making the teachers aware of the bilingual situation when training them, and (where the child speaks non-standard forms of Spanish) emphasis on good Spanish no less than good English”.


            While this account shows the results of unplanned assimilation the dangers of isolation are equally clear. If we are to strike a middle path of integration based on reciprocity, special attention has to be devoted to language in relation to education. In so doing, a consideration of the three functions of language and the way the tribal, the regional, and the union languages fulfill these, can serve as a guide-line.



            A proposal that emerges from such a consideration can be outlined as follows: We plan (a) to make the tribals literate in their own language (b) to use it as medium or a co-medium in the initial stages; and finally (c) to teach the contact language and to make them literate in that language. It is obvious that the preparation of suitable teaching material and preparation of suitable teaching material and the training of teachers will be an important requirement. The study of the tribal language by non-tribals (of “their” language by “us”) should also be encouraged especially among social workers, teachers, welfare officials, even administrators.


            It is at this point that the language specialist especially the student of linguistics—enters the picture to play his behind- the- scene- role of advisor, analyst, spade-worker. The tasks he can take over wholly or in part are:


            (a)             a reliable linguistic survey

            (b)            careful scientific descriptions of the phonology, grammar, and vocabulary of the tribal languages

            (c)        re-education of teachers, administrators social workers, and the general public with respect to their attitudes toward tribal languages and the linguistic prospects before the tribals

            (d)             Preparation of literacy primers in tribal languages preceded by the designing of orthographies for them

            (e)            Preparation of courses for teaching tribal languages as second language

            (f)            Preparation of simple teaching materials in other subjects for the monolingual and bilingual stages, i.e. preliminary and transitional stages.


            Some work has already been started in the Tribal Language Division of the Central Institute of Indian Languages. A link could be established between this work, the work being done at the universities, and the work being done at the State level through the Tribal Welfare departments and the Tribal Research Institutes and…. Through bodies like the Girijan Cooperative Corporation.


Rapport-first priority


            If reciprocity and winning over the tribals, rather than treating them like children, is going to be our goal, establishment of rapport and communication and overcoming of mutual distrust arising as a legacy of previous errors has the first priority. What better earnest can we offer to them learning to talk to them in their language?




            This was in Vivekananda Kendra Patrikā 1:2 Hill India number, p.113-6, August 1972 (Chennai). It was originally presented as a lecture at pune. August 1971. A lecture in Marathi was delivered in June, August 1971, and appeared in Samāj- Prabodhan-patrikā, no 45, May-June 1972.