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The fate of Indian languages

Last week, eminent Kannada writer and National Professor Dr S. L. Bhyrappa was in Guwahati to receive the Mamoni Roysom Goswami National Literature Award for 2016. One of the major concerns that found expression in his acceptance speech was the fate of Indian languages and their literature in the face of the vast popularity of English–medium schools all over the country and the resulting aversion to Indian languages that this is giving rise to among children today. This has long been one of my major concerns too, and I have had occasion to write about it on quite a few occasions. The fact that English has given me a decent living for many years has not made any difference either to my conviction about what the medium of instruction should be in our schools or to my legitimate fears of what English, as a cannibal language, has done to a whole lot of languages in the world.

India is not the only country outside the English–speaking world where English is taught compulsorily in the schools and widely used among educated people as the primary language of communication. When we talk of the English–speaking world, we have in mind Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies. South Africa too has rapidly moved away from Afrikaans to English in the realm of higher education. India has had a fairly long tradition of English due to being a British colony for about two centuries. As the language of the rulers, it got imposed on the entire education system and has managed to stay on as the principal medium of instruction for higher education and technical education. But there are also six European countries (never ruled by the British) namely Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany where English is taught as a compulsory subject in schools. It is indeed ironical that even Germany that fought two world wars with Britain should make the language of Britain a compulsory language in their schools. All these countries realize that their children would be better off if they could communicate fluently in English. That is why English is taught as a compulsory subject in their schools. They make sure that English is taught very well in their schools and that their children are able to use English very proficiently. But these six countries apart, all over Europe, in secondary schools children have to choose a foreign language in addition to their mother tongue. In many European countries the most popular foreign language is English. As a result, it is not only in the six European countries I mentioned earlier that English is being taught. It is taught also in other European countries as an optional subject with over 90 per cent of children opting for English as their chosen foreign language. Many parents of Norway, Sweden and other countries send their children to England for a month or two after their secondary examinations so that they can improve their communicative skills in English to the level of native speakers of the language. I recently met the Swedish Ambassador to India whose English really stunned me. It was the kind of English one expects to hear from a highly educated Englishman. The Ambassador did not even have a trace of an accent, and could easily pass for an Englishman in England. This gives us an idea of how well foreign languages are taught in Europe. And this naturally takes me to the issue of the medium of instruction. Though English is taught very well in these countries, none of them would ever dream of making English the medium of instruction. These countries believe in doing what is pedagogically sound and correct in ensuring that the medium of instruction remains the official language of the country which is also the mother tongue of the children in most cases.

In India, we have committed a major pedagogical blunder by popularizing English–medium schools and making them far more prestigious and important than schools where the medium of instruction is the mother tongue or the official language of the State. As a result, the mother tongue as medium of instruction is relegated mainly to rural schools and urban schools to which the upper middle class do not send their children. Worse than the pedagogical blunder that stunts the learning process of children, is the hypocrisy of the politicians regarding the medium of instruction. In their public speeches they invariably support the mother tongue or the official language of the State as the medium of instruction. But their deeds do not match their words. They invariably send their children to English–medium schools. In States like Karnataka, many politicians have even established English–medium schools of their own because such schools constitute a very lucrative business. The Kannada Parishad challenged the use of English as the medium of instruction in the Karnataka High Court. Unfortunately, the High Court ruled that the medium of instruction should be left to the choice of parents. The Parishad then appealed to the Supreme Court. The apex court too upheld the verdict of the Karnataka High Court. There is the distinct indication that both the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court considered the economic implications of the medium of instruction rather than the pedagogical implications of replacing the State language or the mother tongue with English as the medium of instruction. We are not aware whether the counsel for the Parishad was able to place before the High Court and the Supreme Court the example of the six European countries that have been teaching English as a compulsory language in schools but have never allowed English to become the medium of instruction. One can look at the medium of instruction issue from the perspective of how things were when we did not have English–medium schools. Right up to the 1940s and 1950s, when all schools in Assam used Assamese as the medium of instruction, English was far better taught in schools than it is taught now even in the English–medium schools. I used Assamese for all subjects of the Matriculation examination except English. English was regarded as the most important subject in our school curriculum. We had two examination papers of 100 marks each and a “half” paper of 50 marks for English. As a teacher of English and as editor of an English daily later on, I have never felt handicapped in any way in using English for communication effectively. It was the same for others of my generation and those quite a bit older than me. The late Ajit Barua and Navakanta Barua also learnt their English in Assamese–medium schools. They wrote better English than a whole lot of people educated in English–medium schools later on. I can count a whole lot of competent English teachers (of both the secondary and tertiary levels) who went to Assamese–medium schools like me without suffering any loss to their communicative abilities in English. Dr Hiren Gohain is an outstanding example of someone who uses both English and Assamese with equal felicity.

It is unfortunate that our politicians and judges should fail to see what English is doing to other languages all over the world. True, English has emerged as the most important international language in the world. But why do people fail to notice that it has also emerged as the biggest cannibal language by gobbling up thousands of languages all over the world used by smaller linguistic groups? According to an estimate made by the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics the total number of languages in the world (including extinct ones) was 6,604 in the 1980s. Today, the number (excluding the extinct ones) is probably well below 6,000. Many of the smaller languages have been gobbled up by English because the speakers of those languages chose to give up their mother tongues in favour of English. So apart from being a world language, English has also become a cannibal language. Dr Bhyrappa said that many children in Karnataka have stopped reading Kannada books and newspapers. They have turned their backs on their mother tongue, and switched over to English completely. This is about to happen to many more Indian languages because most Indians, believing western culture and civilization to be superior to ours, are only too ready discard what is our own in favour of what comes from the West. This denigration of everything Indian was a political stratagem initiated by Macaulay and has been lapped up by educated Indians ever since. So, it may not take very long for a cannibal language like English (with over 427 million speakers) to destabilize a language like Kannada (26 million speakers) or Assamese (15 million speakers) if the cannibalism is aided by Kannada speakers or Assamese speakers turning their backs on their own language and literature. It is time our politicians and judges did some introspection on their love for their own languages.

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Assam is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Dispur located in the city of Guwahati.
Nagaland is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Kohima. located in the Guwahati city.
Mizoram is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Aizwal. located in the Guwahati city.
Meghalaya is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Shillong. located in the Guwahati.
Manipur is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Imphal.
Tripura is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Agartala.
Arunachal Pradesh
Arunachal Pradesh is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Itanagar.
Sikkim is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Gangtok.
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