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Updated: September 29, 2012 02:42 IST

Let a hundred tongues be heard

Sumanyu Satpathy
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The Hindu

The domination of English and Hindi is turning Indian education and culture into a depressingly monolingual affair

Scores of articles and books have been written about the need for multilingual education and social justice. But over the years, English has been successfully defended: first, as a lingua franca in a veritable tower of Babel; second, and more recently, on grounds of globalisation. No wonder, its erstwhile opponents from the cow belt have stopped clamouring for its ouster. The call for angrezi hatao has now passed into history, and any leader using this as an election plank is doomed to forfeit his deposit. Jostling for space in the bazaars of Banaras are hoardings advertising shops such as angrezi dabakhana, angrezi sharab and angrezi sikho.

Twin threat

If you live in any of the Hindi-speaking States, it is likely that every other day you would hear of debates about the future of Hindi. Naturally, the spectacular rise of Hindi is not often talked about in these quarters as a threat to the linguistic diversity in India, whereas both English and Hindi need to be perceived of as the twin threat to the healthy linguistic diversity which, if allowed to grow, might turn Indian education and, consequently, Indian culture, into a depressingly monolingual affair.

Unfortunately, popular cultural historians like Ramachandra Guha underestimate the threat of the killer languages and celebrate the growth of the two languages in India: “[O]ver time, [Hindi cinema] has made the Hindi language more comprehensible to those who previously never spoke or understood it ...” Even while arguing that India remains united because of the paradox of linguistic State formation, Mr. Guha seems to be valorising the importance of both English and Hindi. He goes to the extent of saying that “the decline of West Bengal as a centre of science and scholarship is not unconnected to the equally misguided decision to ban English-teaching in the state-run schools of the province” (EPW, August 15, 2009). The connection that Mr. Guha is trying to make here between English education and development is not very convincingly established. Then he contradicts himself by arguing about how the number of linguidextrous intellectuals “run more thinly — at least outside of Bengal”, quite forgetting that he has criticised Bengal for having “banned” English.

Currently, there seems to be a pathetic scramble for English-medium schools, a fact that has been poignantly fictionalised in Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop. The novel tells of Ramchand, a sales assistant in Sevak Sari Shop in Amritsar, who is obsessed less with the business of selling saris than with learning English.

After a series of frustrating attempts, funnily told, to fulfil his dream, he buys a tattered old copy of Oxford English Dictionary for Rs. 40, and “hit upon a new idea [that] if he started at the beginning of the dictionary, and learnt the meanings of each and every word, working his way from A to Z, one day he would know all English, completely and irrevocably”. For the next six months, he spends all his spare time working only on “A”.

English learning to whatever degree can be empowering, even broken English-speaking abilities, as I found out the other day. It is not unusual to come across writings on the wall, or advertisements in newspapers announcing private institutes which run English language courses, both spoken and written skills. My brother called me from Srikakulam to share with me this announcement on a hoarding: “Admissions open: for Spoken/broken English.” Obviously, there are takers for such offers in our globalised world of opportunities for speakers of English, of whatever merit. The consequences of broken English can be funny: a hair-dressing salon in Vietnam announces that “American Heads are cut here”.

Grim reality

Often the reality is less funny. In India, for example, the poorest citizen aims to send her child to expensive English-medium schools. Government schools are perceived to be worthless because they use the local language as the medium of instruction. Even this seems to be changing. A move seems to be afoot in Karnataka, where many government schools will teach through the medium of English to enable them to compete with their counterparts in private schools, as part of the recommendations of the Sarojini Mahishi Committee. Similarly, the Odisha government has announced that English medium public schools will be set up in three tribal districts in the State. This is going to prove disastrous for the linguistic ecology of India, and consequently for the local cultures. Policy framers often forget that official promotion of any language succeeds only when competence in the language concerned leads to job or other opportunities which, these days, goes by the euphemism, “empowerment.”

This new attitude towards English can also be seen in the now famous avowals of Chandrabhan Prasad. In an interview he seems to be setting much store by English-educated Dalit writers: “Unless English-speaking Dalits take up the Dalit movement as their profession, a pan-Indian Dalit movement will remain a dream.” The ground reality, however, is quite different. In most tribal areas in India, and I can speak of Odisha, a large number of tribal students in certain areas do not even understand Odia. Teaching them in Odia poses a stiff challenge; and certain groups such as Sikshasandhan of Bhubaneswar use local languages like Ho, Munda and Santhali in the same area to teach primers in different subjects before introducing them to Odia at a later stage. One has to appreciate the fact that within the radius of 50 kilometres, such linguistic diversity has to be coped with by asking: “Is there a strengthening or a weakening of balanced local language ecology? If dominant norms are global, is English serving local needs or merely subordinating its users to the American empire project?” (Robert Phillipson)

It may not, of course, suit the proponents of English in the media and elsewhere to remember, let alone celebrate, that many of the most successful Indians were, and still are, educated in vernacular medium schools. It is not often mentioned that an elite school in Delhi compulsorily uses the medium of Hindi up to middle school, before switching over to English at the high school level. It is well known too that products of this particular school fare much better in terms of intellectual growth than their counterparts from the other elite schools who begin learning through the medium of English.

Yet, the craze for English medium schools continues, resulting in the neglect of pedagogic resources in the other languages, an issue that spills over to the field of higher education even in a metropolitan city like Delhi, which presents a paradox. Here, though philosophy and most other Indian languages are neglected, English as a subject remains the second most popular, only after commerce. In addressing this crucial question, a German scholar, Dieter Riemenschneider, provides a salutary reminder of what globalisation means for literature departments themselves caught up in an increasingly corporatised environment where international obsession with ranking establishes “a kind of university world cup fought out not at an interval of four years but continuously...” On the other hand, not an insignificant number of students in premier departments and colleges in Delhi University complain of the dearth of textbook material in Hindi. Elsewhere in India, higher education is also officially available in both English and the State language; but the production of textbooks in the local language is awfully impoverished.

The argument here is not about banning English medium schools; far from it. It is, rather, for strengthening local-language-medium schools, improving their pedagogic tools, and for generating opportunities in the local markets on a par with the globalised market for a healthy linguistic diversity. The benefits of globalisation can be harnessed to achieve this as India’s Asian neighbours such as China, Japan and Korea have done. India can learn a few lessons from them without paying too much attention to experts from the West who have a vested interest in selling English language as a commodity.

(Sumanyu Satpathy is Professor and former Head, Department of English, University of Delhi)

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In my opinion the problem is not with the english language,it is the mentality of few Indians which itself is a problem.The author is very correct in citing the examples of China,Korea and Japan where inspite of sticking to their national language they have developed far more than India. And I would like to tell those few people that in these countries also there are local languages which are prevailing well.But we Indians take english language as a status symbol.The person who does'nt know english is uneducated,isn't it? I have seen people talking in english even when Hindi or the local language would work,just to show that they are different.And the problem is ridiculously not limited to language,we Indians copy everything of west specially America.Let us not be like monkeys copying others and appreciating what others do.One should be proud of oneself.

from:  Shobhit Srivastava
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 14:34 IST

In a diversified country like India, common languages(Hindi and English in this case) have use of plenty. Mother tongue though has its own importance but the lingua franca must not be considered as the threat to it(mother tongue) since it provides a sense of oneness among countrymen. Issue related to survival of local languages is completely different from the increasing popularity of languages like Hindi and English in the states.

from:  RAMZAN ALI
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 14:26 IST

I am not quite clear what would be the best for us. If I haven't learned English I would not have been in U.K. practising as a doctor which has certainly improved the quality of life for me and my family. At the same time I am not sure whether we should abandon our mother tongue and the local languages. When i visited few Eurpean countries most of the people except in tourism industry they don't know even basic English.But their quality of life and scientific advance is par with U.S. or U.K. why can't we also develop our country in a way that those who don't know much english will have thesame job oppertunities as a Swiss citizen or French citizen has. There is some fundamental flaws in our language development. I won't personally agree with Englisor Hindi, in that matter any language taking over our regional languages.

from:  R.Manivarmane
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 14:25 IST

The only language that suffered after independance is the Urdu language, and for no valid reason,probably the only language that was born india is almost on the death bed in the north.Chennai used to have urdu medium schools run by the corporation of Madras,they have all closed because of the hostile promotion of the Tamil language,those who resist imposition of Hindi impose their own language on others,what a tragedy.

from:  jameel m ali
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 14:21 IST

I have to say just one thing- I want the writer to write the same article in hindi & get it published in The Hindu or in any good hindi newspaper. . .as a reader i want to see two responses or let say two answers of my two under current questions.

from:  Arvind
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 14:13 IST

The author has made valid points. Of course English has its practical uses, but one need not over emphasize learning this language (at the cost of other languages). No other (non-English) group besides Indians places importance on English. This can be borne out by a visit to U.S., where several linguistic groups - Russians, Koreans, Chinese etc. don't give a damn about accented English and continue with life. Whereas we get defensive the moment we commit errors while speaking this language. Same holds for Hindi as well. This was one of the issues MNS raised in one of its campaigns. North Indians moving into Mumbai/Maharashtra refuse to learn Marathi, insist upon using Hindi citing this as a national language, when it is not (Gujrat High Court already clarified this 4-5 yrs back).

from:  Milind
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 13:45 IST

I am not against learning my local language , for that reason I can read write and speak malayalam . I read malayalam news papers daily eventhough I reside outside my country and also love watching Malayalam movies, tamil movies and hindi movies along with English movies.But the point I would like to mention here is connectivity, in this modern world we need to connect and interact with people all over the world, share our knowledge and learn from others. This process requires a common language that everyone can understand. Especially when it comes to science and technology as a researcher I really understand the importance of a common language wihout which there can be no creative building of knowledge base. With out a common language Knowledge will remain in pockets. It is unfair to say that I have to learn chinese to understand a chinese invention or discovery. So I beleive there should be a balance that Science should be taught parallely in English in all schools.

from:  Dinoop R Menon
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 12:47 IST

A language has strong association with culture of people who speak it. In fact a language represents a culture.India has been known for its cultural and linguistic diversity.We have a long tradition of accepting people of diffrent culture with repect.Any attempt to destroy this cultural and linguistic diversity by means of promoting any one language as national language or language of offcial , specially Hindi and English in this case,will have disasterous impact on the cultural diversity of India.

from:  ritvij pathak
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 12:26 IST

Very well said

from:  rajkumar
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 12:01 IST

[The domination of English and Hindi is turning Indian education and culture into a depressingly monolingual affair.] Mono? A little familiarity with Greek wouldn't hurt here.

[India can learn a few lessons from them without paying too much attention to experts from the West who have a vested interest in selling English language as a commodity.] Oh, you're off-target here. Nobody needs to sell English to Indians, nobody valorizes and mythologizes it like Indians. And nobody should know that better than the Hindu and its readers.

from:  Ashu
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 11:46 IST

The problem really is of language (i.e. all languages) being or becoming a subject or target of state policy. Let's remember, language was born and raised in communities and later societies, not in politically delineated states.
A child left to itself in a situation not its own will pick up the language that obtains there. The chief motivation here is 'friends to play with'. The child ignores the language of its friends at the risk of losing them and becoming a loner. And if the friends speak several languages, the child and its friends may end up speaking all of them, however difficult or elitist those languages may be perceived to be.
The cocktail of languages and state effervesces chauvinism, prejudice, bigotry and so on, with 'state sponsored' teaching, instead of voluntary learning, being the root of all language-inspired problems in society.
Learning through exposure, experience and exercise is a workable option in today's situation of advanced and efficient communication.

from:  Devraj Sambasivan
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 11:02 IST

Thank you sir for this article. i agree with you that there is need for healthy environment for nurturing every language.you are right text book written in regional language is awful ,so we inclined to English . but English has been not taught well in govt. school and so we are unable to generate global stander knowledge.

from:  gopal
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 10:18 IST

I appreciate views expressed in the article. As regards English no one denies its importance in the present age when mobility of people has rapidly increased and millions are going out of their States in search of better opportunities. However, let us not ignore our own regional languages and commit cultural suicide. English should remain a window to the outside world of opportunities. Preservation and promotion of our own languages would tell us why we enjoy living in this diverse yet beautiful country called India. Neither Hindi nor English should be allowed to stifle growth of Indian languages.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 10:12 IST

make english, hindi, and a local language compulsory till 10th standard.Then make english a medium to teach and write in all government schools.this will improve their standard as well as their popularity.Also the students will be able to learn their local language formally.

from:  Rahul Munet
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 09:57 IST

Dear Author, I have only two points to make:
1) It is well known too that products of this particular school fare much better in terms of intellectual growth than their counterparts from the other elite schools who begin learning through the medium of English. Are you trying to say that learning in Hindi made them intellectually superior than learning in English? If so, how? Can you support the underlying reasons for that extra intellectual growth due to learning in Hindi? 2) From electric sockets and computer software platforms to sim-card holders and headphone ports in phones, we see that the world is moving towards a standard way of doing things, to bring all the developers/contributors on to the same page. While it is true to preserve one's language, it should not come at the cost of a standard language like English. Only when people are on the same page can they compete equally. Otherwise people who are well-versed in English are set gain more in classes than those who are not

from:  AnJo
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 09:48 IST

I recall the advice of Shaik Abdulla to Kashmir's youth not to neglect the study of Hindi and English. He also told them that even if one had doctorate in Kashmiri he becomes an illiterate the moment one steps out of Kashmir. This applies to people of all states. Whenever I had to stay in lodgings in Kerala and Tamilnadu I observed that other than those managing the reception the staff were able to converse only in their mother tongues. In Kerala even lawyers and doctors were finding it difficult converse in Hindi or English. I have also seen the sad plight of Tahitians posted to banks and other institutions in Delhi not being able to communicate with local people. Whatever one may say the cold truth is that if one is proficient in English and Hindi he can survive anywhere in India. Employers prefer people with working knowledge of Hindi and English. In Karnataka the attempt of the Government has been to give the advantage of learning English to the poorer sections by making it affordable to them which is possible only when the language is taught in Government schools. Those self styled champions of Kannada opposing this move are the worst kind of hypocrites who besides being well versed in English themselves, send their wards to the best of English schools and do not want the same advantage for the less fortunate. One should also not forget that there were many distinguished men of letters when English reined supreme during the British rule.So the bogey of danger to regional culture is sheer nonsense. Fear of regional languages and culture getting marginalized is akin to the fear psychosis being spread by rightwing religious extremists of danger to religion. Kancha Illiah once said that if the down trodden have the advantage of English they can thrive in jobs in the west as in other matters like climatic conditions and food habits they can cope with the situation better. we should not deny it to them in our misplaced love for the regional language and culture.

from:  Baikadi Suryanarayana Rao
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 09:29 IST

The author has admirably brought out the urgency of linguistic diversity & independence.

Language is a living monument embodying the life & thought of a race. It is also the principal means of internalizing all knowledge - it is the life blood, and, unless food is turned in to blood, it is unusable - and these "blood infusions" (foreign languages) may help, but they cannot replace the natural process. The example of other eastern coutries like China, Japan and Korea, and their technical leadership amply bears this out.
Jains say that qualities are innumerable &a each description completes the knowledge. Let's apply it to a few topics - how do we describe this 'god particle'? (Jain thinking gets in to minimalism & visualizes 'brahma paramaanu' and 'pudgala'), or the relationship between matter & energy (this is 'shakti-vishitadvaita'). The point here is that, just describing something differently itself lends new angles to analyze problems, & who knows, even help arrive at a solution.

from:  Naresh Kumar
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 09:24 IST

It is strange that even in our age of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), 'the language discussion' is not concluded. Any one interested can be informed and lern from examples from many countries. I know very well that about 60 percent of people in any country can learn two to three languages well enough to speak, read and write. Any well informed person also knows that there are many who can master five or more languages. I think the correct policy for India should be the mother tongue first, English closely followed with Hindi or Sanskrit as a third language in an early age of about 10 years.

from:  Abraham Karammel
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 08:40 IST

English is here to stay, come what may.

from:  jeby
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 07:40 IST

I completely agree with author. As a first step, it would be great if media can take a survey with citizens residing at various parts of country asking what's the national language of India. I am sure, everyone will be surprised with the results and only very few knows the answer to it. Our strength is diversity. I believe our bond can be increased at greater level, only if we stregthen local language and provide more opportunities in local market, including at the centre for non-hindi speaking people e.g Nagas, Meitis.

from:  Albedo
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 07:36 IST

Already their are so many languages in India. And If English is not their , How one state person will go to other states & earn his livelihood..
And for getting earning in the other countries also we need english ..No regional language will help in other state & other countries..

from:  Deepak Mittal
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 06:45 IST

Nice article. I have always perceived English as no threat to my mother tongue, Marathi. English cannot substitute Marathi in Maharashtra, as it has not substituted Tamil in Tamil Nadu. Threat, if any, could be from Hindi, due to similarity between the two languages.

from:  Pramod Patil
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 06:44 IST

By any stretch of imagination, it is imperceptible to decisively conclude that growth of English and Hindi will lead to decline of regional languages or dialects. On the contrary, languages get enriched from each other and English has proved its utility the world over by learning to adapt to the veritable local as well as continental situations over the ages. The elite criticism of logistic lacking of ammunitions for growth of our own languages due to an over emphasis of English or Hindi is ludicrous, because communication and communication alone are the primary tool for gauging the utility of a language in any context, and to say that the official promotion of any language will succeed only when it guarantees jobs , will enrich only a politician's lexicon. Besides, even broken English or broken Hindi, or broken another language is good for any Indian who is venturing outside his state for a job.

from:  Gurbir Singh
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 06:08 IST

Every time, the scholars and columnist like you draw the same picture. Some of them argue that English is undermining other Indian languages; you are saying English and Hindi combined undermining regional languages. But why don't you see that we need a common tongue to speak to each other?

Also, in the concluding paragraph, you draw analogy with China, Japan, Korea. But all these are highly mono ethnic countries with a common shared culture among its citizens and a common language.

from:  Raphael Avraham
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 05:57 IST

It is true that Indian languages must be nurtured and allowed to grow -- the author raves and riles against English as though this is a solution. It may enlighten the author that professionals and youth from China, Japan and Korea have been flooding the language schools for decades to learn English -- according to them, they are doing this to improve their knowledge base and attain competitive advantage.

from:  Jay Ravi
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 03:31 IST

This is a spurious argument. Americans have built a fabulous system and desirable society without needing 200 dialects and 30 scripts. Europe has standardized on the roman script even while keeping its linguistic diversity. All Chinese kids learn Pinyin (roman) before kanji script. Japanese added katakana to assimilate foreign words. Forget science and math, India has not even innovated its languages. 200 dialects and 30 scripts just create inequality of opportunity and divide the nation. Lets assimilate vocabulary and idioms instead.

from:  ram kumar
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 03:13 IST

The time, energy and money spent in learning non mother tongue language ( Namely English), if spent in learning Science, Politics, Philosophy could have provided much better results. Obsession of English has done harm to not only other languages but also to other fields i.e. non-lingual skills of Indians. So many bright students in India are denied opportunities in Jobs and higher academics just because they aren't proficient in English.

Compared to westerners, I wonder why we always had this extra burden since our school days to learn another language.And yes, language is the dress of a culture. If we ignore a language we ultimately deprive the culture it represents,

from:  Prashant Kaushik
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 02:53 IST

The author makes interesting observations regarding the rise of predatory languages and their effects on local languages and cultures. In the midst of all this fuss, what we forget is that there were hundreds of languages that have died either because they were no longer speakable or simply because the people who spoke became extinct. India has been a country that absorbs new ideas, so why the hullabaloo? For example - Urdu used to be spoken predominantly in the North during the Mughal reign before the schism between Hindi and Urdu took place, one of the catalysts for the partition of India. But no one thinks about this loss as a problem? But we love Biryani. So why not embrace Sambar, Parathas, Zunka Bhakar along with our local cultures. Just maybe the generation after us will learn to appreciate our unity in diversity.

from:  sukhbir
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 02:32 IST

Fantastic piece by an english professor. There have been many studies conducted which have shown that basic cognitive abilities are developed best when taught in a local language, English should be learnt but not at the cost of your mother tongue.
Language is only a medium to communicate thoughts, if you start thinking in a different language - and you need to think to even think, you are in deep trouble.

from:  Vishvanath
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 01:49 IST

You almost made it a captivating article sir. By the way by any chance did you notice that you are writing in English in an English daily to be read by people who read and speak English!? Your so called notions of English being damaging to culture is really hilarious to say the least in today's era when even Chinese have joined the race of Globalization because of their acceptance to learn English and must say at exceptionally faster rate. What do you think we need any language for? To showcase it in our drawing room as a nicely carved handicraft or to get our message across to the other person we want to convey to? Sir, the local languages will exist but they look pretty only in drawing rooms, not when we are communicating with the global citizens. Across the nations, we all belong to different races, culture and it can be none other than a single language that can unite us. If it is English,so be it. I believe we can communicate in English and still preserve our mother tongue.

from:  somya harsh
Posted on: Sep 27, 2012 at 01:42 IST
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