A foundational grace
The desire to learn, promote and empower languages is a foundational grace that the Society of Jesus has enjoyed from its very inception. Throughout the Society’s history, Jesuits have committed innumerable languages to writing and helped them to survive and grow. Indeed, such initiatives were acts of worship inspired by the Spiritual Exercises: a recognition of God who is at work in all people, their languages and cultures. Inspired by Ignatius’s own advice to learn and speak local languages wherever they went, the early Jesuits understood that languages are great treasures, complex and rich systems of human knowledge, and that preserving and nurturing them was key to understanding people’s hearts and worldviews.
Vijay D’Souza, SJ, has spent over twenty years working on the Hrusso Aka language of Arunachal Pradesh, India. Arunachal Pradesh, the frontier state of India, is home to approximately a hundred small indigenous tribes and, with ninety languages, is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse states in India. The Hrusso Aka tribe has a population of seven thousand, spread across twenty-eight small villages and two towns in the West Kameng district of the state.
The Jesuit mission among the Hrusso Akas started in 1998, when the people of Palizi village invited the Jesuits to open a school there. Inspired by the Jesuit linguistic tradition, the three pioneers of the mission took an immediate keen interest in the language, much to the surprise of the villagers. Vijay arrived there as a scholastic in April 1999, tasked with learning Aka before his ordination, an endeavour which proved challenging. Firstly, Hrusso Aka was unscripted, and so Vijay was compelled to find ways to learn it without the usual linguistic tools – grammar, dictionary, or other forms of printed materials. Secondly—and somewhat surprisingly—there was widespread pessimism about the future of the language among the native speakers themselves.
Vijay’s desire to learn the language was initially met with antagonism, suspicion, and apathy. To many, he was trying to learn and resuscitate a language without a future – a futile endeavour by an outsider. This attitude, however, gradually gave way to one of appreciation.