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IGNCA’s ‘language atlas’ to shine a light on India’s linguistic diversity

February 25, 2024 03:08 am | Updated February 26, 2024 12:16 am IST - New Delhi

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, an autonomous body under the Union Culture Ministry, proposes to conduct a linguistic survey across the country to create a ‘Language Atlas’ of India

The IGNCA is an autonomous body under the Union Culture Ministry. Photo: ignca.gov.in/about-ignca

As India makes efforts towards imparting education in the mother tongue, specially at the primary level, a crucial question remains on the actual number of languages that can be considered to be “active” in the country. A proposed linguistic survey across the country by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), which aims to enumerate how many languages are spoken and in which States and regions, can provide the answer.

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The IGNCA is an autonomous body under the Union Culture Ministry.

India recognises 22 languages officially, which are part of Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution. According to Census data, 97 % of the Indian population speaks one of these languages. There are an additional 99 non-scheduled languages included in the Census, and according to the 2011 Census, around 37.8 million people identify one of these non-Scheduled languages as their mother tongue.

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The native language of 1.2 million people remains unaccounted for due to the decision to not include languages with less than 10,000 speakers in the Census since 1971. Many of these languages not recorded in the official Census records are spoken by tribal communities.

Thus, of all the Census surveys, the official Census of 1961 was the most exhaustive and detailed with respect to linguistic data. In this Census, even languages with a single speaker were included in the records.

In the book Tribal and Indigenous Languages of India by language documentation expert Prof. Ramesh C. Gaur, published by IGNCA and UNESCO, the 1961 Census of India recorded 1,554 languages spoken in India.

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“There is an urgent need to carry out a comprehensive linguistic survey in order to create the Language Atlas of India,” Prof. Gaur, Director and Head of the IGNCA’s Kala Nidhi Division and Member of the UNCESCO Global Taskforce on Indigenous Languages, told The Hindu.

“After this, the next Census can put a number to the number of people who speak each language or consider them as their mother tongues, just like the 1961 Census,” he added.

Experts say it can be a database for future policy decisions.

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According to the Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared by the IGNCA, the stakeholders in the survey would be the Ministries of Culture, Education, Tribal Affairs, Home, Social Justice and Empowerment, and Development of North East Region, apart from various languages communities.

IGNCA has identified the Central Institute of Indian Languages, the National Museum, Centres for Endangered Languages, and the Linguistic Departments of various universities as potential partners and collaborators in carrying out the survey.

The survey would focus on the number of languages and dialects in India, would try to know how many languages are spoken in India, and how many scripts and dialects there are.

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“We would also have the number of languages and dialects which are extinct or on the verge of extinction,” Prof. Gaur said.

The survey has to be carried out in phases. The DPR proposes that firstly, there should be State-wise data collection, and then region-wise. It also proposes to digitally archive the audio recordings of all the languages spoken.

“A language is not only a means of communication, but is essential for preserving local wisdom, knowledge, stories and culture. Many janjatis (tribal communities), for example, have their own localised medicinal plants and herbs, which they pass on to younger generations in their local language,” Prof. Gaur said.

The first and most exhaustive Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) was carried out by Sir George Abraham Grierson and published in 1928. The Indian map was redrawn after Independence, and therefore, the LSI includes languages and dialects that may not be a part of contemporary Indian States.

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