An edited version of this appeared in the DNA last week
What differentiates our species from the rest of the animal kingdom is, not just the use of words, sentences, grammar and syntax for communication, but also the way these are linked to other aspects of our civilizations – society, culture, religion, science, technology, history, literature, poetry and basic expression. Most of us see our identity expressed less in terms of religion or even caste, and more in terms of language and linguistic grouping and mother tongue. One of the questions that vex anthropologists, historians and those involved in the study of evolution of humanity is the appearance of language. They haven’t quite been pinpoint what caused early humans to replace grunts with language, neither have they been able to work out what made different people communicate with each other differently. Or in other words, why didn’t humanity evolve a single language, and what caused so many different groupings of people to communicate with each other in different ways. The 2013 survey of Ethnalogue, a web site that catalogues the languages of the world, declared that there were 7016 languages and dialects. In the case of India, Ethnalogue has this entry “The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 63 are institutional, 130 are developing, 187 are vigorous, 54 are in trouble, and 13 are dying.”
When we talk about languages in India, it is more than a way to communicate or to be understood – it encompasses an entire gamut of socio-cultural-religious facets and for many Indians, our linguistic culture, heritage, pride and identity is as important as a broader national identity. However, despite our obvious pride and love our linguistic heritage, we are a deeply pragmatic people – we have no issues in migrating from our roots, our linguistic base to new areas for trade, commerce or jobs – in the process learning new languages, adapting to somewhat new culture and building new traditions, without letting of our old ones.
The Government of India, through the decades, has had a rather fuzzy policy towards languages. While the stated intent has been to respect all languages and consider Hindi for official use, the reality is that no concrete steps have been taken to implement this. And, rightly so. Any attempt to adopt one language as being more important than any other will have repercussions at the state level. And the reason for this is neither linguistic pride nor culture, nor is it fondness for the language or its literature – it is a rather more real reasons and that is employment. If one Indian language, let us say for example Hindi, became the predominant language of official use – it would give those people whose mother tongue is Hindi an advantage over those whose mother tongue is not Hindi. And this has economic implications on the lives and livelihood of those who wish to work for the government, the administration, bureaucracy or any government department. English has become the defacto link language – not just because it offers upward mobility, but also because it does not give any state or linguistic grouping within India an unfair advantage when it comes to competing for jobs. On the other hand, those who insist on the imposition of a state or a central language for official use, do so less out of pride and joy in their language, and more out of ensuring that those who are part of their core support group have an advantage while it comes to employment.
Indonesia faced a similar conundrum when it achieved independence. With a 100 plus languages what should be the link language. They didn’t pick Dutch (the language of the colonisers), they didn’t pick the most spoken language in the Nation, rather they picked the least spoken language in the country and made it the link language. The idea was that if the most spoken language was picked, it would give an unfair advantage to the people who spoke the language, and cause resentment and divides in the fledgling nation. Pakistan at independence, rather than picking one of the languages native to its geography – Sindhi, Punjabi, Pushtu or even Bangla – went and adopted a language native to India – and more specifically to UP and Bihar – Urdu as the national language. The result was that migrants from India had an unfair advantage in terms of Government jobs, leading to resentment from other linguistic groupings. The genesis of the Bangladesh liberation movement had its roots in the resentment against the imposition of Urdu and the pride that the East Pakistanis had in their language and culture.
When it comes to language as a means communication – the Government of India needs to be language agnostic. It shouldn’t be an either English or Hindi scenario –rather they need to put out their communication in all official state languages, so that the maximum number of people have the ability to read it. Furthermore, Parliament itself needs to move away from a 2 language formula and empower parliamentarians to speak in the language of their choice. Use translators effectively to translate the proceedings into other languages. If the purpose of language is communication, and the purpose of communication is to be understood, then we need to allow people to communicate in the language they know best. When it comes to language as culture, the Government can, at best support it – but it is up to people to learn languages, not the government to ensure that it is learnt. What the government can do, is to use its direct control on education to make language learning fun. They need to ensure that children don’t dread language classes. Language education needs to be less about rules of grammar, and conjugation of verbs and more about basic communication skills and storytelling. Many of us relate more to the language in films and television than is taught in schools and colleges. Which is probably why Bollywood and Hindi television have been far more successful in spreading language than any state run scheme. Maybe the Government can take a leaf out of this book.