Language, the opening move

The ‘Hindi’ controversy foretells the larger political narrative for the coming years

June 07, 2019 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:38 pm IST

Language makes us human. During the process of natural evolution, the human brain acquired the ability to engage with the world primarily through linguistic transactions. Language, therefore, has become the mode of knowing for Homo sapiens. Being the foundation of knowledge, language plays a pivotal role in formal institutions of knowledge. It is as necessary for thought and knowledge to exist as are air and water for the survival of life.

Scientific evidence shows that humans came to use language, a semiotic system made of verbal icons, some 70,000 years ago. The species continued to develop the brain’s linguistic ability as well as the semantic complexity of languages in use throughout these millennia. The intermittent prolonged spells of the ice ages did not deter the species in its language pursuit. We are now at a stage when a newborn manages to learn the entire language capability of the brain developed over the last 70,000 years.

By the time a child enters school, she already has the language competence that schools promise to give her. This is not to undermine the importance of formal education. Schooling can indeed bring a greater self-awareness of the language one uses. It can, under ideal conditions, help the learner in acquiring a greater ease in processing abstraction and judgment, the two highest cognitive abilities that the human brain has developed. It is now established beyond doubt that if a child receives formal instruction in the language of its home environ, the ease of doing cognitive transactions is enhanced.

The second language

As one tries to understand the nature of the language controversy that erupted last week, it should be instructive to ask how many languages children in most other countries are required to learn. The answer to this question can leave us ashamed and angry. In England, Germany and most European Union countries, children are required to study only one language in primary school and another language of their choice in middle school. In the U.S., it is English and Spanish or some other language as a ‘second language’. In Japan, it is Japanese and English from the primary level. In Hong Kong, it is primarily English, but also Mandarin and, if children wish, some Cantonese. In Egypt, Arabic is the primary language of instruction with a six-year stint in English as a ‘second language’. Almost all over the world, with the exception of some former colonies, children are required to study primarily one language and another one as a ‘second language’. In India they are asked to tackle three languages, and if their home language happens to have no formal status, they are faced with the daunting task of having to cope with four languages.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring had reported in 2016 that there were 47 million drop-outs by the 10th standard in India. Of course, gender discrimination, absence of toilets for girls, economic marginalisation, poor infrastructure, inadequate teacher training and lack of employment at the end of high-school education contribute to the ‘expulsion’ of young learners from schools. But equally crucial a reason is the language challenge. If we have to bring this great injustice to an end, sooner or later India will have to accept the scientific premise that education in the mother tongue is the key to the life of the mind. ‘Mother tongue’ does not, however, mean the language determined by the state as a desirable ‘first’ language but a language that parents think will give the child the ease of learning.

A colonial legacy

The question of language education as well as that of the language for education has three important facets — linguistic (including neurological and pedagogical), political and administrative. Since Independence, we have laid a disproportionately high emphasis on the administrative side of this question. For purely administrative considerations we have kept oscillating between one position and another, bringing in its trail bitterly fought language battles. The colonial legacy of English as a language of modernity and knowledge has made it difficult for us to bring the vacillations to any rational conclusion. The nation appears to have forgotten the violent language movements in the past in Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; now the draft National Education Policy (NEP) has opened a festering wound once again.

The face of the controversy stoked through the draft is of a political nature. During the last two decades, NEPs have become an old habit with us, though none of them resulted in any genuinely fresh breakthrough in education. The new NEP draft comes at a time when the nation is sharply divided, thanks to the no-holds-barred abusive rhetoric during the recent election. It is not surprising that what was post-haste deleted came to be seen as imposition of Hindi in violation of the linguistic sovereignty of the States guaranteed by the Constitution.

The BJP’s zeal

The zeal of the BJP to spread Hindi in non-Hindi States is based on deeply flawed premises. To begin with, the government does not have any authentic data on the linguistic composition of the country. The 2011 Census data on languages, published last year, was heavily doctored. It presents Hindi as the ‘mother tongue’ of over 52 crore people by subsuming more than 5 crore claimants of Bhojpuri and more than 9 crore speakers of nearly 61 other languages — claimed as ‘other’ by their speech communities — from Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. ‘The Hindi’ is probably spoken by not more than 30% of the population, but it is not the mother tongue for the remaining 70%. Knowingly causing risk to any indigenous language has been described by the UNESCO as ‘an act amounting to genocide’. I will use the term ‘phonocide’ to describe the expansionist aspirations in the name of nationalism. The aspirations are not to be attributed to the speakers of Hindi, but to the politics of the pseudo-nationalists who have no patience with the cultural diversity of India, so sensitively enshrined in the Constitution.

The sharp reaction that came up reflects democratic aspirations of the non-Hindi languages. The sparks that flew — before the controversy was hurriedly doused, probably temporarily so — foretell the larger political narrative for the coming years. In numerous ways, it is likely to be a conflict between the pseudo-nationalists and the constitutional democrats, a conflict over culture, language, knowledge, faith, history, world-views and approaches to modernity. One hopes it does not take the form of a north against south conflict. Language, being the foundation of both civilisation and knowledge, has naturally become the opening move in what is to come.

G.N. Devy is Chairman, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India

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