Amit Kantak is a 40-year-old immigrant from India who lives in New Jersey. Growing up in Mumbai, he spoke Konkani at home. It’s one of hundreds of languages spoken in India; globally, about 3 million people speak Konkani.
Like many in the diaspora, Kantak and his wife have made an effort to speak Konkani with each other, so that when they had children they could pass it on, as their parents did. But now their only child, a son, is four, and when his parents speak to him in Konkani, “he responds in English,” said Kantak.
Kantak’s reaction: mixed. “Yes, I am concerned because that’s the mother tongue and we want to keep that tradition going,” he said. “But at the same time, considering my childhood, I had a tough time getting confused between all the different languages we used to speak. I didn’t want him to suffer in school.”
Kantak’s ambivalent response resonated with me. I grew up in Indiana speaking Konkani as my first language. But when I started school, according to my mother, the teacher asked her to provide a list of Konkani words I would use, so she would know when I needed to go to the bathroom or needed water. Later, in preschool, my mother said she received a call from the school, saying explicitly that I should learn more English.
At that point, my parents relented and began to speak more English with me at home. The result is that, while I can understand Konkani, the fluency is gone.
And to relearn the language is a challenge, because there are few opportunities to use it in my life, let alone in the diaspora. In my generation, few speak Konkani fluently. Even in India, Konkanis learn other languages to speak to most people.
So, as a Konkani, I have worried that I am contributing to the endangerment of my language. I wanted to understand what would happen if Konkani disappeared. I started digging into its origins.
Konkani was first spoken in the Indian state of Goa, now famous for its beaches and tourism. It’s a language rooted in Sanskrit, and centuries ago everyone in Goa spoke it, though there was no official script for writing Konkani.
After Portugal invaded Goa in the 16th century, many Konkanis fled to other Indian regions – among them, Mumbai, Mangalore, and Kerala. Konkani began to mix with local languages spoken in those areas. And in Goa, Portuguese words infiltrated the language.
The Konkani diaspora spread around the globe, taking the language with it. Chaitanya Bijoor, a Konkani expatriate living in Philadelphia, grew up in a Mumbai apartment complex called Talmakiwadi.
“Ninety percent of the families there were Konkanis,” said Bijoor. “We grew up speaking Konkani when we would go down to play with our friends,” he said. “Because we grew like that, no matter where we would go, automatically we would start speaking in Konkani.”
In the diaspora, though, most Konkanis have no nearby community to reinforce the language. So Konkani children “are associated with kids of other ethnic groups. They speak Konkani because there are Konkani speakers at home, but naturally they don’t speak Konkani,” said Bijoor.
There are other reasons why Konkani has not survived well. Konkanis in the diaspora speak other languages, so no one needs to know Konkani to communicate with older generations. There are many language options.
In other ethnic groups, this is not the case, according to Stephane Charitos, director of the Language Resource Center at Columbia University. In his own French family, his great grandmother only spoke her local dialect, not French. To communicate with her, Charitos’s grandmother had to learn the local dialect to communicate with her mother. There weren’t other options.
Languages shared by an entire nation, or among those who practice a religion together, remain stronger, said Charitos. His mother could learn French in school because the country enforced it, unlike a local dialect. “Hebrew was revived when a national state appeared,” he said, but there is no such driving force for Konkani.
“I’m no longer optimistic about the future of Konkani,” said Jose Pereira, a former Fordham University professor and the leading Konkani scholar in the U.S. Pereira shared that pessimistic assessment in 2010 with the Gomantak Times, a daily paper published in Goa.
Like Charitos, Pereira noted the successful revival of Hebrew in Israel. “It’s plastered everywhere, on their walls; they speak it to their children and they speak it on the radio,” said Pereira. Konkani is not likely to undergo such a revival, he said, because “It has to fight too many forces that are too great for it to take on.”
Among those forces: the assimilation of second and third generation Konkanis in the diaspora, a lack of diaspora language schools for Konkani, and a dearth of instruction materials. Though you can find Internet references to a book and CD called Konklish, aimed at teaching children the language, there is no apparent way to order it, and the author, Ramesh Kamath, did not respond to phone inquiries.
Back in Goa, though, Konkani’s survival seems more likely. In 1987, Goa was recognized as an official state of India, and Konkani became its official language with Devanagari as its official script. Konkani is now one of fifteen languages printed on the official Indian paper currency, the rupee.
And in 2009, a World Konkani Centre was created in Mangalore with a goal of reviving the language. Konkani is now a foreign language option in several secondary schools there, and the center created a site, Konkanverter.com, which does electronic conversions of Konkani script into other languages.
Online, there’s also a Konkani blog and Radio Idli, a web channel that aggregates Konkani audio from various sources.
So, in bits and pieces, the language does survive. But will it still go strong with my generation?
That’s still a big unknown, said Nina Padukone, another Konkani expatriate who lives New York.
“It doesn’t matter what I think myself,” said Padukone, who predicts Konkani’s fate will be determined by some future generation. “If that generation feels that there is value in it, then it will stay alive and it will continue.”