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India: Jesuits commit to local languages

GOA, India: It may seem like just another academic endeavour and the number of students is currently few. But campaigners for the cause of the small Konkani language among the Jesuits believe a new initiative to teach the tongue to young priests-in-the-making could help increase vocations in the region.

This monsoon season, Goa's Jesuit-run Konkani teaching centre has launched a post-grad diploma course to teach the language. It was launched at the Thomas Stevens Konkani Kendr (KTSS), an impressive and tree-filled green campus in Alto Porvorim, a bustling suburb of state-capital Panjim that is fast coming under a building boom.

As there are now more Jesuits in India than in the United States, the question of language is becoming urgent.

"The Jesuit interest in local languages has been there from the beginning; it's nothing new," says Dr Pratap Naik sj, the Jesuit who is director of the TSKK. "To learn the local language is an integral part of formation. Centuries back too, when they came to Goa, they were learning the local languages. Jesuits produced (some of the very first) grammars and dictionaries. Of course, they produced it with the motive of spreading Christianity, in keeping with the thinking of the time," he adds.

Konkani is one of sixteen languages officially recognized by the Government of India. Taking its name from the "Konkan" coast, Konkani boasts over 2 million speakers. It belongs to the south western branch of Indo-Aryan languages. Principally based on classical Sanskrit, the evolution of Konkani can be traced from its origins in early Primitive Indo-Aryan through Middle and New Indo-Aryan, all the way to modern vernacular forms.

Over the past two-and-half decades, change slowly crept in among the Jesuits.

Setting up a Konkani centre was the first step. That proposal came up before the provincial congregation in 1978. "We wanted to start a school, in the European sense. An institute of higher learning to teach Konkani to Jesuits (primarily and to others too)," recalls Naik, then a young scholastic, and one of those trained to take up this work.

Since 1986, Jesuit scholastics -- training to become priests -- were sentfor a one-month training in Konkani. "But we were not happy. One month's course will not give you language proficiency in any language," argues Fr Pratap.

Finally, the year-long course has been launched, and runs on the credit-system. Begun in June 2004, the diploma runs till March-end 2005, for the first batch.

This year four Jesuit priests-in-the-making have joined the course.

"There's the possibility of a new (linguistic) culture emerging among the Jesuits. In ten years time, all the younger generation will be fluent in English and Konkani, both in Roman and Devanagari (the two main scripts used to write the language in Goa, the latter being the officially-recognised script)," says Naik.

Naik believes that the diocesan clergy have been using Konkani significantly in Goa, given that their work depends on it. "But slowly a new trend has been creeping in. As our education shifts to English, our Catechism and Mass is also moving over to that language. We don't see this happening among other religious groups."

"Language learning is not taken very seriously. How many priests have done their MA or BA in Konkani? I don't know one priest who has done an MA, though at least two nuns have," says Naik.

Proficiency in languages, and learning it throughly, is not a luxury. "As a priest, as a leader, good communication skills give you leadership. This, in turn, requires language proficiency," says Naik. "Here, in Goa, that language should be Konkani."

The Jesuits of the South Asia Assistancy are the largest assistancy in the world.
In 2001, there were 3,973 Jesuits in South Asia: 2,211 priests, 1,455 scholastics (students), and 307 brothers. Among them, 269 are novices filling out the assistancy, which covers India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

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