India’s Many Tongues (Page 2 of 3)

Kapil Sibal, India’s Union Minister for Human Resource Development, has indicated he believes in such primacy for Hindi, arguing that fluency in the language will help students from across the country integrate. ‘Our education system should change from MOTS (More of the Same) to HOTS (High Order Thinking Skills),’ he said in August. ‘We should create knowledge which will be used by other people. Now we are a recipient of knowledge and in the future we should produce the knowledge.’

Sibal has recommended that Hindi be taught in all schools across India, along with English and a regional language of choice.

‘Now the lingua franca is English for professionals. When we become producers of knowledge then we can set our language as the lingua franca,’ he said.

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Unsurprisingly, his statements were derided by many, with some arguing that it was short-sighted of the minister to be promoting Hindi as a ‘common’ language after the issue was supposedly settled for good following the 1967 amendment of the Official Languages Act 1963.

Others, including Dalit author and activist Kancha Ilaiah, have instead suggested a two language formula to bridge the country’s language divide and help prepare it for future economic growth.

‘We should become a nation of 2 languages. 50 percent of our syllabus across all schools in the country should be taught in English and the remaining 50 percent in another language,’ Ilaiah says, outlining an alternative to Sibal’s more ambitious three-language proposal. ‘This way, we will all be able to speak in English and maintain our base in our myriad regional languages.’

He says that English has already become the language of those running India, and that it’s simply unfair not to ensure it is accessible to every citizen, regardless of their economic status.

‘English today is the richest language in the world in terms of vocabulary and scientific terms, and the language of a very advanced knowledge source base,’ he says.

‘The right to aspire to becoming a teacher, a bureaucrat or to go abroad is linked to English. The right to aspire is a fundamental right. We have no alternative but to adopt English,’ Ilaiah says, dismissing worries that doing so would damage the cultural fabric of the country and lead to Westernisation. There’s no ‘historical evidence’ to suggest language changes culture, he adds.

Rajendra Yadav, a leading light of Hindi fiction, agrees the functionality of English—and its role in economic empowerment—can’t, of course, be disputed. But, he says it would also be wrong to under-emphasize the utility of Hindi. ‘Hindi is undoubtedly an important link language. There can be no debate on that,’ he says. ‘From Kanyakumari (the southernmost tip of India) to Kashmir, it’s the only common language that can still be somewhat understood everywhere.  Even English can’t be.’

But he argues that even if this debate is to take properly, it need not be seen in confrontational terms, as an ‘either or’ choice. ‘I don’t think there’s a regional language versus national language debate necessary,’ he says. ‘It’s positioned this way. [But] there’s no need for it. Where is there a contradiction in using both provincial language and national language with ease?’

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