If you were to take a walk around the world today — passing by the charging bull in New York, sipping mate with your friends from South America, drinking rice beer in a large bamboo mug with an old couple in Nagaland — you would hear 7,099 languages spoken. From Quechua to Konkani, Sinhalese to Kurdish, a language is not a mere tool of communication. It is a symbol of social identity; languages are conduits of human heritage. It shapes cultures, beliefs, customs, and has been the source for a wealth of wisdom and knowledge. As the linguist Edward Sapir says, “Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.”
While linguists cannot ascertain that there aren’t any more languages to be discovered, what they do know for sure is that several of them are endangered, and are in dire straits. According to research, 1,547 (or 22%) of the 7,099 known living languages in the world are in trouble or threatened, and 920 (or 13%) can be classified as dying. In India itself, 400 of the 780 India languages are at the risk of dying in coming 50 years, according to The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI). Dr. Ganesh Devy of People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) argues, “And to lose these languages means losing huge human capital, cultural capital and even real capital because languages can be economically productive if they are used imaginatively for developing technology.”
While there are several arguments on why languages across the world face extinction threat, a sense of urgency is definitely palpable to preserve the minority languages, and to promote linguistic diversity. There is a growing awareness of the importance of mother tongues and its influence on children and the society at large. Private and public organizations are engaging in rigorous discourse on this topic and are slowly but steadily, coming to the aid of these languages and facilitating avenues to rekindle its posterity. Cognizant of the situation of hundreds of languages teetering on the brink of extinction, since 2000, United Nations has been observing February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
While linguists and anthropologists are finding different ways of preserving the languages, the elephant in the room really is, Education in Mother Tongue.
In India, and across many parts of the developing world there are critical supply shortages of reading resources for children — not enough books, in not enough languages, compounded by poor access and issues of affordability. With majority of publishers catering to middle and upper income urban audiences, demand based economics dominate, to the detriment of creating books for economically weaker groups, where the profit motive is low. UNESCO’s report on mother tongue literacy states, ‘children should be taught in a language they understand, yet as much as 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand’.
Not having access to affordable, quality reading resources in the language spoken at home hinders early acquisition of critically important reading and writing skills amongst children. Prioritizing equity and lifelong learning for all requires investment in learning resources in mother-tongue languages. However, if this minimum requirement is not met for hundreds of millions of early readers, their ability to develop strong foundations for learning will be limited.
In order to address these challenges and on-ground realities, publishers along with policy makers and government bodies have a greater responsibility to mindfully endeavor towards the development of high quality books in many mother tongue languages. Collectively, we also need to find innovative channels to distribute them to children across the globe. Harnessing the latest technologies and licensing, we need to find novel avenues to enable teachers, parents and educators to partake in this social mission.
At Pratham Books, we have created an alternate model to address these inequities by providing quality storybooks for children in multiple languages that are engaging and joyful, and encourage a child to learn and practice reading. We have harnessed the power of technology through the StoryWeaver platform, a digital repository of openly licensed multilingual stories to address these challenges.We believed that by openly licensing quality content on the platform and giving users’ tools to repurpose and localise content, we could massively scale the creation of multilingual content for children and help address the scarcity of mother tongue literacy resources. We launched StoryWeaver with 800 stories in 24 languages on International Literacy Day in 2015, and in two years we have grown to a digital repository of over 7000 stories in 105 global languages. With 65% of new languages added on user requests, the stories have been read over 2 million times, downloaded over 180,000 times by a user base of 500,000 from 190 countries.
International Mother Languages Day (IMLD) resonates deeply with each one of us at StoryWeaver. Commemorating International Mother Language Day, StoryWeaver is working towards nurturing the children’s book publishing ecosystem in languages that have limited or no children’s literature.
In 2017, StoryWeaver celebrated IMLD through the Freedom to Read campaign by adding stories in 13 new languages to the platform, including stories in endangered languages like Kurdish and languages spoken in increasingly smaller circles, like Alemmanisch and Jerriais. Not-for-profits like The Rosetta Foundation and Translators Without Borders have helped us further our campaign mission with translation support. Eminent linguists like Dr. Ganesh Devy, scholars such as Professor Sukantha Chaudhry and book champions like Sujata Noronha and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose have been instrumental in helping identify languages in need of joyful stories for children. Community crusaders like Anthony Scott Warren, one of the few Jerriais teachers left in the region discovered StoryWeaver through the All Children Reading website, and requested that we add this ‘threatened’ language to the platform, and Muhamadreza Bahadur reached out to us to add Kurdish which is categorised as ‘an endangered language’ to StoryWeaver. The stories were also taken to the classrooms by organizations like Pragat Shikshan Sanstha that works with 150 Zilla Parishad in the Phaltan district of Maharashtra. The likes of Little Thinking Minds and The Asia Foundation have discovered, adapted, translated and used content from the platform.
Extending the spirit of the campaign to 2018, StoryWeaver is facilitating the creation of joyful, supplementary reading material in three minority Indian languages on its platform — Konkani, Bhoti and Haryanvi. Each of these initiatives will marry digital and print mediums together to create a repository of early reading resources in mother tongue languages. While the translations of stories to the three languages will happen on StoryWeaver, the dissemination of the books will be through print and digital modes.
For stories in Konkani, StoryWeaver has partnered with Konkani Bhasha Mandal, an organization that constantly works for the language Konkani, to translate over 100 books to Konkani on StoryWeaver. Through the collaboration, 25,000 copies of 50 books in Konkani will be printed and distributed for free among more than 250 schools in Goa, reaching over 25,000 children. StoryWeaver collaborated with 17,000 Ft Foundation, an organization that works to improve the lives of the people of remote, high altitude mountainous villages of Ladakh, to translate 10 books to Bhoti on StoryWeaver.. Jointly, more stories will be added to the repository over the course of the year. StoryWeaver has also joined hands with the Haryana Education Department for creating children’s literature in Haryanvi. In the run up to International Mother Language Day, a translation hackathon was conducted for 25 educators from across 20 districts in Haryana. The two-day residential workshop saw the translation and inbuilt peer-to-peer review of up to 70 level-1 picture books for children in Haryanvi. The workshop was organised with the support of the Education Department of the Haryana Government.
In the words of linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about”. Taking inspiration from Whorf, this IMLD, StoryWeaver powered by its community, vows to weave more children’s stories in more languages, and do its bit to positively influence the thinking of tomorrow’s leaders, our children.
P.S: Click on the headers and treat yourself with stories in multiple languages.