India to bridge language gap with neighbours

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations plans to create a pool of experts in 10 languages from some neighbouring countries and others who share a cultural heritage with India

Updated - April 10, 2023 09:14 am IST

Published - April 10, 2023 02:44 am IST - NEW DELHI

Representational illustration.

Representational illustration. | Photo Credit: Freepik

Looking to expand its cultural footprint in nations with whom it has historical ties, including those in its immediate neighbourhood, India is planning to create a pool of experts in languages spoken in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan and Indonesia to facilitate better people-to-people exchanges.

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has envisaged a special project called ‘The Language Friendship Bridge’, which plans to train five to 10 people in the official languages of each of these countries.

As of now, the ICCR has zeroed in on 10 languages: Kazakh, Uzbek, Bhutanese, Ghoti (spoken in Tibet), Burmese, Khmer (spoken in Cambodia), Thai, Sinhalese and Bahasa (spoken in both Indonesia and Malaysia).

Shared cultural heritage

“Considering our cultural imprints in these countries, India cannot afford to ignore these countries,” ICCR president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe told The Hindu.

In India, the language learning focus till now has been on European languages like Spanish, French and German, along with the languages of major Asian economies like China and Japan. Though a number of universities and institutes offer courses in these languages, only a handful teach any of the 10 languages on the ICCR list. Sinhala, for example, is taught at the Banaras Hindu University and the School of Foreign Languages (SFL) under the Ministry of Defence. The SFL also has courses in Bahasa, Burmese and Tibetan.

“India requires translators, interpreters and teachers in the languages of these countries with whom it shares a cultural history,” Dr. Sahasrabuddhe said. The idea is to enable India to translate its epics and classics, as well as contemporary literature, into these languages so that people in both countries can read them.

University consultations

The cultural body is in discussion with universities and institutes as well as experts offering foreign language courses in the country on the modalities of implementing the project. Among those being consulted are the foreign language departments at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University, Banaras Hindu University, and the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwa Vidyalaya at Wardha.

The discussions, sources said, have thrown up two possibilities. One is to institute tie-ups wherein teachers from these countries come and teach courses in India. The second approach is ICCR offering scholarships to Indian students to go and study these languages in the countries where they are spoken.

Immersion learning

Language experts feel that the second option is the better one as a proper cultural environment is needed to learn a language in its entirety. “To learn any language, a person has to be in that country. There are many aspects which one needs to learn, like expressions and proper pronunciation, which happen only in the correct environment,” said Soma Ray, a former senior faculty member at the SFL who now teaches at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University.

She also emphasised the need for proper utilisation of trained language experts. “Usually, only languages that help get jobs are the ones that people opt for. This is the reason behind the popularity of European languages like German, French and Spanish.”

Growing demand

Experts also feel that the ICCR’s list of languages needs to be expanded, with India seeing a boom in cultural and economic ties with other neighbouring countries as well.

Meeta Narain, a professor at the Centre for Russian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University offered the example of medical tourism. “A large number of people are visiting India for treatment from countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives and there is an urgent need for a pool of translators and interpreters for facilitating their visits as well,” she said.

Possibly recognising this, JNU will soon be starting a course in Pashto.

The ICCR said that after the rollout of the project this year, the possibility of expanding the current list of languages would be discussed.

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