The recent incident of a missiory school in Guwahati handing out punishment to students for conversing in their mother tongue Assamese has sparked off much outrage across the State. The school reportedly has a rule of speaking only in English during school hours within the campus which these students violated; so they were said to have been barred from having their lunch and made to stand for one-and-half hour. Some agitated guardians have alleged that the school authority earlier used to fine students or keep them after school hours for breaking this rule. Meanwhile those supporting the school authority’s action have pointed out that since it is an ‘English-medium institution’, it has been mandated by parents and guardians to make their wards fluent in English. In similar incidents earlier, almost this same excuse has been trotted out. According to these ‘English only’ votaries, students will acquire English-speaking skills with a good vocabulary only if they intensively practise conversing in it while excluding other ‘distracting’ languages, mother tongue included. This supposedly gives youngsters a head-start in eventually landing a high-end job in an increasingly mobile world where more than a quarter of its population speak English. To confidently face interviews and group discussions, to read the latest research papers, there is supposedly no altertive to English. This logic is not only faulty, it is dangerously misleading — more so in a multi-ethnic State like Assam in a country of wondrous linguistic diversity. Parents, educators, policy makers and concerned citizens ought to follow the raging debates elsewhere about medium of instruction and the crying need to learn foreign languages.
Several studies in the US have expressed misgivings about teaching school students only the English language, which is also their medium of instruction. The same is the case with British school students. This is believed to place American and British students at a disadvantage vis-a-vis students of most continental European countries who are instructed in their mother tongue but have to compulsorily learn English as ‘foreign language’ along with other languages. In turn, most European countries are reportedly worried about the competition posed by multi-lingual Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and many other Asian country students. The enviable proficiency of Indian students in English, doubtless a spin-off of the country’s colonial past, has stood them in good stead in their studies and work abroad. The question is — have they enquired this facility with English by dumping their mother tongues? The Indian diaspora has grown to be the largest in the world; within this diaspora, speakers of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and other tongues have a proud, ancient linguistic legacy. Whether abroad or in their home country, Indian parents face a challenge in encouraging the correct use of mother tongue among their children. There are strong grounds to believe that without the mental construct that only the mother tongue imparts to a growing child — his or her abilities in general concept building, abstract thinking, acquiring skills and learning other languages are rendered poorer to a considerable degree. So are school students in Assam of such one-dimensiol linguistic ability that speaking in their mother tongue hurts their English speaking skills? They should, in fact, be open to learning other languages if they are to work and contribute effectively in this land of diverse tongues.
Apart from Assamese across the Brahmaputra Valley, the State needs to officially encourage Bengali in Barak Valley and Bodo in BTAD areas, besides actively promoting and safeguarding other indigenous languages and dialects. Instead of adopting a parochial, if not fundamental, stand on promoting a language — there needs to be an awareness among policy-makers and in the larger society here about the frightening death rate of languages around the world. According to the latest report by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, on an average, a spoken language is disappearing in every 2 weeks or less. presently, 80 percent of the world’s people are speaking just 83 languages, while the 3,500 smallest languages account for only 0.2 percent of the global population. Many of the about 6,000 languages currently existing but yet to be recorded, are in great danger of becoming extinct if not safeguarded and passed down to the next generation. And with the death of a language, the customs, traditions, culture, history and identity of that particular people are lost forever as well. Coming back to Assam, when there are fears about the future of the Assamese language despite having a written script, well-defined history and literary tradition, the existential threat to smaller indigenous dialects in the State can well be imagined. In this context, the recent order by the Kamrup (Metro) district administration to all business and commercial establishments to use Assamese as the primary language in their hoardings and sigge is a welcome step. The State government’s Political department should have made this move much earlier in all public offices to make their workings accessible to the general populace.