Creative Head, Consultant Social Networking, Software

Language – A Double Edged Sword

Language, while it acts as a great binder of people, could turn out to be a very pitiful dis-integrator of the society. For example, the ancient Greeks isolated those who did not use intelligible language as uncivilized groups. Since languages characterize people, and that leads to fragmentation, it might be worthwhile giving regional languages a backseat and marching towards prosperity with a commonly adopted language.

Languages differ in not only pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar, but also through different ‘cultures of speaking’, they are equipped to signal social distance. By suitably selecting words and styles while communicating, people could be antagonized or brought together in unison. For example in English, we refer to a person by first name or surname depending on our mutual closeness. We also use prefixes such as Mr, Dr or Your Honor to show the social space. In India, tradition exists for treating subjects and objects according to a ranking system, where animals and children rank the lowest and gods and members of royalty as the highest. Dealing with elderly people, one uses special suffixes or formation of sentences.

It is this attribute of language, the capability of bringing in distance between people, which promotes disharmony. Calling names or abusing is of course the worst form of disrespect, but enough arrogance can be conveyed by intentionally deviating from the rules of grammar. Conceit by a group that considers itself better equipped with language, for example alumni of private schools or the communities closer to Sanskrit, could be terribly abrasive in the society.

India has many dialects, conversational linguistics and scripts. Poets in India have highlighted this abundance by stating that, one can notice the change in water properties every four kilometres and the variations in the dialect every eight kilometres. (Chaar meel pe badle Pani, Aaath meel par bani) [1] . In spite of this, Indians, adapt graciously to the regional languages. It is amazing to see a Tamilian speaking Marathi in Maharashtra or a Gujarati boasting about his Tamil proficiency. The Kerala Brahmins speak a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. Different dialects of Konkani are spoken in Mangalore, Dharwad and Goa. The existence of various languages opens up avenues for calligraphy, font design, translation, interpretation, and other interesting aspects on one hand, and the capture of tribal and traditional knowledge on the other.

In the context of a large country, regional languages have more negativity than positivity to offer. In general, they lack in instruments like grammar, thesaurus based vocabulary, documented figures of speech, search engines, captcha databases and derived computer languages. Due to the scanty popularity of regional languages, adequate efforts have not been made to provide higher and professional education in regional languages. Obviously, this means that rural areas are devoid of professional education.

By a stroke of good luck, India decided at the time of independence, to go in for a three-language education system; Mother tongue, Hindi and English. It was a good move. Indians graduated quickly to English and they became a preferred choice for employment by multinational companies. India enjoyed this monopolistic status until recently when China knocked it out of competition. Today, in most countries Chinese stand neck to neck with Indians in educational institutes and in the corporate world. In simple words, if China continues its English abode, and if it holds on to its competitive edge in manufacturing, India will find itself deprived of the little advantage that it enjoyed in the international trade, in the recent past.

Sometimes, promoters spend enthusiastic energies in seeking additional resources and efforts for regional languages. If the same efforts were spent on consolidating the practical gains made using English and Hindi languages, we will at least reduce the diversions. The consequential benefits of zeroing on to English far outweigh the false pride that we may be pursuing by sticking to regional languages. These may be encouraged, but only for art and culture.

Language Based States

Division of the country into states based on the language criteria was an inevitable confrontation at the time of independence. It is a different matter that consequences of this decision were not envisaged at that time. For example, no one could suspect that in the future, splintered groups would demand formation of additional states for different dialects of the language, and this could become an open-ended mechanism for political activity. In the environment of this practice, we can have no argument against formation of independent states such as Khalistan, Arunachal Pradesh, Telangana and the likes. The definition and meaning of the terms subversion, separatism too must be moderated accordingly.

States formed on language criteria have domiciles that have affinity for each other and they display it with conceit in the presence of others. If this sentiment is so deeply entrenched up to the 3rd generation, uniting citizens as Indians may be a Herculean task even for the 5th generation. In the end, linguistic states as a concept, is an ingenious method of splintering the country back to the ancient and medieval times. Only an imperial power could consolidate it again.

Sprucing up the regional education infrastructure without the capability of meeting the requirements of professional education, or the extravagance of establishing government offices in tens of different languages, and printing official forms in multiple languages is a luxury that the richest of the rich nations cannot afford and poor countries like India, at that?

Sometime one wonders, whether Patel did the right thing merging the provinces into language-based states. Why did he not think of creating states based on geographic considerations? In our case, Central India, Northern Western, Eastern and Southern India, could have been an optimum division of the country. Obviously, the larger states would have been more powerful than the prevalent day smaller states, and who knows even better equipped to create infrastructure. Imagine India as a country of only six capitals, six state governments, six assembly houses, six sets of laws, six Chief Ministers and above all only six sets of state departments. Now these numbers are more than 30 each. A student of operations research would certify that writing resource allocation programs involving inter-relationships for 36 variables is much less complex than the inter-relationships with 180 parameters. A mathematician could give us astronomical number of permutations and combinations for 180 variables.

Reduction in Languages

Language is primarily a means for communication, but if it leads to parochialism or is overloaded with the motivation of seeking dominance over the others, it will only become an overhead. Moreover, if a language is not rich with exhaustive tools and if it cannot amalgamate harmoniously with the more popular ones, it will isolate people. Prudence lies in reducing regional languages to a reasonable number, yet the dilemma is, which of these must be dropped.

One should also question the existence of multitude of languages in the light of the world shrinking to a global village. By holding on to hundreds of individual languages, countries could unwittingly, or even foolishly, be introducing barriers to this globalization. For international interaction, and for social networking, English remains the most convenient language. The most intriguing developments on communication networks and internet are taking place in English, because of the programming of systems and applications being in derivatives of this language. When an individual opts for higher education or profession in a foreign country, his entry to the main stream is delayed by least one year. Youth is certainly not amused by the compulsion of learning additional languages, unless this alone is his profession.

The proposal for reducing the number of regional languages may be struck down by millions, just with the argument that it is impossible. Mother tongues cannot be changed, they will say. Yet, this is exactly what we need to achieve if we have to get out of our wells, interact or compete with the world. Has not the elite trained it’s off springs to pick up English, even when this is not the mother language. Have not the South Indian states encouraged English overwhelmingly. Interestingly, it is now possible to translate the traditional cultural knowledge into English databases using automatic translation. It is also possible to verify the translation using the innovative concept of Captcha, a concept associated with internet passwords.

Thoughts for the 3rd Generation

It is for the youth of today to decide if they would like be known as Indians or as Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bengalis or Keralites etc. Emotional attachment to regional languages could be exploited by political leaders, who thrive on polarisation of the society. On the other hand, who else but the youth would know better, that opportunities came due to Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) services, essentially through the medium of English? Would the 5th generation not like to see Indian chains like Reliance and Big Bazaar fanning out to other countries, instead of Wal-Mart landing up in India? Our inhibitions and wait for rationalisation of languages may drag us backwards on the path of prosperity. And we should not forget that even if we start this exercise now, it might take us decades in spite of the prevalent high level of literacy.

  1. If the drafters of our constitution had stayed away from this emotion of languages and avoided the formation of states based on languages, our leaders might have put to better use the time, effort and money that has been spent on non-significant issues related to language. In fact it is difficult to imagine even, the level at which India would have been today.
  2. The formal study of language began in India with Panini, the 4th century BCE grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology. Pāṇini’s systematic classification of the sounds of Sanskrit into consonants and vowels, and word classes, such as nouns and verbs, was the first known instance of its kind.

2 comments on “Language – A Double Edged Sword

  1. Jumpa
    February 18, 2015

    Extremely interesting, inquisitive.


  2. mikerana
    December 28, 2012

    Do you think languages can be reduced in India ?


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This entry was posted on December 24, 2012 by in Politics, Social and tagged , , , .


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