Let a hundred tongues be heard

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

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:41 pm IST

Published - September 27, 2012 12:27 am IST

27th editpage sketch

27th editpage sketch

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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