Technology empowers linguistic heritage preservation

Poornima Jaimini
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his monthly radio address “Mann Ki Baat,” highlighted the efforts of Mohammad Manshah Khakhi, a Gojri writer from Jammu and Kashmir, in preserving the Gojri language for the past three decades. This recognition by the Prime Minister underscores the ongoing efforts to promote and preserve India’s diverse linguistic landscape. However, it doesn’t diminish the struggle of more than 38 Indian languages for constitutional recognition which is long and arduous. Recent tweets by the Ministry of Electronics and IT extols India’s very own AI innovation “Bhashini”, fostering a multilingual internet and empowering inclusive development through technology. This commitment to linguistic inclusion by actively promoting and integrating India’s linguistic diversity, empowers individuals by bridging the decades long digital divide across the nation. Bhashini is an AI powered language translation system facilitating speakers to speak in their native language while talking to speakers of the other Indian languages. The tool uses AI for real time translation in all 22 languages recognised in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution, enabling internet and digital services accessibility by incorporating access and content generation in these languages. While Bhashini and many such initiatives hold promise in bridging the digital divide, the reality is more nuanced. It’s crucial to acknowledge the persistent struggle of many languages spoken by large populations within India. These languages, despite their cultural significance and substantial user base, still lack official recognition and adequate resources for digital inclusion.
According to W3Techs, estimated percentages of the top 10 million websites on the World Wide Web using various content languages as of 22 February 2024 English 51.2% followed by Spanish, Russian and German. So where does that leave speakers of other languages?
Hindi, the 4th most extensively used language, has approximately 420 million speakers, across the world as reported in 2023. Yet Hindi will only find 0.1% of internet content served to them in their own language. This doesn’t end here, 12%-30% of Indians speak English and India considers this foreign language an emblem of education and success. As India rapidly shifts towards lingual uniformity, UNESCO lists 197 of its languages as endangered. Of these, 81 are vulnerable, 63 are definitely endangered, six are severely endangered, 42 are critically endangered, and five are already extinct.
This alarming statistic serves as a stark reminder of the looming threat to our own beloved regional and native languages, potentially joining this endangered list. The Prime Minister’s mention of Gojri preservation efforts is a reminder for us to act before it’s too late. Millions across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan speak Gojri with the majority primarily concentrated in Jammu and Kashmir, India with approximately 20 million native speakers.Research states that 95% of the Gujjar and Bakerwal community in Jammu and Kashmir were unaware about the writing form of their mother tongue language. While the standardised “Nastaliq script” dominates writing in Gojri within Jammu and Kashmir, efforts are underway to promote alternative writing systems for wider accessibility.
The National Academy of Letters, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi has also recognized Gojri as one of the major Indian Languages for its prestigious National Award that is Bhasha Samman and other programmes. The Jammu and Kashmir government also recommended inclusion of Gojri in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Despite fulfilling all the criteria laid down by the Home Ministry of India, inclusion in 8th schedule is an elusive goal. It is the time when we stop relying solely on the government and administration to preserve our languages. While their support is crucial, the onus of language preservation lies in each of us who values the linguistic heritage. We all have a part to play, as for inclusivity among the initiatives of preservation, the value heritage must be recognised. It’s the languages that carry inside them: the poetry, literature, jokes, proverbs, and turns of phrase. The oral histories, the local and environmental knowledge, the wisdom, and the lifeways. Only a fraction of this ever can or will be translated into other languages. Scientific research clearly states that there is no substitute for mother-tongue education, and that language maintenance is an integral component of physical and mental well-being-perhaps especially so for long-marginalised Indigenous and minority peoples. Languages are not ‘dying natural deaths’ but being hounded out of existence.
In this age of innovation, technology empowers us for language revival. Digitally archiving existing texts, audio recordings, and video materials safeguards them against deterioration and makes them accessible to a wider audience. The world teeming with creators and developing user-friendly mobile applications and online platforms can make language learning engaging for people of all ages, especially younger generations. Beyond the advancements in AI and machine translation hold potential to bridge communication gaps, the social media fosters online communities, encouraging language use and cultural exchange by content creation and consumption. It is the time when we as natives are not just speakers and scholars of the language, we are the activists, and the revolution begins within ourselves by embracing our heritage. We are the custodians of our cultural and linguistic heritage and it’s our responsibility to ensure that these enduring voices continue to resonate for generations to come.
(The author is from IIMC, Jammu)