Sikhs strive to keep language alive

Livingston, USA - There's a lasting link between the 35-character alphabet used to write Punjabi and the Sikh religion.

The Sikh scriptures and the Punjabi language of many Sikhs were written in a script known as Gurmukhi. So to be fully initiated into the religion, you must know how to read it.

That has created a problem for the Sikh community of Livingston. Their children, many of whom speak only English, aren't able to understand the temple's priests -- let alone some of their own family members.

The problem, increasingly common in many Sikh communities, is threatening to create a cultural, linguistic and religious divide between generations, said several local Sikhs and the Sikh media. It's also a threat to the continuance of the religion among second- and third-generation Sikhs.

But since April, because of the effort of a group of Sikhs in Livingston, 50 to 60 children have been taking weekly Punjabi classes.

And recently the group was given a more permanent home at Selma Herndon Elementary School in Livingston. Henry Escobar, the Livingston superintendent of schools, has provided the use of several classrooms at the school for the classes.

"The kids were losing out," said Kirpal Singh Grewal, who helped organize the language classes. "There was no opportunity for them to attend some classes, so they didn't really know the language."

Grewal's wife, Tripat Grewal, who helps teach Punjabi, said many Sikhs were driven to support Punjabi-language classes because their children couldn't understand what was being said in the temple. "The religious part was very important," she said.

In early 2009, a group of concerned Sikhs, including Grewal, his wife and Hardeep Singh Rai, started the classes, said Tripat Grewal. First, they taught the language in the temple, but there wasn't enough room. Four Merced College students who speak Punjabi helped teach, along with several community members in Livingston.

While it isn't the first effort to start such a school, so far it's the only local effort that has lasted, said Kirpal Grewal.

Tripat Grewal said earlier efforts failed for several reasons. Many in the Sikh community are working-class folks, and either aren't literate in Punjabi themselves or, because they're recent immigrants, wanted their children to learn English.

Kirpal Grewal said the classes in Livingston are part of a larger effort by Sikhs to keep their traditions alive as new generations grow up in the U.S.

"This is a movement to revive our culture and language," he said.

The movement isn't confined to Livingston.

An article in the spring 2008 issue of The World Sikh News, a San Jose-based weekly newspaper, warned that the loss of knowledge of the Gurmukhi alphabet was widespread -- and not just in the U.S.

Nanak Singh "Nishte" wrote that not only were huge numbers of Sikhs in India illiterate, but many others were learning to read other scripts instead of Gurmukhi.