Language policy & globalization
Controversy related to language policy has erupted once again. Strong opposition to the Union Public Service Commission’s (UPSC) decision to include marks for the English language paper to the overall tally in the government’s Civil Service examinations has compelled authorities to stay implementation. Earlier, candidates were required to only pass the English language paper without its marks being added to the overall score.
Mostly rural candidates who obtained degrees in regional languages and are less proficient in English are protesting over the change that would leave them at a disadvantage. Their objection is valid. Equally valid is the UPSC view that proficiency in English is a necessity for bureaucrats to function efficiently in present times. Disputes over the official language policy are ancient, have been fierce, and were inevitable in a multi-lingual subcontinent in which no single language is universally spoken across the country.
Arguments offered by all sides in this debate have not changed. But the world and times have changed. The goal posts required for a sensible language policy have changed. It may be desirable for the government to keep the UPSC decision on hold to address the opposition voiced to it. But it is time to reappraise the nation’s entire language policy keeping in mind the changed circumstances as well as a long term goal.
Recently while addressing a media sponsored enclave Gujarat Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi was asked how India will measure up to China in the world. Mr. Modi said that India had two great advantages. He described them as the Demographic Dividend and the Democratic Dividend. India’s youthful population and its transparency due to the democratic system he said facilitated foreign interaction. Mr. Modi overlooked a third advantage. It may be described as the English Language Dividend.
English is no longer the language of the UK or the USA. It is no longer merely the link language in India. English is the link language in the world. Due to reasons of history India has a head start over other Asian nations in the matter of knowing the English language. A substantial number of people across the nation know the language. Might this not be of advantage in the matter of conducting cultural and commercial contacts with the rest of the world? That language facilitates easy commerce is beyond dispute.
Why else would Mr. Modi teach Mandarin to school children in Gujarat? Why else would Pakistani students be taught Mandarin in the university in Islamabad? Doubtless this would please the global corporate lobby eyeing a large integrated market comprising China, India and Pakistan for investment. Disregarding for the moment the political and strategic undesirability of such a three-nation common market emerging in the future, one may raise an obvious question related only to commerce. Should not India as its first priority exploit and promote its knowledge of English to achieve greater global interaction?
Indeed by adopting a bold and imaginative approach India can at one stroke not only enhance global interaction but also help defuse domestic discord over its language policy. At one stroke more people can be taught English even in rural India and India’s official language promoted to the level of one of the world’s recognized global languages. It might be recalled that there was jubilation in India when Atal Behari Vajpayee addressed the UN in Hindi. Special provisions had to be made in order to translate Hindi in other languages because Hindi is not a recognized language in the UN. Should not the government take steps to ensure that Hindi, or Hindustani, be recognized in the UN?
In order to achieve this, a simple device suggests itself to promote the spread and growth of Hindi. The government could consider introducing Roman as an alternate script in all Indian regional languages officially acceptable. Adequate work has been done in developing the Roman script as a substitute for Devanagari by retaining the alphabet and phonetics but merely changing the script. The International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) has done adequate work in this direction. Others such as the Department of Classical Indology at University of Heidelberg have considerably furthered this task in order to teach and research Sanskrit as well as Tamil. Heidelberg remains arguably the most advanced centre of Sanskrit learning in the world.
If on a strictly voluntary basis the Roman script were made available to all school children as an alternate script, which script would their parents choose? By opting for the Roman script, without in any way diminishing knowledge of Hindi as a language, the doors to English would be opened to children at an early age. Roman Hindi would at the same time greatly facilitate foreigners to learn Hindi. Roman Hindi would also exert a profound influence on the growth of the language. The artificial difference between Hindi and Urdu would disappear and synthesize into Hindustani. Words from all regional languages would easily and inevitably be co-opted into official Hindi. Both the vocabulary and the geographical reach of the language would immensely expand. Already a smattering of Hindustani is spoken from Kashmir to Kabul, from Baluchistan to Bangladesh.
Purists would of course deplore such change and consider pristine Hindi to be mutilated. The purists should be ignored. The effectiveness of language cannot be measured by its purity based upon antiquity. Language is for communication. Note how Bollywood treats language to achieve maximum reach. The bigger, richer and more varied its vocabulary, greater is the language. The English Oxford Dictionary has thousands of English words derived from Hindi. The most eloquent prose is written in the contemporary language of the day which ordinary folk comprehend. The Hindi purists should appreciate that. That is how Shakespeare wrote. “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Try to further simplify that! Should not Hindustani be developed as a language spoken and recognized by the world as one of the leading global languages?
By Rajinder Puri