The Tangams are a little-known community within the larger Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh and reside in the hamlet of Kugging in Upper Siang district’s Paindem circle.   Tangams are now concentrated in only one village (Kugging), with 253 reported speakers.

Why are there only 253 speakers?

As per the UNESCO World Atlas of Endangered Languages (2009), Tangam — an oral language that belongs to the Tani group, under the greater Tibeto-Burman language family — is marked ‘critically endangered’.

Kugging is surrounded by a number of villages inhabited by Adi subgroups such as Shimong, Minyongs, as well as the Buddhist tribal community of Khambas, among others. To communicate with their neighbours over the years, the Tangams have become multilingual, speaking not just Tangam, but other tongues such as Shimong, Khamba and Hindi. They rarely speak their own language now since their population is restricted to a single village. Their neighbours are various Adi subgroups, so they have picked up other Adi languages and their own is slowly disappearing — even if a few still continue to speak Tangam.

Moreover, the Tangams are relatively unknown — even within Arunachal Pradesh. The village lacks proper infrastructure in all basic sectors of education, health, drinking water facilities, road and electricity. Roads have reached Kugging only in 2018. Not a single person from the community has gone to university.

What about other languages in Arunachal Pradesh?

The languages of Arunachal Pradesh have been classified under the Sino-Tibetan language family, and more specifically under the Tibeto-Burman and Tai group of languages, such as Lolo-Burmish, Bodhic, Sal, Tani, Mishmi, Hruissh and Tai.

While the education system has introduced Devanagari, Assamese and Roman scripts for most tribal languages, new scripts such as Tani Lipi and Wancho Script have been developed by native scholars.

There has been no systematic, scientific or official survey on the number of languages in Arunachal Pradesh till recently. Still, experts peg the number of languages at 32-34. If we list the various linguistic varieties or dialects embedded within these languages, then the list can go upto to 90.

Despite there being a plethora of languages in the state, almost all are endangered. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (2009) more than 26 languages of Arunachal Pradesh have been identified as endangered. The degrees range from ‘unsafe’, ‘definitely endangered’ to ‘critically endangered’.

Why are the languages at risk?

The diversity of languages has led various communities to depend on English, Assamese and colloquial variety of Hindi called Arunachalee Hindi as the link languages. This shift has led to loss of native languages of the tribal communities.

Even the numerically larger tribes like Nyishi, Galo, Mishmi, Tangsa etc. whose population exceed the ten thousand mark are also not safe from endangerment, hence marked unsafe. The younger generation of these tribes especially in the urban areas have mostly discarded the use of their mother tongue.

Are languages like Tangam more vulnerable to extinction?

Yes. The Tangam case is especially worrying because their population is so low. Another critically endangered language is Meyor but they are better off than Tangam because they at least have a population of 1,000 odd people. So while almost all languages of Arunachal Pradesh are endangered, smaller languages are more vulnerable, and extinction is directly proportional to population.