Thinking Out Loud

languages

Originally published: June 23rd, 2014

The current controversy raging over the Central Government’s directive on the use of Hindi reminded me of an incident that occurred when I was an exchange student in the US. At a huge gathering of exchange students, I ran into a fellow Indian and not knowing what state she was from, started speaking to her in English. My French friend was taken aback. ‘Why aren’t you talking to her in “Indian”?’ she asked me. That was my first ever run in with the uniqueness and complexities of Indian multilingualism.

As I see it, there are two aspects to the debate: Hindi versus other regional languages and Hindi versus English.

Though I studied in an English school, at home I was always surrounded by Marathi literature, music, drama, poetry, films. But considering the fact that I read, write, speak and listen to English more often, I just find it easier to articulate my thoughts in the language. Today my generation just finds it more convenient to use English/ hindi, Marathi in roman script on social media, in text messages. (Although the quality of English is such, that it probably makes both Wren and Martin turn around restlessly in their graves)

This does not in any way detract or take away from the importance I attach to my mother tongue. On the other hand, I regret how I can pick up any piece of “literature” in English and comprehend it without much difficulty, while I cannot do so that effortlessly in Marathi. It denies me such a vast treasure of knowledge.  One of the rewarding things about growing up in Pune was always being surrounded by means to access this cultural heritage. But not everyone takes advantage of this. (for example the exasperating kind who’ll pronounce avatar as ‘ay-veh-tahr’).

There is enough evidence that shows that a child who is taught in his mother tongue can learn, understand and retain better. There’s a reason my parents put me in an English medium school and scores of parents continue to do so. English is seen as the language of opportunities, of career advancement, of a better life. That’s what gave India an edge over China apparently. But, are we technologically, R&D wise better off? Is our success in IT and pharma only because we could speak English? What I mean to say is we need to stop attributing so many things to the knowledge of English only. There is no either/ or.  We can be good in both English and our mother tongue and succeed in life. I personally think English is much easier to pick up. I have friends from the Marathi medium who speak way better English than some of my English medium friends, though the converse is very rare to find. As more and more people aspire towards fluency in English and its use increases, especially in the virtual world, it makes me wonder whether we are heading towards an era of marginalization of vernacular languages? In an ideal world I would prefer being true to each language by having a wonderful command over, fluency  and vocabulary in it.

The second issue is that of Hindi versus regional languages. I don’t understand why our politicians insist of this exclusivity of “only” Tamil or Marathi or Bengali as opposed to Hindi. We’re Indians, we’re fortunately born polyglots! I’m still amused at how seamlessly my 4 year old niece can switch from Marathi to English to Hindi rhymes! And age is really no bar. I have exchange student friends who’ve learnt to understand and speak Marathi in a year, while some could even write in devnagari! All you need is the will to do it. I think the three language formula was a great recommendation and should have been implemented. According to it, someone from a Hindi state will learn Hindi, an Indian language and English while a person from a non-Hindi speaking state will learn their mother tongue, Hindi and English. This would’ve given rise to “link languages” throughout India.

Languages are dynamic, rich, ever evolving. They should keep up with the changes in society and accordingly, the users of the language should adapt it to the times through constant updating. Knowing languages can open many gates! My own experience backs this up. Just using a few snippets of Mandarin in China or Tulu in Udupi elicited such warm smiles, helpful responses and not to mention the huge discounts on shopping! Try exploring languages. They’re beautiful. I’ve found words/ phrases in German that describe feelings and moments so perfectly, I didn’t think they could be put into words. (http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/, anyone?) So if you’re working somewhere away from home, travelling, interning, just learn the local language (besides the usual list of curse words :P) You’ll be surprised at how far it takes you.

Languages are not and shouldn’t be treated as barriers, they’re bridges. They help you better understand and appreciate someone’s culture and point of view. According to the 2001 Census, India has 122 languages. According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India conducted by the Bhasha Institute, India has 780. Something its Director said really struck me, “if every language represents a unique world view, then statistically no more than four percent of Indian world views have been articulated in the Parliament.” How astounding is that?

I wanted to hear PM Modi speak in English so I googled his Bhutan speech and was surprised to find that it was in Hindi! The way I interpret it, he’s trying to put across the message that though we can speak in English, we prefer to speak in Hindi as a means of showcasing our distinct identity and culture. Last year when I heard Dilma Rouseff  lambasting the US in Portuguese for the NSA spying and I hardly noticed that she wasn’t speaking in English. All I cared about was the substance of her message. Our diplomats can smartly use English to negotiate at multilateral forums, but the language that our leaders make speeches in is symbolic. I think PM Modi shouldn’t stick only to Hindi but choose his language according to the occasion. That will indicate that as a modern, emerging power we’re over our colonial hangover, ready to use the English language to our advantage while at the same time embracing our cultural pluralism and multilingualism.

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