Odisha is the state with the second-highest Indigenous population in India, home to as many as 62 Indigenous communities, including the Ho. But the sounds of their languages don’t often reverberate through the classrooms this way.

India is among the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, but its constitution officially recognizes only 22 of the hundreds of existing languages, and these are the ones taught or used in schools. India’s census dismisses altogether languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. Since independent India’s state borders were first redrawn along linguistic lines in 1956, certain languages with territorial majorities and scripts have gained social and political power. Indigenous languages, in contrast, have been marginalized, along with those who speak them.

This has led to the fact that at least 400 of the 780 languages currently spoken in India are at the risk of extinction in the next 50 years. The ones most at risk are those used by Indigenous communities, and the consequences of their loss is grave, experts warn. These languages hold the knowledge of the communities’ ecological surroundings, agricultural activities, and social relations—and also encapsulate some of the oldest historical memories, says Ganesh Devy, a literary scholar who, starting in 2010, led a project called the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. Over a span of three years, he and a team of 3,500 volunteers aimed to document India’s linguistic diversity. With the help of an 80-person editorial team, the survey’s findings were published in 50 academic volumes.

“In oral traditions, these memories continue to go to the next generation, keeping the communities intact,” he says. When the languages are lost, so too are the communities often lost.

For decades, a growing number of studies and policy recommendations in India have noted that the language gap in classrooms serves as a major cause of poor learning, retention, and self-esteem for Indigenous students.

On paper, Odisha has taken these concerns seriously. Banara was one of about 3,400 language teachers appointed after 2014 when Odisha formalized a mother-tongue-based multilingual education program focused on Indigenous communities. Through an official policy, the state mandated that lessons in early grades be imparted in a child’s own language, and became the first—and currently only—state in India to do so.

Read the full article about Indigenous languages by Sarita Santoshini at YES! Magazine.