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Multilingual India

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on March 9, 2009 1 Comment

An article by Neelabh Mishra entitled “An Awadhi Lilt For Obama: Let’s realise that language bridges make for creative cohesion,” appearing in this fortnight’s issue of Outlook, an Indian news magazine, caught my attention today. The title was immediately interesting to me: I was curious about how Awadhi (अवधी), a dialect of Hindi spoken by about 20 million people in North India, would be tied to the new US President. In the reading, the article got curiouser and curiouser.

Mishra comments early on that

Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Chhattisgarhi, Haryanvi, Magahi and Marwari—six languages not in the eighth schedule of the Constitution of India, which lists 22—are among the 20 Indian and 101 languages from across the world listed in the application form

for vacancies in the Obama administration. In addition, “Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Maithili, Malayalam, Nepali, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu,” the article informs us, are the constitutionally “scheduled” Indian languages listed on the form. As someone with strong (emotional, linguistic, and cultural) ties to at least four of those languages, I felt overjoyed. However, this is where the article takes a rather strange turn. Mishra goes on to say:

The Obama administration’s questionnaire is a reminder once again that the dominance of the West in the modern world has gone hand in hand with learning languages and acquiring multilingual skills. In imperial and colonial times, this was necessary for the penetration and subjugation of regions vastly different from that of the coloniser. Even today, in the well-educated classes of the West, it is easy to find people who read, write and speak two, three or even four languages sufficiently well. While we in India, too, learn a new language quite skilfully—look at the mastery of English acquired by some of us, albeit a very small percentage—our education is such that the new language or languages often partly or fully obliterate and replace the old ones we know.

I am very skeptical of the claim that the existence of the 101 languages on the list is an indicator of how multilingualism has led to the dominance of the “West,” especially in the United States. Or that one can easily find “people who read, write and speak two, three or even four languages sufficiently well” among the educated elite. Really? In all my years in North America-two years in Rochester, NY; two years in Thunder Bay, Canada; two years in Chico, CA; and three years in Berkeley, CA, all in academic settings, I have rarely “easily” happened upon people who speak three/four languages “sufficiently well.” Further, what does it mean to speak a language “sufficiently well”?

I find that his other claim-that Indians’ acquisition of new languages comes necessarily at the cost of another-is not backed up by any hard facts. Most of my family and friends back home in India speak three-four languages fluently, and I do not know of any cases among them where they have acquired a new language at the cost of another. I acquired English as my third language, and I am still a proficient speaker of Hindi/Urdu and Bengali. I am not exceptional in any way in my circle of family and friends; I am the norm.

Next, Mishra goes on to say:

The degree to which we acquire English tends to determine how much we distance ourselves from Hindi; and the degree to which we acquire Hindi, to what extent we distance ourselves from Bhojpuri, Marwari or Urdu. The situation is worst in what is called the Hindi heartland, but you can see the process in varying degrees in other linguistic zones of India as well.

Having grown up in the “Hindi heartland,” I again find this statement naive and not backed up by any facts. Locals are able to glide between different languages in different contexts; it is not that people stop using one language the moment that they acquire another. If you learn English in Delhi, for example, you’re not going to bargain with the Munirka fruitseller in English. You are not going to start speaking English exclusively with your family and friends. You are not going to suddenly start singing Ghazals in English or in Hindi. There is a time and space for different languages; it is not that one automatically subsumes all else.

India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, and it pains me, it literally pains me, that its multilingualism is not more internationally recognized or celebrated. How sad, too, that it is domestically misunderstood.

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One Response to “Multilingual India”

  1. Youki on: 11 March 2009 at 8:27 am

    I am reminded of a post in which you retell the following story:

    In a village, a little Bengali boy’s mother sends him to the city to learn English. Many years later, the boy learns English and comes back to the village. Then, his mother serves him food. As the boy is eating, he starts choking, and starts screaming ‘Water! Water!” in English. Not understanding, his mother doesn’t bring him water, and the son dies.

    I agree with you, issues of multilingualism can’t be thought of in terms of “language x replaces language y” as if they’re simply encoded as pieces of linguistic data in our brains. The language that you learn as a child will always be a part of you, and you can no more obliterate it than you can undo the very essence of who you are.

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