Language Loss and Maintenance within the Hmar tribe

 By: Thelma Ramthienghlim

(Date:  13 April 2015)

The Hmar tribe comes under one of the sub tribes of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group belonging to the Tibeto – Burmans linguistic family in North East India. They concentrate and mostly settled in states like Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam. In the light of this short background of the Hmars situated in various states of North East India, I have planned to look at the basic reason of language loss and how various policies of language maintenance are being carried out within the Hmar tribe. And I will emphasized two states namely Mizoram (Land of the Mizo people) and Manipur that constitute a chunk of Hmar population and the largest confinement of the Hmar tribe in north-east India .In Mizoram ,the total population of the Hmar was 18,155 according to 2001 census. However, there are controversial issues regarding the census of 2001 in Mizoram because it overlooks the Hmars who do not speak the Hmar language. Next, in the hills of Manipur, 42,933 was the total population pertaining to the census data of 2001. They are recognized as schedule tribe under the 6th scheduled of the constitution of India.

‘’It is now very important to realize that language disappears not only because it is dominated by another but the speakers themselves decide to abandon it and do not pass it on to their children.’’ says N. Pramodini.

Language loss in Mizoram:

 There are around 30 Hmar villages approximately in Mizoram and they were all unified under the name of Sinlung Hills Development Council. Around the Hmar settlement, the most common way in which language death occurs is lack of transmission of an original language from parents to children and the collective choice to abandon their own language in favor of the one they perceived as prestigious language. The Hmar people in Mizoram used Lushai language(dominant tribal language in Mizoram) in the domain of home, the most favorable and pivotal space for acquiring language for the children. And all personal use like prayers, entertainments and filial interactions between its members are mostly in Lushai language rather than their own local dialect. Most parents have decided to bring up their children in Lushai language and the Hmar language is not being taught to the children. Therefore, the Hmar language is no longer transmitted and can’t pass on to the next generation. In other words, the parents of the younger generations are responsible for this because they have failed to fulfill moral obligations to pass the language rights on to the next children of future generation.

A language is believed to have continuity of maintenance if it is acquired at least at the same level of competence by the successive generation to perform the personal and familial function. Hence, language loss occurs within the Hmar tribe in Mizoram. To substantiate my argument, let me cite examples from one of the Hmar villages in Mizoram-Phuoibuong, which has 400 to 500 houses approximately. People interact and communicate in Lushai dialect in the domain of their home as well as in the public realm or the community .The Duhlian language is used for transmission of values to the successive generations or use in the community for communication between its members for solidarity and expression of collective identity. Thus, under such circumstances, the Hmar language have no space for survival except utterly become endangered within its own people. The present generation ranging from 50 and below has already rejected the Hmar language although they are quite aware of the fact that they belong to the Hmar tribe. The age trends in Phuoibuong manifested the extent to which language transmission between generations has been done. Many Hmar people have already lose their languages over four or five generation in Mizoram The Hmar community in Phuoibuong, falls under Michael Kraws terms Moribund-not effectively pass on to the next generations.

The Hmar language is no longer being learned as a mother tongue by the children. They have no platform to acquire and develop their own mother tongue; therefore it lacks intergenerational transmission within the Hmar communities. A species unable to reproduce itself is the key factor of language death and loss. The Hmar tribe is the quintessential example of a species that induce language death and loss because it is unable to reproduce itself. The need to alert and aware the community to preserve, renew, give impetus and the importance of using one`s own mother tongue by the Intellectual elites of the minorities is the need of the hour in the present state of the Hmars in Mizoram. As John Roberts says that “language do not have an allotted life, but it is a life granted by society and culture’ ’Language loss in Mizoram takes place independent of external pressure within the domain of Home The Hmars in Mizoram have a great admiration and prestige they have over the state supported language-Lushai language. And consequently reject the traditional local language and decided not to pass on to their children. The fortunes of languages are bound up with those of its users, so, the Hmar language disappear because the users have abandoned it and used the language of their choice. Why do they choose to use the lushai language in the functional domain of home and community?

 It`s because of their negative attitude towards their own local language. In a multi-lingual state like Mizoram, the minority groups attitude towards their language further aggravate the problem  of minorities in preserving their linguistic identities. In the absence of promotion of their language in various domains like in the domain of education and mass media, the speakers of the lesser known language like the Hmars assimilated with the dominant language restricting the mother tongue for the linkage with the past and the older generations. The younger generations in such circumstances are often swayed away by the language of their peer group. Thus, a feeling of out datedness stems from one`s used of one`s own mother tongue and doesn’t fit in the present need of the society culturally, politically and socially. As a matter of fact, the minorities’ language speakers like Hmar people volitionally and conventionally identify oneself with the language of the majority group. Quoting J.D. Sinate“ the dominant language is associated with status, prestige, and social success and it is used in the ‘glamour’ contexts in the wider society for speeches on ceremonial occasions, by news readers on television and radio, and by those whom young people admire–pop stars, fashion models and disc jockeys’’. Therefore, the young ones have no strong motivational force to learn their own mother tongue. As the years goes by, with fewer and fewer users of the Hmar language among the younger generation .The trend of getting language loss is incredibly rising and therefore there is no more possibility of intergenerational language continuity which is sucessful only if assisted by Fishmen` reversing language shift’. Thus, both the private and public space in Mizoram, in the context of the Hmar tribe gives space to the dominant language to thrive and flourished.

The lack of policy and support from the government:

Languages are increasingly described as valuable resources to be protected, promoted and developed by the government. Some of the aboriginal languages of the people in Mizoram are already death while some are on the point of extinction.

 The government of the state of Mizoram remained ignorant and turns a blind eye on the extinction of other aboriginal Language varieties. Since its main interest lies with the promotion of only the lushai dialect and wipe out the other language varieties. In a multi-lingual state like Mizoram,the main intention lies on the marginalization and discrimination of other language varieties other than the state supported language. As L Keivom has pointed out in his article ` `the tenacity with which its speakers(lushai dialect) jealously hold it close to their chests from being challenged or harmed by other dialects even at the cost of appearing insular, intolerant, selfish and unaccommodating’’. This scenario is still in full display in Mizoram which perhaps explains the uneasiness and nervousness with which the Lusei speakers look at other aboriginal dialect speakers in Mizoram. Mizoram government is not willing to organized language awareness policy and program for safeguarding and preserving the ethnic language of the Hmar tribe, therefore there has been an ongoing conflict going on between the Hmar People`s Convention-Democratic and the state government due to the injustice and marginalization from the government of Mizoram. As mention by the Chairman of SHDC “the non-implementation of Mizoram-HPC Accord of 1994 which include the introduction of Hmar subject at the primary school level in the development council area’’ is not surprising. The strategy of the Hmar leaders failed and was not implemented by government of Mizoram so as to hamper and obstruct the development of the Hmar language. Without the government planning program and policy, a stateless community like the Hmar tribe in Mizoram is always crushed even though they endeavor to maintain their own language. “Today various communities continue to be marginalized from society due to the development of practices, policies and programs that met the needs of dominant tribal groups and not the needs of the marginalized groups themselves’’ says Dr Paul Chonzik.

In the absence of any substantial support and encourage from the government, one of the language varieties like the Hmar lost the popularity and usefulness in the public domain. Although the Hmars are the first settlement in Mizoram; they failed to mobilize their own people out of their weaknesses and short sightedness. Therefore, intentionally and unintentionally, they merged into larger tribe due to long period of political control or cultural influence by larger and strong tribes which only create a space for the loss of their own language.

Language maintenance and decline in Manipur.

 In the context of Manipur, the domain of Home serve as a solid foundation or a means of maintaining one`s own language for the Hmar tribe. Private domain helps in preserving and developing language to a great extent. Family members communicate and interact in one`s own local dialect which sustained the vitality and life of language. There is transmission of values and ideas from one generation to another generation. Thus, language maintenance is assured and sustained. Unlike Mizoram, people admire and privilege their own mother tongue over the native language-Meitei. The domain of the social space is also crucial for maintaining language. And the Hmar people, who belongs to one of the ethnic tribe of Manipur within the societal space maintain their language by mingling with their own tribe and all the social activities are all conducted in one`s own language. So, the social space gives them firmer ground and thus language is preserve and revives within the Hmar tribe in Manipur. In the function of the domain of education the Hmar leaders have worked hard in maintaining their own local language to such an extent that the speakers will not develop a negative attitude towards their own language. They strived for recognition and acceptance of their language as a medium of instruction in Manipur. “From 1989, the education department of Manipur Government accorded recognition to the Hmar language as Modern Indian language and permitted the Hmars to offer a vernacular subject as a half MIL paper in High school leaving certificate examination’’(Dr Hrilrokhum Thiek) .

And in the year 2000, the Hmar Vernacular paper was accepted by the council of higher secondary education by as full MIL paper by the Manipur Government .The Hmar MIL has been taught as an optional subject under the Manipur University for the last 7 years since 2003. Additionally, with their awareness that language education can serve as vehicle for promoting the vitality, versatility and the practical use of language the success of their work is still manifested in the present generations of the Hmar community. So, in the school there is a space for using one`s own mother tongue and thus language promotion and maintenance is assured. The Hmars also run a vernacular newspaper of their own to preserve and maintain their language. They also have the opportunity to transmit their program in the all India radio stationed at Imphal for around 20- 30 minutes although Manipuri and language of wider communication were the main language to transmit the program. The Hmar leaders have also documented their languages and produced dictionaries, hymns and Bible to preserve their own language. They also have four different versions of the Bible, which can be positively seen as move to enrich literature among the Hmars.

 In Manipur, the 21st century is marked with rapid growth in economic globalization and is growing hand in hand with the use of English .Parents and stakeholders feel that education is undoubtedly available only in English, eventually increasing its value. The Hmar local language can`t match the output of English books and therefore it is superior. In Churachandpur district, largest Hmar concentrations in Manipur, all the education system are in English. In the domain of Education, a person can’t teach if he or she is incapable of speaking English. The new trend that has been observed is that the measurement of a person making a mark through his or her ability is in the use of the most prestigious language-English. However, the increasing importance of English through globalization is one of the tools which help in annihilating the indigenous minority language and culture of the Hmars in Manipur. One of the major effects of globalization has changed the mindset of the Hmar tribe. There is increasing differentiation between English and the Hmar language in Manipur. This is made possible on how the Hmar tribe have adopted value system and life style in Manipur.

The Hmars have imbibed the process of consolidating and institutionalizing globalization in Manipur intentionally and unintentionally without being aware of the fact that ,they may succumb to it without even knowing that it’s killing their own language. Paramodini has maintained that` `while thinking of development we mustn’t overlook our languages and culture. Thus, in the pursuit of development and advancement of societies we overlook our language and culture and consequently create a space for the loss of language. Additionally, the Hmar tribe had a great admiration of English since the embracement of Christianity. Watkin Robert was the first missionary to spread the gospel in Manipur to the Hmar community. And all the initiator in the evangelizing process are the speaker of English, it is indeed very true why the Hmar tribe has been tremendously affected with the so called English language. And if a person can speak English, he or she is perceived as modern and educated in the eyes of the local people. Hence, the Hmar language declined. In Manipur, the Hmar intellectuals and leaders hardly organized a workshop for the development and preservation of the Hmar vernacular perhaps out of their lousy attitude towards their own local language. Or they don’t feel it imperative and importance to organize a special language planning program so as to upheld, promote and demonstrate the value of maintaining language to the younger generations. Its consequence is mainly felt by the younger generations of today. children and average speakers’ age ranging to 30 and below have started developing a feeling of being remote and old in using their own language. Language limitation occurs on account of being seriously influence by the prestigious English and thus became more proficient and comfortable in structuring English. Additionally, it’s out of their negligence in giving less importance or value in their written literature. The younger generations can’t structure proper sentence in the Hmar language without including at least one single word in English. A hybrid form of sentence which includes Hmar and English is the common trend of today`s generation.

 In the next 20 or 30 years, there is a possibility that it will be an endangered language in Manipur as well. Awareness should be given to the younger generations that the admiration and prestige they tied up with `English’ should not devalue their own mother tongue. In other words, we should not overlook our own mother tongue over other languages just because they have the prestige, status, power and social success. To revive, preserve and maintain one`s language, the collective will and support is required and the intellectual leader in the society should conduct workshop and organized language awareness frequently so as to change the mindset of the young minds that has been severely damaged by mighty influence of English.

Therefore “everyone should be concerned, because its everyone`s lost”

– David Crystal


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