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The Value of Multilingualism in Assam: Healthcare and Beyond

By an anonymous healthcare professional from Ozai / Hojai, Assam


I write about my language life in India as a multilingual Siloti speaker. Everyday I navigate the multilingual health sector in Assam. I reflect on the central role of my mother language to my cultural identity. I also remark on the significant impact multidirectional multilingualism has on environmental awareness and sharing traditional knowledge of unrecognized / minoritized languages.

ꠍꠤꠟꠐꠤ [silɔʈi] Siloti / Sylheti

ꠜꠣꠞꠔꠅ ꠝꠥꠁ ꠄꠇꠎꠘ ꠘꠣꠘꠣꠘ ꠜꠣꠡꠣ ꠎꠣꠘꠞꠣ ꠍꠤꠟꠐꠤ ꠝꠘ ꠔꠦꠝꠥꠁ ꠘꠤꠎꠞ ꠎꠤꠛꠘꠞ ꠃꠙꠞꠦꠟꠦꠈꠍꠤ ꠩ ꠅꠢꠝꠅ ꠝꠥꠁ

ꠙꠞꠔꠦꠇ ꠖꠤꠘ ꠘꠣꠘꠣꠘ ꠜꠣꠡꠣꠞ ꠍꠣꠁꠍ꠆ꠔ ꠛꠤꠜꠣꠉꠅ ꠌꠟꠣ ꠚꠤꠞꠣ ꠇꠞꠤ ꠩ ꠝꠥꠁ ꠘꠤꠎꠞ ꠎꠣꠔꠞ ꠙꠞꠤꠌꠄꠞ ꠟꠣꠉꠤ ꠘꠤꠎꠞ

ꠝꠣꠁꠞ ꠜꠣꠡꠣꠞ ꠀꠍꠟ ꠎꠥꠠ -ꠝꠤꠟꠞ ꠃꠙ ꠞꠦꠌꠤꠘꠔꠣ ꠇꠞꠟꠣꠝ ꠩ ꠝꠥꠁ ꠙꠣꠇꠤꠔꠤꠇ ꠢꠥꠡꠤꠀꠞꠤ ꠀꠞ ꠝꠣꠁꠘ꠆ꠘꠔꠣ

ꠀꠘꠣꠙꠣꠅꠀ / ꠛꠣꠘꠣꠁꠟ ꠇꠝ-ꠡꠁꠋꠈꠇ ꠛꠣꠡꠣ-ꠀꠟꠣꠁꠘꠔꠞ ꠀꠉꠞ ꠀꠝꠟꠤ ꠉꠤꠀꠘ ꠛꠣꠐꠣꠞ ꠢꠇꠟꠝꠥꠈꠤ ꠘꠣꠘꠣꠘ -

ꠜꠣꠡꠣꠛꠣꠖꠞ ꠖꠞꠇꠣꠞꠤ ꠎꠥꠠ -ꠝꠤꠟꠞ ꠃꠙ ꠞꠦꠅ ꠝꠣꠔꠟꠣꠝ ꠫

ছিলছি [silɔʈi] Siloti / Sylheti

ভারতও মুই একজন নানান জানরা ছিলছি মুনতে মুই নিজর জিবনর উপরে লেখছি । ওহমুও মুই পরতেক ছিন

নানান বাশার ইছ্ত বিভাগর চলা ছিরা করি । মুই নিজর জাতর পরিচএর লাগি নিজর মুইর ভাশার আল জুড়-

ছিমুলর উপ রে চিনতা করলামু । মুই পাকিতিক হুছিশাআরি আর মুইন্নতা আনাপাওআ / বানইল কমু-শাইংখক বাশা-আলাইনতর আগর আ মুলি গিআন বার হকলমুখি নানান-ভাশাবার রকারি জুড়-ছিমুলর উপ রে ও মুতলামু ॥

[silɔʈi] Siloti / Sylheti

[baɾɔtɔ mʊi ɛxzɔn nanan baʃa zanɾa silɔʈi mɔntɛ mʊi nizɔɾ zibɔnɔɾ ʊfɾɛ lɛxsi. ɔhɔmɔ mʊi ɸɔɾtɛx din nanan baʃaɾ saɪstɔ bibaɡɔ sɔla fiɾa xɔɾi. mʊi nizɔɾ zatɔɾ ɸɔɾisɔɛɾ laɡi nizɔɾ maiɾ baʃaɾ asɔl zʊɽ-milɔɾ ʊfɾɛ sinta xɔɾlam. mʊi ɸakitik hʊʃiaɾi aɾ mainnɔta anafaɔa / banaɪl xɔm-ʃɔiŋkɔk baʃa-alaintɔɾ aɡɔɾ amli ɡian baʈaɾ hɔxɔlmʊki nanan-baʃabadɔɾ dɔɾxaɾi zʊɽ-milɔɾ ʊfɾɛ ɔ matlam.] (tone not indicated in this phonetic transcription)

Urdu /اردو

میں ایک کثیر لسانی سلوٹی اسپیکر کے طور پر ہندوستان میں اپنی لسانی زندگی کے بارے میں لکھتا ہوں۔ ہر روز میں

آسام میں کثیر لسانی صحت کا شعبہ میں کام کاج کرتا ہوں۔ میں اپنی مادری زبان کو اپنی ثقافتی شناخت کا مرکزی خیال سمجھتا ہوں۔ میں ماحولیاتی آگاہی اور غیر تسلیم شدہ / اقلیتی زبانوں کے روایتی علم کے اشتراک پر کثیر دشاتم کثیر لسانی کے اہم اثرات پر بھی تبصرہ کرتا ہوں۔

The Importance of Language Rights in Healthcare

“Language rights save lives” is a claim about the importance of recognizing and protecting language rights around the world. Where I live in Assam, India, not all languages are recognized and protected. Language rights have the potential to save lives in numerous ways. As a healthcare professional in Assam, people speak to me in various languages. Often I worry when healthcare professionals are not able to communicate with patients or people appearing on behalf of the patients in a language that they understand. This can be fatal to the patients’ lives.

Product information for medicines is mostly available in English, sometimes available in Hindi and Assamese; the strategy of many is to take the medication back to their local healthcare professional/s or to an improvised, unqualified interpreter, who in most cases is a patient’s family member or friend, to receive a translation in a language that they understand. In Assam we don’t have the culture at healthcare facilities of looking for interpreters to make sure that patients have understood from the start. Indian healthcare professionals and providers don’t have enough time, so it becomes the burden of the patients, or of the people appearing on behalf of the patients, to understand what they can. This burden falls most heavily on the people with the fewest resources.

In my native Assam, there are over 50 languages spoken. Where I live and work, healthcare professionals are largely first-language Siloti speakers, but we officially use Assamese and English at healthcare facilities. Because I grew up outside my Siloti language community, I learned to speak several languages (local, administrative and linguae francae) such as Lotha, Nagamese, Oxomia / Assamese, Moimonshingi / Mymensinghi, Bengali / Bangla, Hindi-Urdu, English, etc. So, I personally advocate for language diversity and multilingualism. But I still have to serve the healthcare needs of patients in Assam who speak languages that I don't understand, like Karbi, Dimasa, Hajong, Manipuri / Meitei, Bishnupriya Manipuri, Dhakaia, Noakhali, Bhojpuri, Nepali, and many more languages.

Many healthcare professionals, despite being very skilled and knowledgeable in their respective medical fields, cannot provide good quality services to those who can’t communicate their healthcare needs due to a language barrier. This also means that healthcare professionals miss promotions because they’re not always able to execute their skills and knowledge properly. Situations arise between the healthcare providers and healthcare seekers where the overall quality of healthcare services is compromised. Healthcare professionals and providers simply ask (or impose on) the patients to communicate in one of the more dominant languages, regardless of the language knowledge of the patients. This risks people’s lives.

The Cultural Importance of Language Rights

Language is a fundamental human right and it plays a key role in how people interact, how information is shared, and how cultures and communities are created. When language rights are respected and protected, people can fully access healthcare as well as education and other social/government services, and can participate fully in their societies. Hence, language rights are essential to a person’s right to life, liberty, and security. Language rights are also essential to the struggle for human rights worldwide.

Language rights are a part of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which protects the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community. This implies that everyone has the right to use their own language, as well as to learn and use other languages. It also implies that everyone should have access to healthcare, education, and other services in their own language. I was born and brought up in a Siloti-speaking household surrounded by a pool of diverse language communities. As a Siloti speaker, I often felt uncomfortable in situations because the usage of Siloti was restricted or limited. Moreover, while growing up I felt that being called ‘Siloti / Sylheti’ was a bad thing, a pejorative term: many Siloti speakers hide the fact that they speak Siloti. I was, at times, punished and made to pay fines for speaking in my mother language and in other unrecognized / non- institutional local languages. Recently, I discovered that some of my childhood teachers were Siloti but they never communicated in Siloti. There was no choice.

Culturally, I never felt that my mother language was actually a language until 2013, when for the first time I heard a Siloti rap song, goru tui manush oile na, adob khaeda kichchu hikle na, on my hand-held mini music player. That precious moment surprised me, as it infused in me a new public perspective of the language I had only been using privately at home.

The next cultural encounter with my mother language was in the virtual world, when I created my Facebook account and was filling up the profile info. In the languages section I searched ‘Siloti’ and it suggested (the Anglicized exonym) ‘Sylhety’. I was awestruck that Facebook recognizes Siloti as a language. I then searched on the internet for more information about the Siloti language. I stumbled into Wikipedia pages, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, etc. where the Siloti language and the Siloti Nagri script were discussed. I hadn’t known that there are larger Siloti-speaking populations in other places like Tripura, Barak Valley, Surma Valley, etc., far from my native Ozai / Hojai district. I was astonished to learn that Silot (‘Sylhet’) is in the names of places geographically located in present-day Bangladesh. I was also oblivious to the fact that Silotis practice varied systems of belief which influence the Siloti language they speak.

Importantly, language rights are explicitly crucial for those who are vulnerable and marginalized. Of the more than 7,000 languages spoken today, many are in peril of disappearance due to language shift from the lack of recognition of language rights (over 7000 languages and fewer than 200 countries means that every country has minority/minoritized language communities). Language shift and language loss are serious problems because they lead to the disappearance of culture and knowledge. This can, in turn, have a negative impact on the economic and social development of a society.

In the wake of institutionally-imposed and -enforced limits to multilingualism, where we are limited to just bilingualism or trilingualism in India, a branch of my distant relatives are no longer able to communicate in Siloti. Today, I’m aware of the lack of language rights and also the risks of advocating language diversity around the world where the diverse groups can be quite sensitive. In general, in many countries around the world, language rights are not respected. Minorities aren’t allowed to use their own languages in school or at work, or they are discouraged from doing so, which leads to a lack of respect for language diversity and results in people feeling isolated and excluded. In countries where minoritized peoples are discouraged from or not allowed to speak their native language, language rights can help protect them from exploitation and poverty, and can help provide access to justice and legal services. Language rights can also help ensure that all people have the opportunity to participate equally in the political process and other aspects of public life.

In order to ensure language rights are respected and protected, governments must recognize these rights, as well as all minority/minoritized languages, and take legal measures to ensure that everyone has public access to their native language. This can simply include providing language classes in schools and creating language policies for government services.

Language Rights Can Save Plant and Animal Lives Too

Language rights help to protect minority/minoritized language communities, which can help to prevent discrimination and violence against these communities, as well as protect the places where these communities live. We do know that the diversity of the flora and fauna around us is as valuable as language diversity, and that knowledge about the flora and fauna is also linked to language diversity. There are ecological conservation efforts trying to save critically endangered plant and animal lives too, as we are directly or indirectly interconnected: there is a kind of symbiosis existing among us.

The Siloti community in Ozai / Hojai, Assam, for example, has the environmental knowledge to maintain a non-industrial agarwood foraging business where its naturally growing products have a higher value than plantation-produced, artificially-infected agarwood from countries where over-harvesting was causing the trees that grow agarwood to go extinct.

The over-hunting of the Amur Falcon in north-east India is another example. While migrating from Siberia to south-east Asia, it faced extinction from over-hunting until NGOs supported multilingual awareness-raising campaigns. They held meetings with community leaders in villages, educating speakers of many different languages in their own languages on the international origins and the endangered status of their annual falcon visitors. Language rights save animal lives too.

Unnecessary noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, light pollution, deforestation, over-hunting/poaching, etc., which have detrimental effects on the quality of human and natural life, can be prevented more efficiently if communicated multilingually. Concerned organizations and awareness programs to conserve Mother Nature will remain fruitless unless the conservation policies and strategies include local knowledge and are communicated in multiple languages throughout multilingual landscapes. Vital ecological policies and strategies cannot reach the masses properly if a selective dominant language approach is employed.


The encouraging thing is that language rights are being increasingly recognized and respected in some places. For example, some countries have formulated laws that protect language rights and ensure that people can access services in their own language. There are also organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that work to promote language rights and support the use of minority languages around the world. Language rights can also be used to preserve and promote local cultural heritage, which is important for preserving a community’s collective identity and sense of belonging. India’s proposed policy of mother language education in primary schools is one step in the right direction. One day the new generation of Siloti speakers will learn reading and writing in their own mother language in India.

For many non-Siloti people, Siloti is the lingua franca in Ozai / Hojai district and they think it’s cool to speak to me in Siloti. I now have a good feeling about Siloti because I can use it to help patients and people in general. When I was younger I was shy to teach others Siloti words when they asked me, but no longer today. Luckily, being a polyglot has helped me befriend others quite easily, and thus saved me and others in several life threatening situations.

Anonymous Author’s Bio

This is the first time in my life that I tried to reveal my thoughts and experiences as an advocate of language diversity and multilingualism. I love languages. As for me, all languages are unique in their own ways. Further, the philosophy of an egalitarian outlook respecting language diversity and embracing a multilingual lifestyle is helpful in order to save lives.

I’ve written anonymously because people’s cultures are politicized and it is risky for me as an individual in Assam to write publicly. Everyone won’t understand what I’m trying to say and some might feel offended. We live in a complex world where there are infinite possibilities of counter-perspectives. I thus choose to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.


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