Preserve languages to preserve culture


By Harshmeet Singh

Over the past few years, a number of people have raised concerns regarding our ‘eroding’ cultural values without giving a thought to the probable causes behind it. And the few who tried to examine the reasons chose to blame the changing lifestyle for such amendments in our culture. But interestingly, we haven’t given much thought to the close connection between language and culture.

Language is much more than just a medium of communication. It enables us to leave behind thoughts, ideas and attitudes for the generations to come. Memories are based on languages. Different words are associated with different experiences. Our memories of certain events in our lives are based on the very words used during those events. The way we interact with each other, the words we use to express our feelings and gratitude are an essential component of our culture. It is beyond doubt that language forms the basis of any culture. With indigenous languages fast getting eroded in the country and English subsuming them all, the fundamental change in our culture shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

For instance, in our culture, people are addressed and treated differently based on their age and stature, which is not usually the case in Europe and the USA. Hence, while Indian languages offer different words to address people of different age groups, English doesn’t offer such variations.

The western culture puts emphasis on the individuals hence the most widely used words are I and You. In US, for example, ‘you’ is appropriately used to address anyone from the highest of authorities including the President to the kids. In comparison, Indian languages offer a number of other variations which highlight our values of inclusion and accommodation.

It is said that it is impossible to learn Japanese without learning about their culture. Japanese pay a lot of attention to the status and rank of the person while addressing him or her, unlike in Europe or the USA.

We often fail to acknowledge the fact that there are a number of words in our indigenous languages which can’t be perfectly translated to other languages. When the languages erode, they take such words with them, and hence a part of culture dies with the death of every language.

With changing times, new languages evolve while giving a miss to the older ones. Most of us term it as an ‘evolution’ and try to downplay its negative implications. Unless we put an end to this practice and start preserving our languages, we can’t expect our cultural values to stay strong.