Language has a deeper meaning attached to it than we realise.
Language, as Father
My father spoke English, Telugu, Hindi/Hyderabadi, Tamil, and Kannada. He also spoke and wrote a language uniquely his own. It had bits of all these languages and then some (the earliest poem we found of his was from the early 1950s and it was in Italian). It was not “a language,” as in the sort of imaginary language children sometimes make up. It was the language of who he was that expressed itself in all that he did; his voice, his face, his recognition of the divine in others, his happiness, contentment, creative whimsy, and most of all, his courage to be steadfast in how he saw the world in his words. My father’s language.
Language, as Mother
My mother speaks Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi and English. She writes in Telugu, and that’s most of the Telugu I have read in my life, at least after leaving school. It is elegant and it is her; a person who has not had a sense of something outside of what she has been for nearly seventy years now, a public figure, a person of and for the people. She may have uttered the words of screenwriters famous and otherwise in her movies, or mimed their legendary lyrics in their songs. But her words, in the hundred-plus Telugu movies she acted in, or the several dozen Hindi, Tamil and Kannada ones, were always her too. Her voice was never a flat delivery system. It conveyed her, and her character. This I know because when the producers of her last Hindi movie, Raaj Tilak, dubbed her out, and her character became hollow, like much of cinema and where it was heading by then I guess. My mother did not get her languages incidentally from language policies, old or new. She started working when she was a teenager and never went to college. She just learned, learned it all, from life. And then she spoke all of that in politics too. No speechwriter was ever necessary.
I can speak, read and write three languages, which is at least two short of what my parents knew. I could probably function with only one, English, for this is the one that I need for work. But why would I do that? After all, when I am speaking, or writing, I think what I am doing is far more than merely operating “in” one. I may have the greatest facility, depth, and practice in one language more than others, but can I really take these apart, and take myself apart? I am in my words all three and many more. And so are we all. We just do not think about it that much perhaps.
I write this essay not as an expert on language acquisition or on India’s education policies, but simply as a “user” of language and perhaps a little more that, given that I am not just a functional user but a professional user of language (a writer and a teacher). I am also a parent-teacher, and I am, most of all, an observer and commentator on affairs that concern the decolonisation of India. I suppose those are the main terms on which I believe I can take the liberty of sharing some ideas on the vexing question of India’s language and education policies. I share a brief reading list at the end of this essay, and will perhaps write some more on this issue in the future in terms of curriculum and pedagogy ideas. But for now, I just share these reflections.
The first thing that policy-framers should perhaps understand is that there is a word that has pretty much acquired the status, in practice, if not in principle, of something very obsolete and oppressive, and that is “compulsory.” It may have been an acceptable term to live under fifty years ago when everyone believed in the inviolability of the Prussian-factory-school model of education and the “Dams are Temples” model of “development,” but the truth is that “compulsory” is as passe as compulsion itself and both are seen as uncool by the young. We must recognise that growing numbers of parents are contesting, often by putting their own careers aside, the notion of “compulsory” education itself. I do not know if the NEP has made any recognition of this, but alternative, un-, and home-schooling is on the rise.
Without taking credit away from the many fine teachers and educators who live to teach, the fact is that many parents are finding it more appropriate to guide their own children into learning rather than depend on the assembly-line model invented for turning 19thcentury European peasant kids into cannon-fodder or factory-workers. I do understand that policymakers often have many other considerations to think of when they see education as compulsory including perhaps saving poor children from labour, or for ensuring that they have nutritious food. But do we really have to pretend that this sort of top-down masquerade is the only way there still is to do things?
Are we really in a new India after 2014 and 2019 if we do more of the same and expect something else to happen?
Decolonising Education, De-Instrumentalising Language
I believe that it is best to approach education as something other than compulsion, or as a tool to produce Macaulayesque workers for the global economy and its one-percenters. And on that note, I think we should also recognise that language should be approached as not simply as a choice of tool for education, compulsory or otherwise.
The unfortunate reality is that colonial education has indeed reduced the role of language in our lives and our children’s lives to just that, a tool, an argument about which “medium” we must school our children in. Should we all go-go-English, because that’s the way to jobs and a better future? Should we go indigenous and anti-colonial and back to our own, because after all Japan, Germany, China, are all industrial powers without giving up their languages for English and so could we? And if we go Indian-language, which one? Or two? Or three? North-South? Aryan-Dravidian?
Why do we need to return to this twentieth century hobbling out of colonisation way of thinking about education, and about language most of all?
Do we really need to limit ourselves to this instrumental view of language?
If I had to make one suggestion on this front to all those concerned with education in the Indian government, I would say, step aside from the impossible question of “what language” and redirect attention and investment into just Language.
Is language living among people today in a way that provides meaning, understanding, friendship, happiness, love, and beauty, most of all? Is language something that children grow up thinking, feeling, and knowing deeply? Do their faces light up with mastery over words that comes from within, as opposed to merely reflecting the zombifying glow of lights and sounds from their phones and TV screens? Are there any professions, any quarters of social life, any groups of people, among whom language seems vibrant, practiced, important, a force for purpose and for life? If so, who are these people? Hip hop artists? Vedic pandits at yajnas? Singers? Modiji?
Think for yourself. Who were the teachers who most inspired you? Were they people who functioned as mere Alexas or Siris for the textbooks, reading out stuff in a mechanical voice, or were they those people who engaged you, actually engaged you as one living being to another, in the very human, creative, life-nurturing act of communication?
If there is one common fate that Indian languages are heading towards steadily regardless of whether they were originally spoken in Syria or Atlantis (or more likely in some dead coloniser’s head having a laugh at how stupid we are for letting go of our deepest, most richest selves like this), it is that there is a generational evisceration of language as presence, force, and indeed resource, that is also going on.
This is not a criticism about purity and normativity nor is it nostalgia. It is simply a recognition that we are heading, as a nation, and perhaps as a species, into something as yet unknown in terms of our relationship to Language. One marker, an obvious one, might be loss of multiple competencies, as in the case of my own family where my parents had 5 each and I, only 3. Was it the cost of linguistic reorganisation? I do not know, nor do I wish to speculate on political implications for what I believe is a far more existential, indeed biological question. Do we have the same mastery over words, over vocabulary, over speech, as someone did say two generations ago, in any language? I think we can already see the answer to that when we compare old movies; even English movies. We have moved now to an age of mumbles and stifled voices, and very limited word-repertoires, and of course, Like buttons. And “Forward” buttons. The horror.
A Garland of Languages
What we need in “NEP” or any other conversation about education now in India is a serious look at Language itself, its sad, neglected, convoluted, coopted, soulless, dying state. It is easy to blame technology, but I think the real problem is not the tools themselves, but the tool-like situation we have reduced our own conception of our lives, and our children’s lives, more importantly, to. Can we not imagine a childhood for our children where words, many words, rich words and beautiful words, new words and long-forgotten ones, words in Tamil and Kashmiri, Gujarati and Bengali, and many in between, become their favorite playthings, their steadfast companions for life, conscience, friendship, community, satsang… democracy? Can we not imagine civil discourse again?
I will admit that this essay is perhaps one of the most utopian things I have written. But again, as I said, I am a user of words, and that is my authority here that is all. I feel, after Devy and Gandhi, after Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore, after Baba, after my parents, my teachers, and after all the words I have served as medium or typist or voicebox for in my career, that India, and indeed humanity itself, deserves to know itself better through its words.
If we have survived colonisation, war, so much degradation, is it not because of words somehow? Is it not because we had the words to still speak of us and the world as we knew it?
I think the greatest challenges of decolonisation in India lie now in our ability to confront this seemingly mundane and vexing “language” issue. It is not about what should be compulsory, or what is authentic, or what is practically useful. It is about self, and it is about the world, this whole big world that is disappearing as quickly as our vocabulary for life and the sentience in it. And the ways to do this are not too hard to imagine.
All we need for starters, within the scope of the unpoetically named “Human Resources Development” ministry perhaps, for India is an Inter-Language-Agency (ILA) that translates our linguistic diversity into a celebratory engagement with Language itself. The ILA could use existing cultural resources to start making Indians aware of other languages, and learning to see words again clearly; movies, TV, cricket, and of course, schools and colleges too. Organise contests so students can learn the meanings of words in other languages (and their own too); start a festival called Bhashamala Day or something that celebrates our linguistic diversity (and unity). And most of all, pay attention to Indian theories and philosophies of language, and the priceless pieces of knowledge rapidly vanishing from the world as ‘progress’ erases forests and life.
We have done much harm to this living planet already because centuries ago an idea took root among some people that animals have no ways to speak of their joys and pains, that their cries on being slaughtered were like the sound of objects and not living things. Today, we are in a world where humans too are losing the ability to speak of their joys and pains, even if we call it progress. Language, I think, is our last threshold to cling to life itself. Let’s not lose it now.
What could an Inter-Languages-Agency Do?
Promote awareness of and appreciation for other Indian languages within schools, entertainment, and workspaces.
Streamline accurate translation of Indian language concepts into English media and schools (and vice-versa)
Promote art, books, and multimedia presentations celebrating India’s linguistic pluralism (for example; an app or online visual dictionary for children listing names of Indian trees and plants, or fruits and vegetables, in multiple Indian languages; quiz and painting contests in schools focusing on linguistic pluralism, etc.)
Interface with other departments such as Women and Child Welfare, I & B, to promote inter-language events and projects (for example, Doordarshan could produce a comedy show similar to the old British sitcom Mind Your Language, or a quiz contest based on vocabulary from different Indian languages)
Promote an expansive, creative, and aesthetic approach to language in daily life instead of a reductive, instrumental, homogenising one.
This essay is inspired somewhat by several books I am currently reading or have read before. I share these in no particular order.
- Sri Aurobindo, Secret of the Veda
- Ganesh Devy, The Crisis Within
- Salman Khan, One World Schoolhouse
- Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press
- Antonio T. de Nicolas, Meditations Through the Rig Veda
- David Livingstone, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others
- Robert McFarlane, The Lost Words
- Daniel Tammet, Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing
- Sampad and Vijay, The Wonder That is Sanskrit
- Stephen Kellert & Edward O. Wilson, The Biophilia Hypothesis
- Barry Lopez & Debra Gwartney, Homeground: Language for an American Landscape