Language matters

Mulayam Singh Yadav says that English is the “the language of destruction, which has had a telling impact on the economy of India”.

It actually reminded me of an incident a few years ago. My family and myself were on a trip (somewhere in Karnataka, I don’t remember the actual destination) and on the way, we stopped by a lake. There was a huge commotion there. Somebody drowned. He was a student and had come with his friends from North India.

There was a warning sign in front of the lake not to enter the lake because it is dangerous. But it was written in Kannada. Those students couldn’t read or understand it. When his friends discovered that one of their group is drowning, they started shouting for help. A few people came rushing in but they didn’t understand Hindi, so they didn’t understand what was going on.

When my father and myself went to ask what was going on, the localite spoke to us in Kannada and said that if he knew about the drowning person, he could’ve jumped into the lake and saved that person, but he didn’t understand what the students were shouting about.

Now, consider this. If both of them knew a common language, wouldn’t a person’s life been saved?

That common language happens to be English in India. Now, imagine these kind of scenarios on a scale of 1,080,264,388 … we would have had utter chaos.

I hope people (like the person in question) forget their so-called ideologies and adopt some pragmatism instead.

23 thoughts on “Language matters

  1. But Mulayam’s point is that the common language should be Hindi, not English. So your anecdote is a red herring. In Mulayam’s world, the sign would have been written in Hindi and everybody would have unerstood it.

  2. I agree with Gavri.
    Problem with these politicians is that they are not able to explain/express their point… instead they force it over the population.

    Once I read an article ‘Prof seeks return to Indian ethos’. Some text of this article probably gives the reason behind Mulayam’s ‘Angrezi hatao’ movement.

    —– from Times Of India newspaper dated 2005-02-20 Sunday —–

    Prof Kapur (professor of English and founder of Centre for Sanskrit Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) said that western influence had divided India into several nations — rich and poor, English and non-English speaking, rural and urban. “Obsessed with the West, Indians have dumped their values and in the process lost self-respect, over 2.5 million manuscripts in India are lying ignored.�

    Highlighting the rich language and the philosophy of India, developed in over five thousand years, Prof Kapur said that the West had realised the importance of Sanskrit way back in 1807 when almost all European universities instituted Sanskrit chair.

    “In contrast, our university curriculum is still loaded with western thoughts with little space to Indian thoughts.� he added.

  3. What makes you think that common language is English? I really don’t think so. Surely there are way more people who speak/understand Hindi? I dunno about Hindi education in the south, but definitely seems like nobody gives a damn.

  4. It’s interesting that he notes Russia and China, countries which both have encompassed many languages. They haven’t adopted English, but they have adopted a dominant national language, and that language represents a clear hierarchy of ethnic power.

    I’d had a vague impression that English had an advantage in India because it didn’t belong to any particular group. Is it really viable (politically) that Hindi become the national language of India? There really has to be one such language — Canada can get away with two languages (barely) because it’s actually a pretty small country, and the stakes just aren’t that high. India seems more challenging.

  5. The point is learn hindi or whatever if you will. But if you want to come out of your well (which might be you neighbourhood, city or country), you *have* to also know English.

    Having studied in an REC(now NITs) I have seen how brilliant students from West Bengal, UP struggled in the first few years of college, trying to master “the language of destruction”.

    Mulayam’s views are all right if taken in isolation. Common heritage should have allowed us to learn an Indian language.

    But for non-hindi speaking people, who already know their mother language, what would they prefer learning as a second language? Of course the language which can get them their jobs.

    Mulayam is barking without substance. Because of people like him, people move around in cars in delhi with Hindi and Gurumukhi number plates. Whom are these helping?

  6. In my Manish Jethani is right. English must be taught as global/international language. Hindi as national language, also preserve/maintain our identity/heritage, and local language for religious/communal reasons.

    We have to accept that learning just one language is not enough. English is must to communicate with those outside our country, and no one would leave his mother tongue (local/religion language). BUT at the same time having English as national language is also not acceptable. We must have an Indian language as national language… and not a foreign language.

  7. I have an interesting experience to recall in relation to languages. I had travelled to Norway last April to attend a conference on Web accessibility organized by the Agder University College in Grimstad, Norway. I was there for a week. On my last day at the college, I was asked to fill in some forms which would help the college to reimburse my travelling expenses. However, for this I required my international bank account number (IBAN) which I did not know.

    The kind lady in charge of the reimbursements asked me to call up the ICICI help line in India and get my IBAN. I dialled the ICICI help line in Bangalore and asked the guy who took the phone at the other end.

    “Sir, this is an ISD call from Norway. I am actually from Bangalore and is attending an international conference in Norway. The folks at the University here require my IBAN for reimbursing my travel expenses. My account number is xx-xxxxxxx. Could you help me to find this out….??

    Just after I finished and gave the phone back to Katharina, I saw an amazed expression on her face. The expression was explained by her next question.

    “Do you have to speak in English to make someone in
    India understand what you want. He must be a local guy, so why did you not speak in a local language, say Hindi ?”

    I explained to her that though Hindi is officially the national language, most of the business is conducted in English, call-centers being especially so.
    Still I could see that she was not convinced. It is not surprising since Norwegians talk in English only when there is an international audience to their speech or when the subject is too technical to present in the native language.

    Food for thought to us Indians. I like English as a language and advocate its use, but shouldn’t we use our own languages for conducting local business? I observe that once I am outside my house, I speak in English 90% of the time with friends, colleagues etc, though we could as well use Hindi, Tamil or Kannada. I think we should make a conscious effort to give local languages their due, otherwise we might lose our identity as Indians in a rapidly changing global scene.


  8. I think politicians have a very convenient way of masking the real issues at hand by focussing more on the non-issues. A case in example would be reverting cities’ names to their old ones. I loved the old ones ( esp., Bombay). Regarding , the language conventions, Manish’s viewpoint seems fair enough.

  9. I agree to Manish’s viewpoint. Although, at the risk of sounding like nitpicking, I have objection to Vikram’s this line

    “Hindi as national language, also preserve/maintain our identity/heritage, and local language for religious/communal reasons.”

    I agree that there should be entries in local language, hindi and english. But the deal about binding Hindi with heritage/identity and local languages with only religious/communal reasons is wrong. To local people, their local language plays a major role in their heritage/identity not just religious/communal(?) reasons. I am not being a local-language-in-danger type of person, but still wanted to put down my-2-paise comment.

  10. @vikram:
    I’m replying to you because you said that you agree with me and then went on to quote some professor’s ideas about why we should include more “Indian thoughts” and reduce “Western thoughts” in education. I find the distinction ridiculous unless of course the course is philosophy.
    All I did was point out the flaw in Swaroop’s argument. Doesn’t mean that I agree with Mulayam.
    I don’t pay taxes so the Government can spend the damn money on preserving our heritage.

    And blaming English for the Urban/Rural divide was weird. Is there any country that doesn’t have such a divide?

  11. @Gavri : Thanks for pointing that out. However, what I was trying to say is that we cannot promote any other language at the cost of English, that will be harmful.

    @Vikram : I don’t see the point you are making with that article. That article talks about our youth aping the western culture, that’s a different story ;)

    @Premshree, @Ian, @Sandip : Everything in India takes a communal angle because of unscrupulous politicians. But let’s get back to topic. Hindi _is_ the national language in India, but it’s not compulsory to know Hindi. Hindi is common in North India, although each state has a dominant language like Gujarati (in Gujarat) and Punjabi (in Punjab). In South India, it is the local language that is completely dominant. In my state Karnataka, Kannada is most common, then comes English and Hindi comes a distant third. In Tamil Nadu, the people are zealous about Tamil and ignore all other languages. And the story goes on. My point is that, except for the dominant local languages, English could be considered the language of communication. The problem is even worse when it comes to international communication as Sandip points out.

    @Vikram: I never said that English should be the national language. No. What I meant is that we don’t have a single language in India that could be considered universal, except for perhaps, English.

    @Manish, @Anand, @Niara: Manish’s suggestion makes most sense, but what will be the medium of communication for subjects like physics, chemistry or even engineering subjects like Mechanical and Engineering Graphics? Yes, it has to be English. We cannot ignore English and we cannot throw it out. That kind of thinking is dangerous. Instead, we should promote our local languages and encourage artists in the local languages (which is another story)… anyway, is expecting every student in the country to learn three languages practical? I wonder… What about Sanskrit then – can we leave that out from schools? Is it _ever_ possible to make three specific languages (international, national, local) compulsory?

  12. If hindi is made the common language over english,then the people from hindi speaking states would have an added advantage.that should not be there.btw,i had read sometimes back an article by ramachandra guha saying that hindusthani should be the common language and not hindi.whats the diff b/w hindustani and hindi?

  13. I accept that the quoted article is almost out of context of this blog post, and discussion. May be unconsiously I was trying to express that _choice_of_common_language_will_effect_our_culture_and_values, and that it must be chosen carefully.

    To some extent I am sort of annoyed and frustated as well at the typical state of affairs – India undecided about the common language even after more than 50 yrs of independence; Western culture and thoughts depleting Indian culture values and thought; Increasing crime; Increasing inclination to Pop culture.

    It is not that I do not appreciate Shakespeare, or pop music, but I also do appreciate beauty of Indian thought, Indian languages, Indian culture – and when I see that Indian languages/culture/values are being sidelined/getting-depleted I feel disturbed frustrated annoyed and insulted.

  14. Haha…

    Isn’t this funny? If Mulayam meant that each state should promote its local language, I give him kudos for that. But, I seriously doubt that. Why on earth would I want to learn hindi? Give me one logical reason. Unless your mother tongue is Hindi, there should be no need to learn that language.

    India is a diverse country, which also happens to be the largest DEMOCRACY in the world with 19 OFFICIAL LANGUAGES. Its our diversity and the respect for it that should unite us. Mindless conformity is not necessary and is in fact contrary to the principles of democracy.

    I don’t know if you guys remember, back in the 60s and 70s when the Indian government tried to force hindi down peoples throats, it resulted in a catastrophe. Look at Assam, why do you think they want seperation?

    In closing, its very correct that English be India’s official language. If at all the signs should be in any language, first, they should be in the local language, and underneath, there should also be an English translation. (If you ever go to Quebec, you will see it done correctly).

    PS: Don’t kill your own mother-tongue (even if it’s not hindi)… protect it… after all that’s all you can claim to be your own tradition and heritage

  15. Just because hindi speaking people is a majority,how can you force that as a national language?????Come on….Wake up! We are living in a modern world of liberty!!!!!!The people gets to decide what is best for them.NOt the politicians,not the majority for the minority!!!!!

    I can understand hindi and can speak,read write my local language.If I have to work in NOrth INdia,I will also learn how to write hindi.I get to decide……..Let people decide for themselves.It applies to english also.

    India is a land of diversity,thats what is special about India.Instead of making hindi as national language in the name of unifying the country,let the common man decide for himself.

  16. If u Try to thrust hindi in non-hindi states , then for sure there will be disintegration of Indian union in the name of Language . Already there are armed mobs supporting the cause of their languages . If u call me anti-indian , then let it be , I dont need a Indian label by learning Hindi . Keep it urself

  17. First “HINDI IS NOT THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE” and 90% of Indians [my assumption] don’t know that India doesn’t have a national language. If you want to know the facts check Wikipedia or Indian constitution or Google.
    Hindi is just the official language of the center and along with English. This doesn’t mean that Hindi is the national language of India.
    Doesn’t expect the local people to learn hindi just because some tourists are visiting are south india.Can a south Indian expect the same in north Indian towns and palces?Better learn the local language to interact with the local people this applies to both south indians and north indians

Comments are closed.