Rong: The endangered indigenous language of Sikkim

Rong: The endangered indigenous language of Sikkim
Photo Credit: http: Snowline News

“Aadosaa abhryangh syoo go! Aadosaa abhryhangh syoo go.” Tashi Lepcha, 11 repeats the sentence over and over again, watched over by his Rong tutor who is supervising his pronunciation of sentences and diction. Later, in a conversation with the tutor, he says that Tashi is his only student because most Sikkimese students in public and private schools have begun to veer towards English and not surprisingly, Hindi as their second/third language as it is seen as more beneficial than learning Rong, the language of the first tribe of Sikkim - the Lepchas.

Sikkim merged with India on 16th May 1975 and became the 22nd state of the Indian Union. The merger led to increased communication with India and its people; migration was a back and forth process where the locals of the state went to different parts of the country for business, education or primary settlement. After years of this to and fro, the languages spoken in the erstwhile state of Sikkim also began to shift from Tibetan, Rong and Nepali to English and Hindi. Most people in Sikkim are multilingual now, and the indigenous languages – Rong and Tibetan, lie in a somewhat dusty condition, with a minority of the population keeping it alive through songs, literary and sacred texts used in Buddhist monasteries.

With the advent of the Internet and the technology boom of the last two decades, the youth has been speaking more English and learning their roots have become trivial, almost an embarrassing thing to do. According to the Indian census of 2011, there are 35,728 speakers of Rong in Sikkim with numbers dwindling, especially with the youth as the need to be fluent in English for the security of a job abroad has started to get parents worried.

Not just Sikkim, but other indigenous languages that have been facing the same problem for quite a while in developing India in the past few years. But a certain group of officials believe they have a more sustainable solution now - Bharatavani. It is a website and an app launched online in 2016 by the Central Institute for Indian Languages, Mysuru to publish content – dictionaries, textbooks, audio and video for 121 Indian languages, including the ones spoken by smaller communities. The books are free and in pdf format, which makes it easily accessible as long as there is good connectivity to the Internet. 

According to statistics provided by the Central Institute of Languages, the daily visitors to the Bharatavani website are 2300 on an average. Feedback is taken from various sources - users of the app and website, and appearance of the app results on the first page of Google search shows an increase in the digital footprints which is a sign of growth. This language learning campaign is one of India’s most accessible programs, creating a mass encyclopedia of free knowledge, accessible at the touch of a button. 

In spite of the effort from CIIL, the work is wasted if it only floats around in cyberspace and gets lost between the everyday scrolling on other social media platforms. The belief of Narayan Choudhary, the Assistant Director at CIIL is without help from the common people to take this forward, these initiatives will remain static. “The people and scholars in that language should support initiatives such as Bharatavani and send good leads on content available in that language. This will help the project people to contact these resources and try to aggregate the content and publish them for free public usage. Only when language protection efforts become a mass campaign, there is a chance of reviving the languages. In this era of digital transformation, the role of people to participate in such efforts is even more significant than earlier.”

In addition to this, the Lepcha community itself is taking the initiative to preserve Rong which is on the UN list of endangered languages of the world, through Rong Kit Digital Lepcha, which is a Unicode Standard Lepcha Font developed by Mr Ugen Shipmoo and Stefan Daehler. It was created to promote and revive the Lepcha language and is owned by the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Community (SIBLAC), with the intent to inspire energy and a passion to learn their culture in a more intimate way i.e., through learning the language.

An even more interesting way the community has been approaching the issue of preserving the indigenous language is through events where organizations like the Sikkim Lepcha Youth Association (SLYA) conduct annual courses for learning Rong and short stories, poem readings are conducted throughout the year. The Sikkim Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (SILTA) even held a competition in 2017-18 to promote young singers from the Lepcha community is called the Mayal Lyang Lepcha Idol.

Although these events and technological platforms serve as a stepping stone to the preservation of culture and language, there is still a limited number of speakers of Rong in the Indian subcontinent. “Technical platforms are partially helpful”, says Tsudimit Lepcha, 19 a first-year student at Indraprastha College for Women. “Since they aren’t equipped with enough knowledge and information, taking proper classes seems preferable to depending on technology for the most part. The Lepcha tribe should become more aware of issues pertaining to linguistics and culture”. Functions and festivals like the Tendong Lho Rum Faat, Nambun Namsoong and other literary programs held by the various Lepcha Associations in Sikkim have been taking the issue forward, but there still seems to be an aversion when it comes to the youth learning the language.

There are others in the Lepcha community who believe that teaching Rong in more schools or having proper language immersion schools will help to spread the language and keep up its vivacity rather than online classes or dictionaries. The latter would benefit only the people who are aware of the script and know the Rong grammar. But then again, there are others who believe that platforms like Bharatavani and Rong Kit can improve communication in the language itself and generate interest.

“Personally, I feel that the language is on the verge of decline. Certain factors constitute in people raising this question because most of the young generation don’t speak or write in the language. Several factors are responsible for this - inter-caste marriage, lack of interest by parents to educate their children regarding the importance of learning their mother tongue and to some extent, the advent of the western culture also plays a role in this decline”, says Lee Yong, lead guitarist of the Lepcha folk band Sofiyum who fuse traditional songs with contemporary styles of music. “The Rong Kit developed by Mr Ugen Lepcha (Shipmoo) has played a pivotal role in Lepcha script and texts being used in various institutions. Typing the script has been made easier.”

But why is this need for the revival of languages important? According to Tanveer Hasan, Programme Officer at The Centre for Internet and Society, the simple answer is because it’s the language of a community’s tradition, their past and their knowledge. The more complex answer is if that if someone takes away a language from the community, it loses one more reason to be alive. There are a few markers to sustain a community, and language is one of the most important, which has a high degree of transferability. If a community forgets that language can be transferred, there is a huge loss – not just of tradition and text, but history and the critical thinking that comes with it.

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