The importance of understanding many tongues

The more languages reporters speak or understand, the more sources they have access to

October 21, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 10:30 am IST

The Official Language Committee, headed by Home Minister Amit Shah, recently submitted its report to President Droupadi Murmu. It recommended that Hindi be made the medium of instruction in Central institutions of higher education in Hindi-speaking States and regional languages in other States. This has reignited a debate on the imposition of Hindi.

This debate brings to mind the importance for a reporter to speak various languages. Language is a potent tool for a journalist to start a dialogue and build camaraderie with interviewees in order to get a good story.

There are 22 official languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Most Indians speak two or three languages with relative ease. I am envious of people, especially reporters, who can converse in five or six languages. If a reporter speaks more languages, she simply has access to more sources.

Unfortunately, I am fluent in only three — English, Hindi, and Malayalam. Malayalam came in handy when I, as a crime reporter in Delhi, had to tap into the vast police circle of Malayalis who were deployed to tackle the mountains of paperwork at police stations. I can also follow Bangla and Punjabi enough to get by. Without understanding Bangla, it would be nearly impossible for me to sit through hours of briefings at the Delhi office of the Trinamool Congress, where parliamentarians often break into Bangla, especially when they want to share a story of import. Knowing a line or two of Tamil has helped me initiate many conversations and cajole laconic sources to part with crucial details.

Whether we are comfortable or not, there is really no option for reporters other than trying to understand the language of the people being reported. Recently, a colleague from Kerala, who speaks fluent Hindi, complained about the hours of painstaking translation of Punjabi and Haryanvi he had to do to piece together a story on the agricultural crisis in Punjab and Haryana. While there is always the option of taking help from someone on the ground, a reporter will still have to trust the translator’s ability to both translate and communicate the essence of the dialogue.

I can’t imagine doing any ground reporting without knowing the language. Not only does the failure to decipher what the person is saying affect the story; it also becomes funny when communication is through wildly extravagant hand gestures and leads nowhere. Also, the best election stories don’t come from reporters who relentlessly question respondents on electoral choices, but from the debates that voters have among themselves. If a reporter provokes the crowd and suitably places herself in the crowd to hear the argument, she will get the true picture.

Now, coming back to Hindi. How do we define “Hindi-speaking States”? There are many different dialects even in the so-called Hindi-speaking States. Most people would agree that the Hindi spoken in Delhi is vastly different from the Hindi spoken in Patna. I am not even wading into the Hindi versus Bhojpuri or Maithili debate here. Further, the tone, tenor and syntax of Hindi changes from region to region. It makes a reporter’s job much easier and endears her to the public if she is able to embrace their version of Hindi.

Comment | This Hindi – and Hindi alone – counsel is flawed

An enduring regret from my trips to rural India is my incapability sometimes of having freewheeling conversations with the women. I distinctly recall a trip to Sikar in Rajasthan where I could not understand the women as they spoke a dialect of Hindi that I was completely unfamiliar with. I still rue the fact that I failed to get their voices in my reportage.

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