In a multilingual society like India, social acceptability of all mother tongues must be ensured. An unfamiliar language should not be a barrier to enabling equal access to knowledge for all

In a multilingual postcolonial society like India’s, linguistic hierarchy exists in a layered manner. It does not simply have a two-level hierarchy of Hindi and English versus the rest of the Indian languages. The whole linguistic profile of our country forms a pyramid having multiple broad levels, with English at the top and languages with less than 10,000 speakers at the bottom which are “omitted from being reported by the government.” In between the two levels fall the 22 scheduled languages, their “dialects,” the non-scheduled languages and their “dialects” in that order.

One language, many roles

There is a heterogeneity involved in the relationship Hindi shares with the various Indian languages. With languages such as Brajbhasha, Chhattisgarhi, Haryanvi, Nimadi, etc. which are spoken in the Hindi belt, its relationship is hierarchical because these languages have always been viewed as “dialects” of Hindi. In the popular discourse, dialects are considered inferior to languages. However, that is not really the case with regard to the other Indian languages like Gujarati, Bengali, Malayalam, Kashmiri, etc. because like Hindi, they too are listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and hence enjoy a similar status. In addition to this, the notions of the mother tongue, first language, and second language have a very fuzzy position in a multilingual society like ours. In any Indian classroom, a language, for example Hindi, may simultaneously be the mother tongue of some students, first language for some others and second language for a different set.

On the other hand, English has more or less a constant position except in the Northeast and in the elite schools of metropolitan cities where English may be the neighbourhood language for many and mother tongue for a minuscule few.

There is no denying that grouping many languages under one has a repercussion on the identities of these languages and their speakers, leading them to dissociate themselves from or “unlearn” their native languages in favour of the language dominant in education and in the job market. However, the process of dissociation from one’s mother tongue or neighbourhood language goes on at a much larger scale in a much more intense manner with regard to English.

Of aspiration

Thus, be it Hindi — the lingua franca — or languages like Tamil, Malayalam, etc. with a rich and ancient literary tradition, or the other scheduled languages of India, all of them become a casualty of people’s aspirations and compulsion to learn the “international” language, English. The postcolonial mindset of linguistic subjugation has further intensified in the past two decades of liberalisation and English has become a language of opportunities and power not just in India but also in other countries. Technological advancement and economy are some of the major factors that have led to English becoming a super language. In fact there is a strong correlation between the expansion of Anglo-American powers and expansion of the language. These countries have been investing heavily in English to promote linguistic imperialism, with an agenda of strengthening their economic and political powers globally.

Hindi, on the other hand, is a language of desire in a very restricted domain and sense; in fact, it is rather absurd to equate the two languages in this regard. It is mainly in the Hindi belt that the native speakers of the so-called “dialects” of Hindi are expected to master “standard” Hindi, used outside the informal domain. In multilingual societies with a colonial legacy, languages are visibly the markers of class and power. In the hierarchical linguistic structure of such societies, shifting from one level to another level facilitates entry into the higher stratum of society. Also, linguistic aspirations of individuals are determined by their geographical location in the sense of whether they belong to a metropolitan/non-metropolitan urban area or rural area. The shift usually is to the next level in the hierarchy; skipping an intermediate level rarely happens. For example, a Pahari or Sadri speaking person from Himachal Pradesh or Jharkhand, respectively would desire to have a command over Hindi first. Her aspiration to acquire English and become a part of the higher socio-economic class would come later.

Expansion versus promotion

The expansion and promotion of a language may generally be witnessed at three levels: official/administrative, educational and societal. There have been all out efforts to promote Hindi ever since it was declared the official language of the country. Various departments and commissions were set up to promote the use of Hindi primarily in administration. In addition to this, the mandate of government agencies like the central Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology (CSTT) was to create terminologies in all the major Indian languages, used officially in different States. However, large-scale national level efforts and a major focus have been on Hindi much to the chagrin of many non-Hindi speakers, mainly in the Southern States. As for the promotion in education and society, the story is quite different. The increasing dominance of English in the educational sector at the cost of Indian languages is significantly linked to society’s postcolonial outlook towards indigenous languages (and knowledge) that have flourished on Indian soil. Added to this is the disciplinary hierarchy where the only valid language that has some ranking in education is English.

Though there have been no official efforts to promote English, the language has been expanding consistently in urban India. In the past two decades of globalisation especially, its use has increased exponentially, governed by seeming fascination but underlying compulsions in the subconscious of people to survive in the system driven by a market economy and technological advancement. Since the medium and lexicon of market and technology is English-centric, familiarity with it is the route to enter the system and become its beneficiary. Thus, if we juxtapose the two scenarios of English and Hindi, we find that in spite of all the official measures taken to promote Hindi, its use has remained at the free will of the people. On the other hand, the same will of society, born out of compulsion, led to the consolidation of the position of English in education not only as a subject but also as a medium. In fact government measures have caused serious damage to Hindi by developing a heavily Sanskritised and artificial officialese. This has led to people forming the perception that Hindi is essentially a dull and complex language and not developed enough to be used as a medium of academic discourse. Also, it is not an enabling language in the sense that it does not equip students with requisite skills and “smartness” to fetch her recognition in society. This hinders the expansion of the language in various domains and it remains a language of the “masses,” not transcending to “classes,” a language of informal conversation, not of formal discourse. This probably is the plight of the other major Indian languages as well.

To ensure the coexistence of languages, social acceptability of all the 1,652 mother tongues in the linguistic hierarchy is a prerequisite, not just from the point of view of equity but because every language indeed has a well-defined structure governed by its own rules. The existence of a language depends on its use in various informal-formal domains. Therefore, opportunities to use multiple languages must be enhanced and knowledge creation must happen in at least the major Indian languages; translated knowledge is not the solution. In education, fresh perspectives need to be harnessed, backed by democratic principles and critical pedagogy. Also, it is absolutely necessary to give students the choice of Indian languages as a medium of education so that an unfamiliar language is not an impediment in enabling equal access to knowledge for all.

(Mukul Priyadarshini is with the Department of Elementary Education, Miranda House, University of Delhi. Email: mukulpriya@yahoo.co.in)

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