‘Language Box’ to save endangered tribal tongues of Tamil Nadu

Tribal students can pick up words from their language, write it on a paper in English or Tamil, and drop it in the 'language box'.

Published: 12th August 2022 05:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th August 2022 09:35 AM   |  A+A-


Students can pick up words from their language, write it on a paper in English or Tamil, and drop it in the box. (Photo | EPS)

Express News Service

COIMBATORE: In an effort to preserve endangered tribal languages that do not have a written form, a ‘language box’ has been installed at a tribal residential school at Semmanarai village near Kotagiri in the Nilgiris district. Tribal students can pick up words from their language, write it on a paper in English or Tamil, and drop it in the box. 35 Irula and Kurumba tribal students are studying in the school.

“Though most tribal languages do not have a written form, they have a great oral tradition. This initiative is aimed at inculcating a sense of pride among students about their language. We hope it will help improve pronunciation and interest in their native tongue. We plan to take this initiative to all tribal schools in the region,” said Odiyen Lakshmanan, a writer and collector of Irula songs who has been spearheading a ‘Reading and Language Retrieval Movement’ for tribal children for the past few years.

“The box is like a piggy bank, but it collects words of native language which is more valuable than money. Once in six months, the box will be opened and students who contributed to it will be honoured. We plan to bring a book by compiling these words,” Lakshmanan said. 

According to N Thirumurthy, a researcher of tribal languages, the Nilgiris is home to eight primitive tribal groups Toda, Kota, Irula, Aalu Kurumba, Betta Kurumba, Mullu Kuruba, Paniya, and Kattunayakkars. 

‘Many tribal kids don’t speak native language now’

“Each tribal group has a distinct language. They have stories, history, songs and proverbs that are unique, and elements of culture and tradition that can be expressed only in their language. Migration, lack of recognition for indigenous languages, dwindling population, and socio-economic factors are pushing these languages to extinction. We are not discouraging tribals kids from learning other languages, but we are only encouraging them to learn their native languages to preserve them,” Thirumurthy said.

Lakshmanan said students have forgotten several words in their native tongue. “For example, Irulas call father as ‘amme’, mother as ‘howve’, kokadathai (in-law), veeman (youth), dog (green leaves), and kangu (tubers). But most of the kids do not use these words anymore. They can learn such words from elders. Once they start learning, they will not forget them and these words can be preserved for posterity. We hope this initiative will make them involve themselves in protecting their language and unearth new words that had disappeared,” Lakshmanan said.

The ‘Reading and Language Retrieval Movement’ has been recording folktales in the voice of the children and broadcasting them on American Tamil Radio for the last two years and several children have become storytellers in their native language.


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