The language of development

Indian regional languages distributionIndian regional languages distribution

There is some debate on whether Hindi should be used officially as a government language, that is meeting resistance from anti-Hindi quarters who see it as marginalizing the non-Hindi population of India. On the other hand, there are those who think that English marginalizes most people of India, since effective communicators in English are a minuscule part of the population. Both views have merit and the government will certainly need to communicate in one or more languages, none of which will be acceptable to the entire population, given India’s regional and economic diversity.

On a related note, it is rather distressing to see that there is little focus on the development of the regional languages of India. Today, quality education is increasingly available solely in English. Students who study in regional languages are forced to adapt to English to pursue higher studies and employment.

Whether government communication happens in Hindi isn’t as important to the larger picture, as the development of education in regional languages. Most of the time, the citizens of India are rarely paying attention to official channels of communication by the government, and their needs of understanding government communication are adequately met by media in every language of their choice.

However, day to day opportunities for improving conditions are another story altogether.

One evening, around the campfire at the Indian Homeschooling Conference, a homeschooling parent, who is a foreigner married to an Indian described property disputes they were having with villagers where they had built their home. They were on the side of the right, and the court ruled in their favor, but after the entire case being heard in Marathi, the judge pronounced the judgement in English. “I wanted to scream,” she said. “Speak in Marathi, so that this crowd of twenty people understand what exactly is being said! Tell them that we have not broken laws and are harming no one, so that the threat of hostility to our family ends!”

This is one among many ways in which how a country operating in a language most people don’t understand clearly leaves behind citizens while it chases the ideal existence.

Today, we speak of India as a wannabe world power. We speak of our economy and market and democracy and more, yet our standards of living compare unfavorably with some of the worst developed third world countries. We have a large population that is a burden to progress instead of asset, because most of the time, people don’t really know what is “officially” going on, though everyone is a master of “everyone knows”, bribes to get stuff done, and plain old jugaad.

While the processes of the country operate in a language most people don’t understand, access to them will remain limited to the few who speak the language (or actively find other ways of interfacing). While access to knowledge remains restricted to languages other than the mother tongue of citizens, the instinctive absorption of information, trivia and a hundred other forms of knowledge that come from exposure beyond training in an alien language will remain elusive.

It isn’t just languages, but languages are gateways to culture. As traditions die out, and large scale displacement accompanies development, is it not important to sit up and take note of the hundreds of Indian dialects already vanished and prevent more from going the same route? With disappearing languages are disappearing histories, disappearing bodies of knowledge. Will a focus on revival of languages aid access to indigenous knowledge that has evolved in the circumstances it will be applied in? It cannot be possible that a continuous civilization spanning thousands of years brought only religious knowledge to the world that is worthy of keeping.

[Inserted update] Harini Calamur points out in her edit in DNA: The Eligibility of Language:

The 2013 survey of Ethnologue, a website that catalogues the languages of the world, declared that there were 7,016 languages and dialects. In the case of India, Ethnologue 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.” 

India seems to have got into a rut of seeing its citizens as a liability. Yet, the density of the population itself proclaims that India is a place where life can and does thrive. How is it possible that centuries of practices that allowed life to thrive are seen as so unimportant as to not merit efforts to keep alive and evolve further? How is it that our focus of language and learning is so externalized, that we are desperately applying solutions that evolved in another place to use us to build the empires of others and ignoring that which made India fertile and prosperous enough to be an attraction through the centuries?

If we look at developed countries today, they all operate in languages citizens know. Be it English speaking countries or France, Germany, China, Japan… They have their traditions, they have their unique practices and indigenous knowledge. They have entire sections of the internet buzzing with active users, advanced knowledge translated effortlessly because their languages were considered important enough to make knowledge available in. Citizens do not need interpreters to seek knowledge for themselves. Compare the French or Spanish versions of Wikipedia with Hindi or Marathi. Compare the quantity and quality of education in each language. See regional WordPress users timidly using minimal installs, while Indian software coders write fancy themes and plugins in English alone.

But open content volunteers are still making an effort to extend the knowledge to more and more people, while governments remain content to operate in English. It is intellectual inequality that appears to train some people for jobs, and others for joblessness. Where are the excellent educators in regional languages? Where are the efforts to raise the intellectual potential in regional languages? What would happen if there were ministries for languages at the state and center tasked with ensuring flow of information to all citizens in languages they understand?

And not just regional languages, but languages of different abilities as well! Where has Doordarshan’s news for the deaf gone? Why are there no braille newspaper versions sponsored by government funds if necessary? Why can’t newspapers be forced to supply braille editions – subscription only, if necessary – and news channels forced to broadcast at least news highlights, if not more in sign language?

Access to knowledge grows people. Access to knowledge in languages people understand grows more people.

Imagine a country with the size of India and the size of its population able to seek and grow knowledge in the language they are at ease with. Wouldn’t our intellectual capital grow? Wouldn’t more people engage with development more effortlessly? What would happen if agricultural colleges provided translations of important knowledge in the mother tongue of farmers? If economic theories were available in every citizen’s mother tongue? Forget all that, we don’t even have laws accessible in regional languages easily. Laws citizens are expected to obey – without having access to read them to know what they say. How would lawlessness decrease, if the word of the law never reached the ears of the common man in a language he understands?

In my view, more important than nitpicking about what language the government uses, it is important that excellent and advanced education be made available in regional languages. It is important that the government takes an interest in world knowledge being made available to Indians in regional languages by forming various task forces that translate it. Teams contributing translations to public sites like Wikipedia, special knowledge banks of important works in other languages and more.

Language isn’t merely a symbol of unity or supremacy, it is the breathing thread that weaves citizens together. Important weaves must be woven with threads that connect people.

So, the real question isn’t whether the government should tweet and update Facebook in English, Hindi or both, the real question is why official government documents are not available in ALL the regional languages of India.

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About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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