Post Mortem

Are Nagas losing mother tongue to Nagamese & English?

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 4/23/2019 12:31:35 PM IST

 Few years ago, I came across an article entitled, “How a Bihari lost his mother tongue to Hindi.” It dawned upon me that like Biharis, Bengalis and other Indian communities, Nagas are going through a peril of losing the importance of our mother tongue. Most Nagas are bilingual or multilingual. Perhaps, we have more Nagamese and English speakers than any tribal dialect. 

Looking into global statistics, UNESCO has recognised over 6,900 languages worldwide. Amongst 900 Indian languages, 197 are endangered, of which 80 are from northeast India. In the 20th century, 5-6 Indian languages became extinct. One such case is from our neighbouring state- Assam, where Ahom or Tai Ahom, the language spoken by the great Ahom Dynasty has fallen into disuse. In this list, most Naga languages are classedas vulnerable, where most children speak the language but restricted to certain domains. With globalisation and shift in socio-cultural-political dynamics, our precious Naga languages and dialects are going through the initial stage of endangerment and on the verge of extinction.

In olden times, our people learnt each other’s language for communication. With Nagas opening up to the outside world, our lingua franca, Nagamese was born. At times, a non-Naga who speaks Nagamese is easily incorporated into our fold than a Naga who cannot speak Nagamese. This is a reason which sometimes alienates our fellow Nagas hailing from other states. From improving social interactions to business dealings within Nagaland, the benefits of speaking Nagamese are manifold. Speakers of Nagamese also find it easier to master other Indian languages such as Assamese, Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, etc., because Nagamese has borrowed words from them.

English, the official language of Nagaland and ‘lingua franca of the digital age’, is learnt by the time we start attending school. Some begin to learn English as early as the time they start learning to speak, which is sometimes propelled by the motive to let the child speak fluent English so as to have an academic ace. With television, internet and mobile phones, children are exposed to Englishat a tender age. Today, young school children having a diction, accent and articulation better than I do as an adult. 

The pressure to make children fit into the English speaking mass, also creates an attitude of negligence towards the transmission of our languages to the younger generation. This disposition is also seen in both same and mixed tribal marriages. 

And yes, like Nagamese bridges the communication gap, English also connects our people-those who can and cannot speak Nagamese. There is no denying the aspirational, academic, social, commercial and global value that English controls. But is our impeccable English acquisition coming at the cost of being able to proudly speak our mother tongue? 

Repercussions of Nagamese and English on our local Naga dialects, is perceivable through many Naga families who speak Nagamese and English at home. It is not my intention to demean families who speak Nagamese or English nor discourage the usage of these languages in our society. But it is out of sheer concern of thereceding use of our native languages that I write this article. With rise in inter-tribal or mixed marriages (which I do not intend to oppose), native languages of neither parentsis transmitted to children in some cases; where they communicate in Nagamese and/or English. Assimilation of tribes and cultures has its own perks in bringing peace and understanding amongst Nagas where tribalism continues to blight our society. However, with the loss of ancestral tongues (be it the mother or father’s), which were passed down to us for millennia, along with their unique arts, ideas and values, our future generations may have to face consequences that we may not comprehend until it is too late to reverse them.

With local youths gravitating towards towns and cities, most youthsin our urban social circles communicate in English or Nagamese, even when they belong to the same tribe. For obvious reasons, many Naga families residing outside Nagaland also develop a tendency to speak English even at home.Of late, youths are inclined towards foreign languages due to the influence of K-pop, Japanese anime, exposureto foreign languages and culturesfor leisure, profession and academics, etc., and we are confronted with the necessity to learn foreign languages.

Amidstsuch circumstances, I see hope in our social institutions called church. Because most churches in our state are conducted in the native dialects, our generation continues to learn our tribal languages. Alongside churches, tribal organisations continue to have a protagonist command in preserving our tribal languages and ethos. Saying so, I do not intend to advocate tribalism nor oppose churches conducted in English or Nagamese.

I firmly believe in the institution of the family where children learn their language, culture and moral values from their parents, elders and grandparents. Nuclear family system, lack of time spent or communication gap between parents/elders/grandparents and children, is leading to decline in the transmission of language and values.

Though Naga society is afflicted with tribalism,the loss of even a single language will have socio-politico-cultural consequences, weakening the social fabric, creating disunity and lose of political legitimacy as a community with exclusive political rights. Our languages bear the wisdom of our ancestors and ancient knowledge of communities, philosophy, environment, etc. If any Naga dialect or language vanishes, these priceless knowledge of our ancestors will die out.

We need to realise that learning our own mother tongue is also a part of our children’s education. Though the family is not necessarily the only place where we learn languages, learning the mother tongue is best done within our family. At the moment, the solution for this crisis is to encourage the speaking of our mother tongue at home and increase the interaction of parent/elder with the younger generation.

Rita Mae Brown, an American activist rightly quoted, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” Where are we, the Nagas headed to?

AlonoThorie, PhD Scholar, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, West Bengal, (

Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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