Friday, February 13, 2015

The language question

My first-ever article in the Indian press was about the language question. In the Varanasi Pioneer, ca. December 1988, I sympathized with UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s controversial decision to abolish the English paper as requirement for the State’s Civil Service. It was seen as only a prelude to a general phasing out of the English medium, also in education. It was probably the last roar of Hindi pride and the last demotion of English till now, but from behind my Comparative Grammar of Hindi and Tamil, I loved it. After that, the trend became ever more pro-English.

In the English-medium schools, the reaction was predictably negative. Apparently, instead of handing in the essay they normally had to write every week as homework, pupils were now required to write a “letter to the editor” to defend English as medium of administration and education. At any rate, the newspapers were full of such letters. The story-line was mostly: “In this modern age, we need technology and progress, and this can only come about with English-medium education.” Really?



English superiority?


In their book Bhâshâ-nîti / The English Medium Myth. Dismantling Barriers to India’s Growth, (Cinnamonteal, Gogol, Goa-India, 2014; Bhâshâ-nïti means “language policy”), Sankrant Sanu, Rajiv Malhotra and Carl Clemens address the thorny question of India’s effective official language. The first thing they do, is wipe the floor with the completely counterfactual myth that India benefits from having English as its elite language. Of the twenty richest countries, all have the mother tongue of the population as their official language and medium of instruction. By contrast, of the twenty poorest, most have a foreign language (viz. of their former colonizer) as official language and medium of instruction.

Colonial surveyors found that in native education, the teachers were more motivated than in English-medium schools, the environments were less dingy, and school attendance was higher. That is why the Anglicization of education, as advocated by TB Macaulay, was opposed by another party among the British administrators, the Orientalists. One of them wrote:

“By annihilating native literature, by sweeping away from all sources of pride and pleasure in their own mental efforts, by rendering a whole people dependent upon a remote and unknown country for all their ideas and the words in which to clothe them, we should degrade their character, depress their energies and render them incapable of aspiring to any intellectual distinction.” (Horace Wilson: “Education of the natives of India”, Asiatic Journal (1836), quoted p.26)

To be sure, the Orientalist party was equally part of the colonial establishment and equally wanted to impart English knowledge and culture. But at least they had enough common sense to do so through the native languages. They didn’t try to set up an obstacle between the Indian and his mother tongue. At any rate, their approach was not tried, and after Independence, the indigenous English-speaking ruling class generalized what Macaulay had only intended for an elite. The result is that millions of Indians, at home in neither their mother tongue nor English, are condemned to mediocrity, “incapable of aspiring to any intellectual distinction”.

By contrast, Technion, Israel’s world-class engineering college, uses Hebrew as its medium of instruction. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Biblical language was not used as a live medium at all and had no vocabulary for modern items; today, first-class inventions are made through this language, adopted as mother-tongue by most Israelis. No concessions are made to foreign students, but they can first take the five-week intensive course of Hebrew. China and Japan work solely through the mother tongue. Some of their scientists do Nobel-level research without any knowledge of English. If India owes its significance in ICT to English, why isn’t Kenya, with a similar colonial history and linguistic situation, equally successful?

Speaking of which: Kenya can at least boast of a leading writer, Ngûgî wa Thiong’o, who switched from writing through the English medium to his native Gikuyu. His views on the language question (summarized on p.28-32) are entirely parallel to those of the authors. He was also cited to the same effect by the Marxist Hindi novelist and literature professor Kashi Nath Singh, whom I interviewed for the Flemish periodical Inforiënt (1989).

Ngûgî wa Thiong’o’s act of linguistic decolonization still awaits a counterpart in India, where the Arundhati Roys win foreign literary awards with their English prose. “The Empire writes back”, yes, but it is culturally becoming ever more a peripheral part of the Anglosphere. And, as the authors note, this self-humiliation and self-reduction to servile call-centre clerks is going to continue until all Indians are more at home in English than in their mother tongues. Among other things, it is the price for making the Indian public sphere a real democracy again, where everyone can participate in the public conversation on an equal footing. The only alternative to the linguistic suicide we are witnessing is the one advocated here: a return to a native language as official medium.


Sanskrit and geopolitics

Rajiv Malhotra concentrates on the place of Sanskrit the last two thousand years. As an official language, it spread from Purushapur to Pandurag (Vietnalm) and Prambanam (Java), and always coexisted with local languages, not threatening but enriching them. Desanskritization took place in several phases, mainly Islamization and Anglicization.

In the Constituent Assembly, the choice of Sanskrit as link language for government work and inter-state communication lost by one vote against Hindi, but now emerges again as the only alternative to English. Back then, it was advocated by Scheduled Caste leader BR Ambedkar and by Muslim leader Naziruddin Ahmad. By their communal affiliation, they already constituted live refutations of the usual argument that Sanskrit will be unacceptable to the ex-low castes and the minorities. (It must be admitted, though, that Indian and foreign agitators have worked hard to built opinion against anything which smells of Hinduism; and what have the Hindus done to counter this?)

Ahmad swept away another frequently-heard argument against Sanskrit: “I offer you a language which is the grandest and the greatest, and it is impartially difficult, equally difficult for all to learn.” (p.92) Yes, Sanskrit is difficult, but it is difficult for all. I may add another consideration in favour of heavily grammatical, “difficult” languages. Among our neighbours, English and German stand as two opposite poles in language: very supple vs. very rule-bound. Once you have crossed the hurdle of learning German grammar, you can express yourself in correct German without making a fool of yourself. English, by contrast, is an endless learning process. Apart from its endless spelling problems, an instance of its ungrammaticality that form an insurmountable hurdle for numerous Indians, is the idiomatic use or non-use of the article (the, a), which in German is very regular and in Sankrit too – by not existing.

So, Sanskrit is the logical alternative as official language and unifier of India. For Indians, it is far easier to learn than English, and at least passive knowledge need be no more than a matter of years. The switch can be gradual, and is facilitated by ICT. 


Switch away from English


The hegemony of English is a product of state policy, to be remedied by state policy. The switch away from English should be effected through “pull” (legally favouring competence in Sanskrit) rather than “push” (forcing Sanskrit but leaving the advantage of English in place).

A distinction should be made between English-medium, leading to the creation of disconnected elite, and English as a foreign language, which should be learned as a school subject, like in other countries. But the switch would be welcomed by the general population, though the elites may resent this demotion of the foreign language they so painstakingly learned. They will, for example, say that the native languages still have a place for literature, but that science requires English – exactly Macaulay’s position. When put on the spot, they will plead for the “initiative to ‘preserve’ Indian languages for their cultural and literary value but keeping English as the econonomic, legal and technical language. This is foolish and short-sighted. Only dead artifacts need preservation in museums. For languages to grow and flourish, they must be linked to economic activity and vibrant knowledge production in all fields” (p.111) 

However, “change is always painful but we need to look at the multi-generational impact.” (p.112)As Mahatma Gandhi said: “[w]e can drive English out. All this is necessary for us slaves.” On the other side of this reform lies real independence.


Sanu, Sankrant; Malhotra, Rajiv; and Clemens, Carl: Bhasha-nîti / The English Medium Myth. Dismantling Barriers to India’s Growth, Cinnamonteal, Gogol (Goa), India, 2014.225 pp


Unknown said...

i would like to draw your attention to a book iam currently reading.
Titled Ancient History of India Manusmriti Revisited by Dr.Charles J. Naegele. The book have drawn attention to Manusmriti and Saraswati-Indus valley civilisation.
hope for your opinion and if possible a review
by jayakrishnan

Aniketana said...

I feel, theme of this article contradicts the feel of the earlier article which argued against the mind set of “the East is spiritual and the West is materialist" (quoting Atrthashatra). The reasons Indians are going for English is not for the colonial mind set; the reason is purely materialistic. (If it was love for language, they would know the works of any prominent author. Fact is, they don't care). When a moment comes where Rupee costs higher than dollar or pound and jobs cannot be got by learning English, English would be thrown out dispassionately. An old house is usually demolished to pave way for new building in India unlike west, which prefers preservation and restoration.

Yes, Sanskrit coexisted with local languages and has enriched them. There is a contribution from the local languages too. They have been accommodative. The same accommodation they stretched for other languages as well. Be it Urdu or English. Each language was adopted when it was prime, later switched onto something else. For the moment, it is English. But it will not be eternal. We can't make a prediction on what would be the future dominating language. It is the economic prospects that would decide the factor. Making a decision and trying to implement against majority's will is difficult. Throughout the history, Indian majority have never been kind towards imposition and have rebelled against it.

For the argument of learning English being an endless process; Indians so far have not bothered to learn this as a language. They have just adopted themselves to use this language. Using a tool does not necessarily demand learning its structure.

By nature, Indians have the history of twisting anything introduced in their culture and make it Indian (be it food, religion or language). They created Urdu out of Persian. If English still remains as a global language for a century, the majority who speak English will not be from UK or US. It would be Asians. The new version of English and its grammar is unknown to us at the moment. But one thing is sure. If English is going to have continued presence in India, it is not going to remain as British English. It will be restructured, its grammar will be rewritten with regional (Indian) standards which would eventually replace the British English.

Karthikrajan said...

china and japan are isolated cases where a uniform language is spoken or can be imposed. How is this possible in multi-lingual country like india ?
Already tamil chauvinists are up in arms against starting even introductory hindhi classes in tamilnadu schools. A tough task for indians to get rid of english. But as suggested by you, every state can build an exclusive vernacular university for science, engg., and medicine after ensuring employment for these graduates in govt entities.

Contrary to your statement, i find in the technion website, mention of courses being conducted in english and a freshman year of engg in russian. (

Gururaj B N said...

No doubt, we spend too much time and effort to learn and master English. But, we keep learning, never master it. There are scores of countries which have enjoyed all-round development without relying on the crutch of English. But, the middle and upper classes in India see their route to El Dorado of US and England, and liberation from over-crowding, pollution and reservation policy, only through English.

Unknown said...

Indians, Sanskrittan Indians that is, are full of it. I cannot for one instance understand why Sanskrit is to be resurrected. Languages like English, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi are languages of people, ideas, emotions and to conduct businesses and just sing and dance and relax. Sanskrit? It is not a language, it is a system of useless dogmas, rituals, casteism, pure mythology, fantasy, filth and deceit. This language is dead. What is the point of bringing it to run the business of government or day today life. Hilarious.

arti said...
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