Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Marginalisation of Mother Tongues and the Linguistic Apartheid in India

Open Space
organised a discussion on
"The Marginalisation of Mother Tongues and the Linguistic Apartheid in India"
and screened Ismail Merchant's celluloid adaptation of Anita Desai's novel
In Custody
International Mother Language Day

21st February, 2010
Open Space - Lucknow Office

It is estimated that half of the world's 6,500 languages will go into extinction during the twenty-first century with around one language dying every two weeks.

Over the years a generation of English-medium educated urban Indians has emerged that is ashamed to use their mother tongue. And this attitude of theirs gets reflected in various spheres of life.

Undoubtedly, marriage is the most important ocassion of one's life, yet urban Indians today increasingly prefer English over their mother tongue in which to print the invitations to the greatest occasion of their life. This is also very stupid, as the people the invitation cards are generally distributed amongst, speak English only as their second language.

If a foreigner today watches Hindi cinema and television, the person will probably get the impression that Hindi is a mere dialect with no alphabet of it own, as the credits are almost always in English or in the Roman alphabet. The Devanagari alphabet is completely absent. Same is the case with the shop names and billboards in the rapidly emerging shopping malls in urban India.

Any English medium educated urban Indian from the Hindi belt would find it easy to name at least five English authors, if not more. But if asked to name a few of the Hindi language, I doubt if he/she would be able to name even one.

Personally, I love English, and endlessly try to better my skills in it, but I also respect my mother tongue, which is cetainly not English. My love for English has not blinded me to the beauty of my mother tongue and its literature, unlike a number of my fellow urban Indians. In a survey conducted in sixteen cities - metros and large and small towns - spread across the four zones of India, by CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times, it was found that fifty-seven per cent or six out of ten feel that English is making us forget our mother tongue. I believe it is important to learn English for international communication, but it is equally important to retain our respect and love for our mother tongue, Hindi or whatever it may be, and interest in its literature and music.

It is worth quoting Pavan K. Verma here, from his book Being Indian, pp. 121-124:

The British did not propagate English in India to add to the IT skills of Indians in the new millennium. For them language was a means to consolidate their colonial rule. Lord Macaulay had stated the colonial agenda with complete clarity as far back as 1835: 'We must at present do our best to form a class of persons who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.' In a country whose culture and civilization was thousands of years old this was an audacious statement of policy. But Macaulay could not, even in his wildest dreams, have predicted how successful his policy would be. Educated Indians persevered to master the alein language; they saw it as a tool for higher employment, and as a means to get closer to the rulers. Even today the Webster's dictionary defines a 'baboo' as a native clerk who writes English. Of course, it was not unusual for a colonial power to succeed in moulding that attitude and lifestyle of the native elite. But what makes India unique is the ease with which this objective was achieved, and the enduring ideological hegemony of the colonial power long after its defeat. The pursuit of English was the most visible symbol of this cultural emasculation, for it was entwined with a deep sense of racial inferiority in the presence of the white-skinned rulers. Thus, while many other subject nations made the attempt to reverse the cultural colonization after Independence, or at least to reassert the relevance and priority of indigenous cultural roots, Indians flocked to English medium schools with greater vengeance after the British left, and drifted away from their cultural roots in direct proportion to the extent of their 'education'. In time, the knowledge of English became a status symbol. People were judged on the hierarchical scale by their ability to speak English with the right accent and fluency. The British aim to not only physically subjugate the natives but also to colonize their minds was a spectacular success.

This is not an indictment of English. On the contrary, there can be little doubt of the international reach of the language, and its utility as a second language or a link language. It is, though, a comment on the Indian elite, and the ease with which they made the language meant to rule them their first language. It is a comment too on the neglect of Indian languages, many of which have languished in the shadow cast by the pursuit of English. A language is not only a utility; it is a symbol of a culture, the repository of the heritage of a people, an indespensable mark of identity...

...The truth is that for most Indians English has been largely an instrument of social exclusion; the upper crust of India has presided over this linguistic apartheid, while the rest of India has consisted of victims or aspirants. Such a state of affairs has fostered a deep sense of inferiority in many talented people who, while excelling in their studies in spite of the burden of education in a foreign language, were unable to acquire the fluency in English of their social 'superiors'. The father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was aware of this. 'Our love of the English language in preferance to our own mother tongue', he wrote in 1944, 'has caused a deep chasm between the educated and...the masses...The result has been disastrous. We are too near our times correctly to measure the disservice caused to India by the neglect of its own languages.'

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