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India’s dying languages

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on August 15, 2008 2 Comments

Today, the day marking the 61st anniversary of Indian independence from British rule, I came upon an article entitled “India lingers lovingly over British past.” Another one in a long line of alarmist articles that surfaces every so often, bemoaning the fact that under the globalizing onslaught of English, languages indigenous to India are facing inevitable death. I have commented on this before, but feel obliged to speak to it again, so incensed do these alarmist writers make me. Roshan Doug’s (the writer’s) perspective is that the popularity of English is somehow reflective of the Indian love affair with Britain, that English is popular because somehow we Indians haven’t quite recovered from having “lost” Britain as colonial masters, if I understand his argument correctly. The laudable efforts of linguists, Doug tells us, to encourage Hindi/Urdu in its stead are failing:

“In Indian schools and government offices, I was rather astonished to see how Hindi is being replaced by English as the official language. To nationalist India this is so alarming that some of its leading academics and linguists are trying to reverse the trends, challenging the supremacy of English as a global language by asserting Hindi or Urdu as its official mode of communication.

But, it has to be said, with very little success – for such is the attraction of English.”

The imposition of Hindi/Urdu is at least as contentious (if not more), even a superficial research of Indian linguistic politics will tell us, as the imposition of English. For some, English is a more “neutral” language than Hindi or Urdu. In any event, the imposition of ANY ONE language where multiple proliferate is bound to be violent. I would argue that one of the reasons for the popularity of English in India is that it is seen NOT to belong to any one community (hence the neutrality I mentioned before). Not that everyone feels that way, but certainly, there is recognition in India that Australians, Americans, and the British, to name a few, have English as a dominant language; in no way is it correct to state that Indians as a whole associate English with Britain alone. Also, merely because the language is popular in schools, government offices, etc, does NOT mean that local Indian languages are being steadily substituted. I grew up in cosmopolitan New Delhi, and well, English was only one of a variety of different languages we grew up speaking (I spoke Bengali at home, Hindi with friends, heard Urdu in movies and songs, and prayed in Sanskrit as a child; English was only for studying in).

Indian Languages

Also, our “appropriation” of English entails its reconfiguration, so that we end up, by many accounts, with a variety of English that is our very own. It’s not a straightforward case of losing our linguistic identities in this global behemoth that is English. Hardcore multilinguals, my friends and I enjoyed being able to slip into a variety of languages…I could not imagine that we will that easily give up the advantages of multilingualism (especially in local languages) that Indians pride themselves on. Finally, I do not know a SINGLE monolingual speaker of English in India. Not a one! I doubt the whole country is suddenly going to become a land of monolingual English speakers…a billion people losing their native tongues overnight? Not going to happen.

So, here’s my two cents: in English. And I’m probably going to dream in Bengali tonight. 🙂 English, beware.

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2 Responses to “India’s dying languages”

  1. Akaash Mukherjee on: 14 October 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Could you have written what you wrote up there in Bengali? I’m sure that the answer there is no. I also have a good feeling that your grandparents could have. Even if Indians are multilingual, many still express themselves better in English now. Because I guess what’s the point of knowing a word in Hindi if you can just throw in an english word. What’s more, what’s the point of knowing any idioms or expressions in Bengali or Hindi, it’s not like anyone cares. I guess you’re right “alarmists” are a plague, and there is no dilution of the richness of indian languages.

  2. Saif on: 21 October 2009 at 8:11 am

    Born in Dhaka, I came to London with a 5 year-old’s knowledge of Bengali nearly 40 years ago. I’m now probably at the level of a 12 year-old – and regarded as pedantic because I try not to use English words when speaking Bengali. Native English speakers watching Indian TV here are amazed to follow nearly 50% of whatt’s going on on some Hindi TV programmes!

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