How India’s many languages can be used as an educational resource

A new project by the Tamil Nadu government identifies the potential of multilingualism to become an educational resource

March 04, 2022 11:38 am | Updated 06:59 pm IST

Multilingualism, the way forward

Multilingualism, the way forward | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We don’t oppose Hindi. We oppose only the imposition of Hindi,” announced Chief Minister M.K. Stalin on January 25 this year. The occasion was Anti-Hindi Martyrs’ Day. Led by E.V. Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, during the freedom struggle, and through the 50s and 60s by C.N. Annadurai and others in the DMK, the fierce anti-Hindi protests not only dislodged the Indian National Congress from Tamil Nadu but made a resounding statement about the very nature of Indian federalism: that the principle of unity in diversity, embodied in the Constitution, may not be trifled with.

Yet, the habit of seeing language diversity as a problem has led successive central governments to try to ‘solve’ it by privileging Hindi — which doesn’t amount to actually teaching it in any effective way. The two-language formula has been chanted as a mantra for decades, even as leaders mouth platitudes about protecting the ‘mother tongues’.

At long last, however, in one State — Tamil Nadu — the bitterness left by linguistic double-talk seems to be giving way to a constructive as well as creative approach. Language is being seen through the lens of ‘education for all’ in a federal, egalitarian India. As Stalin went on to say: “We are fond of Tamil, but that doesn’t mean we hate any other language… Those who wish to impose Hindi consider it a symbol of dominance. Just like they think there should be only one religion, they think there should be only one language.”

Hindi is the mother tongue of only 41% of the population, while the country’s Hindi speakers constitute just 53%. But exactly how many languages are there in India? According to the Census of India, 2018, ‘No fewer than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India, as mother tongues, with 21 of them spoken by 10,000 or more people.’

The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution lists 22 official languages, while the People’s Linguistic Survey, run by Bhasha Research and Publication Centre with a team of linguists, social historians and volunteer-activists under the leadership of G.N. Devy, puts the total number of languages at 780 and the number of different scripts at 66.

Given this reality, it is impossible for any Indian who travels, migrates, works, or interacts in any way with others to hold on to a blinkered vision of language. For multilingualism is not just a cultural quirk prevalent in the Indian subcontinent, but actually an artless and utterly natural way of survival. Pointing out that language is intrinsic to humans, Rama Kant Agnihotri, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Delhi, says: “Languages flow into each other. That is the very nature of language, and that is the way that languages flourish. A language degenerates when it is isolated, or tries to be become more standardised or ‘pure’…”

Stressing the imperative need to change the very way we conceptualise language, and to adopt a “pedagogical paradigm of giving it respect and recognition”, Agnihotri warns that the quality of native multilingualism is far too often curbed in the process of formal education. “When a child enters the school environment, she falls silent….” All languages tend to sound like Greek to her, so rarely is she creatively taught any, including the medium of instruction, which may not be her mother tongue at all. So, instead of helping the child learn anything, as any language would normally do, ‘language’ presents itself as a lock on the right to education. In all these years, too few have been given keys to open it for themselves. No wonder children in many parts of the country drop out before middle school.

If the right interventions are made, can “language” be enabled to express the needs and aspirations of our multi-cultural society? In Tamil Nadu, it looks like one vital link between language learning and educational empowerment is being forged. The government’s Textbook and Education Services Corporation (TNTB and ESC) has zeroed in on the crying need for translations. For the first time, the usual obstacle of paucity of funds has been overcome by a State government working with several reputed private publishers to commission translations, and make it worth their while by offering to prescribe the books and thus open up a wide market within the educational system.

This project has come from an unusual meeting of minds like the secretary, School Education Department, Udhayachandran; the deputy director of translations, TNTB and ESC, Sankara Saravanan; and publishing professional Mini Krishnan. Well-known in the field of translation, Mini has selected works from across India, sourced translators, and edited some 141 English renditions of major books over the past four decades.

Of 170 textbooks on engineering, medicine, law, agriculture, and veterinary science selected for translation into Tamil by the TNTBC, 50 will be made available by June 2022 under the Muthamizh Arignar project. Simultaneously, TNTBC is bringing out new and existing translations of classical and contemporary Tamil literature. Besides, scheduled over the next few months under the Thisaithorum Dravidam wing of the project, are several translations from Tamil to English, to other Indian languages (beginning with south Indian languages), as well as translations into Tamil from English and other languages. In addition, children’s books have been given a fillip: noticing that kids haven’t been reading much during the pandemic, TNTBC has commissioned 50 Tamil storybooks for various ages.

While raising literacy and learning levels as well as promoting literature, this project should also send the message of multilingualism as educational resource across the country. India’s unity is based on multiple tongues, a common feature of all dynamic human societies. When people not only speak and understand many languages but are also taught to read and write in them, it can sharply ramp up the educational potential of linguistic diversity.

The Bengaluru-based writer is an author and translator.

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