Birhor, spoken only by members of a nomadic tribal community of natural fiber rope makers in Jharkhand, now has fewer than 10,000 speakers. But there is hope: he has just received his first children’s book, Abun Ari Re (Our Environment).
Bikram Jora’s 40-page multilingual illustrated book – words translated into Hindi and English – contains words for common objects, activities and folk tales, and encourages children to use them in everyday life. This is all part of an effort to save the endangered Birhor language, which is part of the Munda language family.
The book was compiled and published by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, based in the United States, with assistance from a grant from the Zegar Family Foundation, based in New York. The institute, which has worked with the Birhor tribe since 2017, aims to help indigenous communities in 15 countries safeguard their cultural and linguistic heritage.
Last month, 500 copies of the book were distributed free of charge to school-aged Birhor children in 10 villages in five districts of the state. They were also given to local schools.
One of the reasons the book is multilingual is to help foreigners understand the language. Jora, based in Ranchi, who belongs to the Munda tribe, hopes this will help local teachers communicate more effectively with children in the community.
“The Birhor children slowly switch to using Hindi words when speaking, and even the parents encourage him. We have heard from children now using batak, which is the Hindi word for duck, instead of the word Birhor gede, Jora said. Of course, urbanization has a role to play as many go in search of work. “We have the feeling that their mother tongue will not be beneficial for the children as they grow up. So now is the right time to take steps to slow down this transition before the language is lost, ”says Jora, the institute’s project coordinator for the South Asia region.
The literacy rate in the community is less than 20%. Jora explains that teachers complain that the students are not interested, but often the children do not understand what is being taught. “The objects that are shown to them, they have never seen them. I hope that with this book, teachers can better communicate and understand Birhor children, ”Jora says.
The book contains words for common objects, activities and folk tales, and encourages children to use them in everyday life.
Abun Ari Re is part of a series of three books. The other two books the institute is working on are Birhors’ Ethnobiological Knowledge and a trilingual dictionary in print and online form.
The Birhors are interested in the project. An elderly woman, for example, suggested that they write English words in the Devanagari script used for Birhor, so that they could pronounce them. “A guy who is the most educated in the community – he finished class XII – suggested that we include local variations of words. For example, pastry cream is serf in one district, while in another it is maadal, explains Jora.
Globally, up to 90% of languages are endangered and at least 40% of speakers are actively turning to a dominant language, says Gregory DS Anderson, director and president of the institute. In India, he says it is difficult to quantify the languages threatened with extinction. “The census data is largely irrelevant for this (spoken language) because any linguistic community of less than 10,000 is eliminated from the official language count, and most endangered and threatened language communities are small. There is no doubt, however, that the shift to more dominant languages must slow down.