During my last trip to Kolkata, I found myself rummaging through some of my favorite pieces of Bengali Literature. I wanted to hoard them like a greedy matriarch, all too anxious to inherit and then pass on my legacy to my child. It was only a maternal stimulus disconnected from reality. I do not foresee my half-Punjabi, Bangalore-bred toddler, reading the Bengali script, in the near or distant future. In our melting-pot of a family, our child has discovered and mastered the bridge language that matters – English. Her school is teaching her just English today, with the promise of the official language, Hindi being added, in a couple of years. The central education system is focusing its attention on English and Hindi, understandably. (Read about: Hindi Diwas – A Celebration of Language, or an exercise in Chauvinism?) However, it rings the death knell for the 779 other recorded regional languages in the country. Whether we pay heed to this or not, the Indian regional language crisis is deepening.
The Resilient History of Indian Languages
Linguistic Imperialism is one of the key characteristics of the post-Colonial world. In most countries that the British colonized, they replaced native languages with English. This is true for Australia, Canada, and the United States of America. In India, however, the rise of the English language did not correspond to an equivalent decline of all regional languages. At least, not immediately. In fact, the 1961 census listed 1652 mother-tongues, a number that shrunk to a meager 108 in 1971. Despite that, India is still among the top four countries with the maximum number of living languages.
In 2010, Prof. G.N. Devy started the People’s Linguistic Survey, in a bid to research, document and preserve 780 regional languages of India. This work guarantees that if and when my child does learn to pick up some of the languages of her roots, she won’t found them lost to time.
The Urban Problem Persists
While Dr. Devy’s work is undoubtedly one of the most advanced works in applied linguistics in the world, it still doesn’t address the issue of my household. Or a growing set of similar households in urban India. Mixed marriages, mobility, and a demanding industrial educational system are shifting the language paradigm at home. There is a positive side to this. Our toddler has been exposed to at least four different languages since her birth. While she is yet to master the grammar of any of them, she has some extent of verbal mastery over each. This is good for her development, according to science. A polyglot is apparently ‘smarter’ than a monolinguist. All of this sounds great! Where’s the problem?
The first problem is that my daughter is making a choice. Everyday.When communicating with the world that consists of her parents, both sets of grandparents, a nanny, friends, and teachers, almost all of whom speak a different language, she is choosing the common thread that makes sense – English! Even as we guiltily institutionalize ‘Hindi hour’ and ‘Bengali playtime’ at home, she finds it convenient to slip into English as soon as the impositions are lifted. In essence, she is thinking in a foreign language.
The second problem is in the script. Indian languages are not only diverse in diction, they vary significantly in the script. In the southern states, the Dravidian scripts dominate, while in the northern states Aryan scripts are used. In Bengal and other eastern states of India, the scripts originate from the Brahmi script, which is diverse from the more common Devanagari script of the North. In Punjab, where my husband hails from, the script used is Gurmukhi, again significantly different from Devanagari. In effect, for a child to learn to read and write all the regional language she converses in, she would need to learn three to four different kinds of scripts. This is in addition to the economically viable English print. Now, that’s a tall task!
So, would India see a death of its regional languages in the next 10-15 years? Not really. The State Governments are mandating the teaching of regional languages. While many see this as language chauvinism, it might be the only way to ensure that the rich culture and literature trapped within those languages find a channel into the next gen. My daughter’s peer in Kolkata will be well-versed in Bengali. Her friend in Hyderabad would probably learn Telugu. But, for migrated children receiving neutral, central board education in India’s cities, this is a big challenge.
It is therefore left to the hassled parents to introduce the languages at home. I have to remember to squeeze in time in my daughter’s already loaded schedule to give her Barnaparichay lessons. I hope one day she will indulge in Tagore, and yearn to pass down her legacy to her children. But, just to be safe, I am purchasing the best possible English translations of Bengali literature’s greatest.