What does it take to revitalize a dying language?

Instructor Uday Raj Aaley (extreme right) with Kusunda language students. Photo via Uday Raj Aaley. Used with permission.

Kusundas, once a hunter-gatherer Indigenous ethnic group from mid-western Nepal, have a unique language that isn't related to any other language in the world. Researcher and writer Uday Raj Aaley, together with resource person and the only fluent Kusunda speaker Kamala Sen Khatri, is on a mission to revive the language, once deemed moribund.

Kusundas, also known as mjehaq or gemjehaq (king of the forest), have less than 200 members living in Dang Deukhuri, Pyuthan, Rolpa, Surkhet, Kapilvastu, Gorkha, and Tanahu districts of Nepal. All of them speak Nepali language.

After the death of Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda, a well-known fluent Kusunda speaker in 2020, the Kusunda language was on the verge of extinction. Kamala Sen Khatri, Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda’s sister, is the only fluent Kusunda speaker.

However, since Aaley started conducting classes for Kusunda language learners in 2019, twenty students have learned the language after completing four sessions totalling 270 hours. The future of the language is looking brighter.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Global Voices caught up online with Uday Raj Aaley, who is busy with his research on Kusunda and Tharu indigenous ethnic groups, to talk about the language revitalization process.

Global Voices (GV): What does it take to revitalize a language on the verge of extinction? Has the Kusunda language’s situation changed since you started conducting classes for reviving the language?

Uday Raj Aaley (URA): Revitalization of a vanishing language is a difficult job. I want to multiply the number of speakers by teaching Kusunda people to speak and write their mother tongue. But the limited duration of the Kusunda class is not sufficient to transfer the language.

The situation has improved and the learners are taking much more interest in the language classes. I started the first session in 2019. There were 20 participants of different ages studying in grades four to twelve, including three non-Kusundas in the class. Now, they have basic knowledge of the language and can speak the language.

Students learning Kusunda language at a hostel in Mid-Western Nepal. Photo by Uday Raj Aaley. Used with permission.

Students learning Kusunda language at a hostel in Mid-Western Nepal. Photo by Uday Raj Aaley. Used with permission.

GV: How did you motivate the Kusundas to join the classes? What was your approach to reviving the language?

URA: Among the Kusunda families, I want to acknowledge the late Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda who generously taught me her language. In return, I taught the language to Kusunda children. Though they belong to the Kusunda tribe, they never learnt to speak their language. The participants cheerfully joined the four sessions.

Language revitalization is a life-long process. If Kusunda is to remain a living language, it needs to be spoken daily. The participants should be encouraged to speak their mother tongue with the family members.

To revitalize the language, it is essential to provide training to the participants along with teaching materials introducing them to the Kusunda orthography to read, familiarize with Kusunda words, phrases, and sentences, and practise the language. At the same time, I am trying to create an environment to speak the mother tongue among the family members.

It is necessary to develop the Kusunda orthography. So, I am attempting to write a book containing Kusunda words that are spoken in daily life, including numbers, colours, animals, trees, crops, body parts, kinship terms, greetings, Kusunda phrases, and sentences. Much is yet to be done to produce grammatical descriptions, a dictionary, and a collection of folk tales and rituals, etc.

GV: How difficult is it to learn the Kusunda language? Will the learners continue speaking the Kusunda language and promote it in their household use?

URA: Although Kusunda is a language isolate, I don’t think it’s too difficult to learn. There is hope because the Kusunda people are excited to learn their mother tongue. If the classes continue, the participants will become more familiar with the language and speak it fluently. Once they know the language, they will communicate in their mother tongue and transfer among the community members.

The problems that I faced were the lack of the Kusunda language’s grammar and the absence of teaching materials such as textbooks, audio, and videos. Despite the challenges, the Kusunda people hope that, with help from the government, their language can be revived.

GV: Can you share any interesting anecdotes with us that happened during the training?

A book on Kusunda language authored by Uday Raj Aaley

A book on Kusunda language authored by Uday Raj Aaley. Photo by Sanjib Chaudhary. Used with permission.

URA: Kusunda is on the verge of extinction or may die out with the death of its remaining single fluent speaker. However, the situation of language transmission has reversed now. Instead of parents teaching the mother tongue to their children, the children are now teaching the language to their parents. It is high time to standardize the language to cope with the demand of its speech community.

Kusunda community members were surprised when they heard a Kusunda song sung by Hima Kusunda at a programme. She is one of the participants who completed four sessions of the language revitalization classes.

GV: Why do you think is it necessary to revive the Kusunda language? What's so special about this language?

URA: Kusunda (ISO 693-3 kg, glottal code kusu 1250) is a critically endangered language isolate previously spoken by the nomadic forest-dwelling tribe in mid-western Nepal that has no known relation to any other language or language family of the region. It is characterized by sounds that are hardly found in the area, such as uvular. It is difficult to represent some of the phonemes of Kusunda using the Devanagari script. Each language has a unique expression of experience of the world and Kusunda can’t be left behind.

GV: How did you coordinate with the stakeholders to make the revival happen? What should the government authorities and the Kusundas do to sustain the movement of preserving the Kusunda language?

URA: The Language Commission supported conducting the four sessions of Kusunda language classes that started in 2019 (90 hours), 2021 (60 hours), and 2022 (60 hours) and were completed in March 2023 (60 hours). The Kusundas are also expressing great interest in learning and documenting the language and associated culture with the hope of revitalizing them.

Kusunda is still an incompletely described language. This calls for the attention of concerned authorities, linguists, and institutions who care for endangered languages.

Although the initial classes raised awareness among the community, this may not be sufficient to revitalize the language. It will take considerable time and effort to elevate the learners’ proficiency to a level where they can use their mother tongue in their daily life.

From the endangerment perspective, it is urgent to document, preserve, and revitalize the Kusunda language. So that the Kusundas are not deprived of their linguistic rights.

To listen to audio footage of the Kusunda language, see this digital archive.

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