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dialect,  language and script

dialect,  language and script

kewal krishan sethi

jan 17, 2018

there is a fallacy in india that many of the tribal  and the minority languages are simply dialects.  their reasoning is simple. these languages do not have a distinctive script and hence are not languages but dialects.  oxford dictionary defines dialect as 'a form of language'. it is thus obvious that there must be a language before there can be a dialect. in many languages, dialects are formally recognized (like brij bhasha, avadhi. bhojpuri in hindi) but it is argued that they are, or should be considered to be, aberration of the standard language and should be confined to homes i.e. one should be ashamed of them in expressing themselves in dialects outside their homes.

as mentioned before, script is considered by some to be an essential part of definition of language. here again we err. a language must be there before a script can be there. the language always  originates as a spoken language. it does not begin with a script unless it is an artificial language like esparanto (which refuses to be picked up). (the other example of artificially created symbols in a language can be the symbols of mathematics).

what is a script. it can be defined as symbols. the symbols may be in terms of alphabets with which we are familiar but these can also be pictorial like hieroglyphics  of egypt or of china. these may even be a smoke signals or drum beats. the morse code would also qualify to be a script. the entire idea of script or symbols is to convey the idea formed in a language when verbal communication is not possible. living in a compact area, the tribals did not feel the need to communicate at a distance and hence did not feel the necessity of script. when a community felt the need to communicate at a distance, either spatial or in time, it picked up a script if available or invented one. picking up a script was natural corollary when a new language was created out of an existing one which had a script like english or french picking up latin (or roman) script. when there were peculiar sounds in the new language, some modification was done to the existing script like circumflex or dieresis or cadilla. nearer home we can see the modifications in devnagari by having a dot below the original letter to represent a newly imported sound like kha, za, dha to take on the new sounds. imported from urdu or persian. examples are words like  khataa (mistake), padhna (read), zahar (poison). an example of invented script is ol chiki for santhali which has spread over the last hundred years or so.  talking of scripts, two languages, mutually unintellgible, may share the same symbols. the example is mandarin and cantonese which share the symbols for the objects, though the words for them are different. we can also cite the example of bhasha indonesia which has the roman script but nothing else in common with european languages.

most of the languages have taken on the existing scripts which kept on being modified to make it easier to write or print. the original latin script (originated sometime in 7th century bc) consisted only of capital letter based on greek script, which itself was based on semitic script. the original latin script had only capital letters.  gradually to make writing easier the small letters were introduced but the older capital letters were retained leading to duplication. classic latin did not have this distinction. none of the indian scripts, or for that matter asian scripts, have this artificial duplication.

to return to dialects, why do they arise? when a language is used over a large area, some local phenomena play their role in either vocabulary or in pronunciation. these get passed on from generation to generation and result in different accents or different connotation for the same word. in the case of english, the pronunciation between the speakers of the southern areas and northern areas present a marked difference as also the pronunciation between english and americans. the essential point is that the grammar remains the same. similar observation can be made with reference to speakers of hindi. sometimes the influence of a language spoken in a border area (between two languages) leads to modification of the language while retaining its essential features of one of these. it gives rise to a new dialect. the examples are sadri and panch pargania of jharkhand.

it may be observed that number alone is not a cause  nor is the area over which language is spoken. for example lahauli spoken in himachal pradesh had gari, patari, trinani, tod rangli, shipi and lohar as its dialects. the total number of lahauli speakers are  22,646 according to 2001 census, (census 2011 figures not released at the time of writing). one of the dialects is spoken in only one village nesing which is called, appropriately, nesing ki boli. ao in nagaland has 2,61,387 speakers but five  prominent dialects viz. mongsen khari, changki, chongli (chungli), dordar (yacham), longla. the changki dialect is spoken only in 3 villages - changki, japu and longjemdang. the speech of each ao village has its own distinctive characteristics. hindi, of course, being spoken over a wide area and by a very large number, has many dialects of which 46 are spoken by more than ten thousand persons while bhojpuri, avadhi, brij bhasha is spoken by millions.

it must be admitted that only a thin line divides language from a dialect. the human language is a growing feature and keeps on changing. if the changes in an area are such that it develops its own peculiar grammatical structure, it can be classified as a different language. the residents of nearby areas can still follow the new language but some effort is required. the degree of effort to follow determines if it is a dialect or a language. this is apart from the official recognition which may be based upon a different criterion altogether. the examples of latter are maithili and dogri which were considered to be dialects of hindi but have now been recognized as separate languages in the indian constitution.

do the dialects, as opposed to languages, merit attention in the education stream. (in what follows, word 'language' is used but it includes dialects – it should be actually 'language and dialect' but for brevity sake only 'language' is used).

the importance of language in the life of any human being needs no emphasis. language plays a very important role in the all round development of a child. it shapes the child's world, gives him / her means of expressing himself / herself, contributes to his / her emotional growth, besides academic and all other aspects of life. language can relate all the subjects, as it is the heart of education so is the heart of children. centrality of language, and achieving it would be a great milestone. when children come to school, they are equipped with basic interpersonal communicative skills. in the school they need to acquire cognitively advanced levels of language proficiency. language is identity. let us first recognize this inbuilt language potential of our children as well as remember that languages get socio culturally constructed and change our daily lives. if the child is sought to be  educated in the standard form of the language only, such a situation places  the child in a dilemma as to which language is to be used or which one is correct.

care must be taken to honour and respect the child's home languages / mother tongues. at the primary stage, child's language(s) must be accepted as they are, with no attempt to correct them. it is known that errors are a necessary part of the process of learning and that children will correct themselves (that is shift to standard form) only when they are ready to. we have to spend time by providing children comprehensible, interesting and challenging inputs. in addition, higher-level proficiency skills easily transfer from one language to another. it is thus imperative that we do everything we can to strengthen the sustained learning of languages at school.

stories, poems, songs and drama link children to their cultural heritage and give them an opportunity to understand their own experiences and to develop sensitivity to others. fantasy and mystery play an important role in a child's development. as a sector of language learning, listening also needs to be enriched with the help of music, which includes folk, classical and popular compositions. folklore and music deserve a place in the language textbook as discourses capable of being developed with the help of exercises and activities unique to them.

a creative language teacher must use multilingualism, a typical feature of the indian linguistic landscape, as a classroom strategy and a goal. this is also a way of ensuring that every child feels secure and accepted, and that no one is left behind on account of his / her linguistic background. language subsumes multilingualism / bilingualism. language is not content, but language gives life to content.

therefore, what should a language teacher or a teacher of any other subject know about the language he/she is teaching in? obviously, the teacher has to be fluent in the language being used and should be able to handle it with ease. the teacher has to be effective and economical given our limited time and facilities. teachers should make themselves aware of their students' first language or mother tongue so that in times of difficulty they can explain to the students in a simple and comprehensible language, may be mother tongue. teachers of other subjects such as history, economics, physics, botany, etc. should also have knowledge of the dialect spoken around their area. students may be corrected in an unobtrusive manner, not authoritatively. a proper atmosphere in the classroom should be created even for teaching the mother tongue or the first language. by talking to students outside the classroom on topics other than the text or the school, students will take to the standard language and understand the subtle difference between home language and school / standard language. language thus learnt will go a long way in helping the students not only with the language but also with other subjects as well. they will also be able to use the language outside the classroom, in the society with confidence without the teacher, thus fulfilling the basic purpose of language.

actually we should talk about medium of education instead of medium of instruction. we need to explore and understand the role of language in education and the role of language in a child's life. studies have shown that bilingual or multilingual people are capable of greater cognitive flexibility and creativity, and perform better academically than monolinguals. polyglots may be polymaths as well.

teachers should make themselves aware of their students' first language or mother tongue so that in times of difficulty they can explain to the students in a simple and comprehensible language, may be mother tongue. teachers of other subjects such as history, economics, physics, botany, etc. should also have knowledge of the dialect spoken around their area.


1. children's mother tongues, including tribal languages should be considered as the best medium of instruction.

2.  subject boundaries be softened leading to integrated knowledge and understanding

3. textbooks and other material should incorporate local knowledge and traditional skills

4. school should provide a stimulating environment that responds to the child's home and community environment

5. reading should be emphasized throughout the primary classes. every teaching episode should be a new and valuable experience.


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