Mind your language

For those uninitiated in the intricacies of getting into the higher echelons of the Indian bureaucracy, CSAT stands for the “Civil Service Aptitude Test” — a test at the preliminary stage for assessing the suitability of aspirants for “India’s steel frame”. Much energy was expended earlier this year by civil service candidates in protesting against the inclusion of a mandatory English proficiency portion in the CSAT. While the opposition was ostensibly to the unfair advantage conferred on urban-type English speakers, the doubt was raised in certain quarters as to whether the protest was against the test of aptitude, which militates against the time-honoured rote method of ingesting and expurgating information, without using reasoning abilities. However, the present blog is limiting itself to the issue of language, a vexed issue in a polyglot society, ever since Pandit Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari first grappled with the issue of formation of states based on linguistic considerations.

The subject gained fresh impetus when the Education Minister backed the introduction of Sanskrit at the expense of German in the Kendriya Vidyalayas. This storm unfortunately unfolded when the Prime Minister was meeting his German counterpart in Australia, earning him a free lecture from Frau Merkel. The issue generated even more nationalistic emotions, with various politicians harking back to our glorious traditions. Forgotten was the abysmal quality of Sanskrit taught in schools: I speak from personal experience. In my middle school years, I was exposed to Sanskrit as the third language, after English and Hindi. Our teacher, one of Delhi’s well-known theatre figures, tried hard to get the language into the skulls of forty riotous boys, for whom India’s beautiful ancient language was just one more subject in which pass marks had to be secured. The wonders of declension and grammatical construction passed us by and we ended up with little or no knowledge of the language. I doubt if most of us can read Sanskrit or appreciate the beauty of the language. I have been a little more fortunate; subsequent exposure to devotional songs and religious texts enabled me to acquire at least the ability to understand Sanskrit texts.

Why talk only of Sanskrit: all languages are taught extremely poorly in most schools, with the result that we are unable to put together a coherent paragraph in any language. I thought our problem was only with the English language till I encountered notings in Marathi on government files in Maharashtra which revealed the shoddy quality of even written Marathi. In fact, using language (any language) to express oneself cogently and clearly is a dying art.

Language has always been the medium for transmission of ideas and knowledge. Before Gutenberg initiated the printing revolution, knowledge was conveyed from one generation to another solely through the spoken word: hence the term “smriti“, which refers to the traditions and wisdom passed on from master to disciple – the mind was the manuscript. Ancient scriptures were thus preserved: this has probably contributed to the Indian’s phenomenal memory, reflected in our emphasis in today’s education system on rote learning rather than critical thinking.

So what is a practical approach to language in a country boasting of over five hundred languages, as per a recent survey? From before Indian independence and, again, fifty years back, the attempt to impose a national language by executive fiat came a cropper, with anti-Hindi riots breaking out in Tamil Nadu. The situation on the ground has undergone a sea change since then. Large-scale interstate migration to avail of employment avenues has made most Indians multilingual. It is fascinating to hear a burly Sikh speaking Tamil with no trace of an accent; one has to, of course, hand it to the Marwari businessman, who can pick up the local language after a short stay in any state. For that matter, sheer survival instincts prompted my quick adoption of the Marathi language. The prospect of signing a government file with Marathi notings which I did not understand filled me with dread.

The best (also most pragmatic) approach would be to offer a wide variety of languages, both Indian and foreign, with excellent facilities for both online and offline learning. If you (and your children) are going to be staying and working in Karnataka for the next thirty years, you are hardly likely to opt for Gujarati. If your offspring is planning to look for employment opportunities in Serbia or neighbouring countries, there is no reason why she should not become proficient in Serbian or Serbo-Croat languages. If you travel extensively in India, especially in the north, you will, of necessity, have to acquire adequate proficiency in Hindi. Whether one likes it or not, the vast majority of Indians (all of whom aspire for upward mobility) are going to want to learn the English language. Rather than demonise the teaching of English, it would make far more sense to offer quality English language courses, with well-trained teachers. Today, if you want to learn even an Indian language, there are very few good online courses imparting written and spoken language skills.

What, one may ask, will be the language of communication in government offices? In Government of India offices, it makes far more sense to conduct business in English, since there is going to be a large volume of communication with the world outside India. I could never understand the inanity of notes for the Cabinet of Ministers in Delhi being prepared in both English and Hindi. The Hindi copies, faithfully distributed to all Ministers, were read only by a small proportion of Ministers from the Hindi-speaking states. It would have saved many trees if each Minister had been asked to state her (or his) preference for either English or Hindi, with only those many copies being printed. Ministers from non-Hindi speaking states are generally quite comfortable with English and conduct most of their business in English. In the states, the local language spoken by the majority of residents can be the official language for conducting government business, as is the case even today. The inexorable pull of the market will inevitably decide which language(s) will gain prominence. States are today actively selling themselves as investment destinations; a state whose bureaucrats and politicians are not able to communicate effectively is going to fall behind in the sweepstakes.

Finally, I wish to dispel the myth that making a particular language the medium of instruction is going to turn out students fluent in that language, let alone instil in them a love for the rich literature that is the heritage of all Indian languages. It is more desirable to have a hundred students fascinated by and conducting research on Sanskrit texts than to have ten thousand students who painfully scrape through the language with no intention of ever returning to it. If knowledge of German is going to open avenues of knowledge and employment in one of the world’s great economic performers, why deny Indian students a piece of that very scrumptious cake?

6 responses to this post.

  1. Interestingly recent research has shown that the bilingual and even tri- or quadrilingual abilities of most Indians is a deterrent to developing Alzheimer’s in old age! So let us chat on in a hundred tongues so long as we understand each other.

    I really enjoy reading the chaste English in your posts, when the language is so battered and bruised elsewhere on the Internet.


    • You’re right, Nasrin. Mental agility in whatever form keeps the brain cells ticking. Glad you like my language; I sometimes wonder if it’s too old-school.


  2. Sir, isn’t there a paradox in the policies of the State itself..on one side trying to globalise, industrialize and urbanize and on the other hand trying to stop the growth of languages that might open up the potential for youth..do you think there is deep thought in these actions..i completely agree with you on status of our languages in school and know it first hand from my daughters books be it Hindi, Marathi or English..in fact electronics is the only language that kids these days are fond of, language, nature, travel are past generations interests.


    • I think there are too many pressures guiding state action. We as a people sre defensive about our language and culture, probably because of our colonial past. Anyway, I think schools will soon be irrelevant for language mastery.


  3. Posted by Dilip on February 2, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Languages are taught very poorly in school. Thirty years ago, some schools were known for the quality of Marathi, Sanskrit teaching and now the same same schools are at the dip of teaching standards of the same language. After some years, proficiency in language will become individual choice. Its not just elders, even students are writing horribly. Language as media of expression is certainly dying art. With on line option becoming increasingly available, many students are harnessing their skills, better late than never.


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