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Unmarked Multilingualism?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on July 27, 2010 No Comment

In doing literature review for language socialization research in the Indian context, I found a provocative chapter written by Mohanty (2006) via the good folks at Google Scholar. This paragraph stood out:

In India, presence of many languages is natural and unmarked in all forms of social and individual communicative acts. Quite early in her/his development, the average Indian learns to easily accept the presence of many languages, to function smoothly and spontaneously with multiple modes of communication in different spheres of their activities, and to use a variety of languages as natural and flexible expressions of multiple identities. Thus, Indian multilingualism does not pose any threat or conflict for the individuals and the communities; languages are accepted as necessary and positive aspects of the social mosaic. These features add up to making multilingualism a positive phenomenon.

Let’s start from the top: the claim that the presence of multiple languages is “natural and unmarked.” Granted, most of us growing up in almost any place in India might find the presence of multiple languages (what one may call) natural, normative, and expected (although all those terms, I believe, may be easily contested in this context): but what I could not say is that their presence is “unmarked.” Different languages, dialects, and registers are “marked” in their use, even though their “presence” itself may be taken for granted. Something that may appear “natural” is not necessarily “unmarked.” For example: while I expect English to be used all around me in Delhi (ensconced firmly in the Hindi Belt), it is not that it does not have clearly delineated (or at least noticeable) borders that make it stand out in interaction. Even as speakers jump in and out of languages-i.e., code-switch-it is not as if speakers don’t realize that a shift is occurring, however seamlessly they are used in a given exchange.

mapofindiaNow, the next sentence: “Quite early in her/his development, the average Indian learns to easily accept the presence of many languages, to function smoothly and spontaneously with multiple modes of communication in different spheres of their activities, and to use a variety of languages as natural and flexible expressions of multiple identities.” I don’t know if one can say that the “average” Indian (which, given the linguistic and cultural diversity, could be anybody or nobody) “easily” accepts the presence of many languages. This claim seems to be blind to the internal regional/linguistic tensions that underlie many of those communications/interactions that take place. There are plenty of states, for example, where there is much antagonism against Hindi (the “officialiest” language), though students are sometimes “forced” to learn it anyway, as a result of national language policy, or for greater economic opportunities. If such students use Hindi for communication purposes in certain contexts, there are deeply political issues that one might not excavate automatically in the course of the interaction. English, also, for example, as a language of the former colonizers, is used by many Indians-but there continue to be deep-rooted anxieties as well as anger that attends its “easy” use in exchanges for many people.

I am not trying to argue against the author’s principal claim here-that multilingualism is considered a virtue, a positive phenomenon in the Indian context. What I take beef with is the author’s unproblematic perception of what is an extremely complex issue. It is irresponsible to claim that “Indian multilingualism does not pose any threat or conflict for the individuals and the communities”-multiple language acquisition and use in the Indian context is a site of struggle and tension, ensconced in a series of linguistic and regional ideological conflicts. To not recognize that, is to not understand the complexity of our multilingualism. A caveat here: my analysis focuses on only one paragraph of a larger essay on other issues at play in Indian multilingualism-my problem here is that while the author does do an excellent job of complicating multilingualism itself, he does not sufficiently complicate the perception of its presence. Unfortunately, it crystallizes a scholarship about a basic aspect of Indian multilingualism which is predicated on unproblematic assumptions at its foundation. How far can problematization go when these issues are introduced in such a fashion?

Reference:

Mohanty, A.K. (2006). in Imagining multilingual schools: Languages in education and glocalization, Multilingualism of the unequals and predicaments of education in India: Mother tongue or other tongue? eds García O, Skutnabb-Kangas T, Torres-Guzmán ME (Multilingual Matters, Buffalo, NY) 2006, pp 262283.

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