Monday, 14 April 2014

L is for Language

#atozchallenge Education in India will always have to deal with the difficult issue of language. Which language should be used as the medium of instruction in schools? What other languages should be taught? In a country with hundreds of languages, where sometimes a different language or a dialect is heard every few kilometers, how should schools decide which language should be used predominantly for educational purposes? There are also problems related to the linguistic conflict between Hindi speaking states and some non-Hindi speaking states. Politics too has taken advantage of the vast diversity in languages to create regional divisions for its own agenda.

Generally speaking, the following formula has been used in most of the schooling systems throughout the country:

(i) In Hindi speaking states:
(a) Hindi (with Sanskrit as part of the composite course);
(b) Urdu or any other modern Indian language excluding (a) and
(c) English or any other modern European language.

(ii) In non-Hindi speaking states:
(a) Regional language;
(b) Hindi;
(c) Urdu or any other modern Indian language excluding (a) and (b); and
(d) English or any other modern European language.
(In some non-Hindi speaking states a composite course is offered for Hindi and Urdu. In some such states, Hindi is given more of a lip-service than anything else).

States are basically guided to ensure that students are able to study their mother tongue as well as the official language of the State.

But this is only a formula, a rule. It is driven by administrative expediency and perhaps some academic reasoning. The problem with any formula, any rule that concerns human experience is this: it is often incapable of completely capturing, expressing or explaining the inherent diversity in the lived situation, the lived experience.

In this case, the problem also exists because of extreme emphasis on centralization and top-down decision making. Education in India must be decentralized with a lot of autonomy and independence given to communities and towns as far as some key decisions regarding curriculum are concerned. This could also ensure that the large regional variety of dialects also gets its due in educational experience of the learners from those linguistic groups. A massive survey on Indian languages recently revealed that 220 languages have been lost in India in the last 50 years. This type of extinction of languages happens for a variety of reasons, and lack of their use for educational purposes is an important one of those reasons.
Language is the sign of the cultural life of a people, the index of its soul in thought and mind that stands behind and enriches its soul in action. Therefore it is here that the phenomena and utilities of diversity may be most readily seized, more than in mere outward things…Diversity of languages is worth keeping because diversity of cultures and differentiation of soul-groups are worth keeping and because without that diversity life cannot have full play; for in its absence there is a danger, almost an inevitability of decline and stagnation. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol 25, p. 519)

 Linguists and sociologists have done extensive studies on why certain languages disappear and how they may be revived. But as an educator, I strongly feel that education can play an important role in preservation and growth of a language. An education that is truly Indian in spirit will encourage serious efforts to promote and preserve as many languages as possible. Learners must be encouraged to read literature in their mother-tongue as well as other languages of their choice. For this, a complete rethinking may be necessary regarding how policy decisions are taken and at what level of administrative bureaucracy. Selection, design and procurement of study material and other curricular decisions will also need to be highly decentralized. Publishing industry must also be motivated and encouraged to make available quality literature in as many Indian languages as possible.

At the level of school, all efforts must be made to procure books in as many Indian languages as are represented in the school population. A well-stocked school library with books in many different Indian languages will help students gain a much greater love, knowledge and respect for the diversity of India, and also for the great variety of Indian literature. Most of us who have studied in the so-called "modern" schools of urban India will agree with me that our exposure to good books and literature from India and in Indian languages has been very limited through most of our schooling years. While at the same time we have read plenty of "other" authors, especially those from English-speaking countries and writing in English, even internalizing the cultural and literary devices, expressions, motifs and symbols that are often actually quite alien to or even contrary to our Indian experiences.

Personally speaking, I have felt a much deeper connection with many Hindi and Punjabi authors that I have read in the last several years, than with any other English language author, though I value, read and respect the works of many English authors - popular and some not so popular, present and past, Indian and non-Indian. But there is something so special about reading a good story in your own mother-tongue that can't be described. At least that has been my experience. And I have heard similar sentiments from several others I know. I feel sorry that I have actually not read many of the prominent authors in Hindi literary world, and I hope to make up for some of that loss in the coming years. I have felt sorry too that as a Punjabi I never learned how to read and write Gurumukhi script, so I have had to read the works of my favourite Punjabi author translated into Hindi. A language is an expression of not only the big and obvious aspects of a culture, but also, and most importantly, a medium to capture and convey all those subtle nuances that make a culture unique and living. If we stop reading and writing in our own languages, we slowly begin to shut ourselves off to a certain way of thinking, living and being. And that is a slow death of a culture. I wish we Indians wake up to this hard truth soon.

Now it can be argued that English too has now become an Indian language, and it would be a perfectly correct argument. And I would agree with this, actually. And it would also be correct to point out that there are plenty of Indian authors writing in English. So why this additional emphasis on reading books written in one's mother-tongue, or in other Indian languages one knows? It can be a very long discussion but suffice it to say that I have nothing against Indian writings in English, in fact I have read and enjoyed many Indian writers writing in English. Hey, I am one of those Indian writers who write only in English (ok, I have not written any mystery novels or thrillers or romances or other books of that sort), but that is not the point. The point I want to emphasize, especially for my Indian readers and friends, is simply this - don't give up reading books written in English by Indian and non-Indian authors. But add to your reading repertoire - bring in books written in your mother-tongue and other Indian languages you know. Try to connect with the spirit behind the language. Try to "feel" the oneness with your roots through the language. Keep the language alive and growing, and through that help keep the culture living and dynamic.

Some may also argue - and this too would be correct - that for many Indians in urban areas, English has now become more or less their  mother-tongue. To that, my response, at least for the time being, would be simply to nod in silence.

[In this post, I have deliberately not taken up the issue regarding the place of English language in Indian education. That's a topic deserving its own post, perhaps some time in the future, but not in this A-Z series.]

But one other important issue that must be emphasized in this post on Language is the place of Sanskrit.

Over the years we have seen a lot of political and/or ideological debate on this issue of Sanskrit, including whether it should be taught in schools. This is a shame actually because not only is Sanskrit the mother language of so many languages in the world, it is also the most precise language which has been found to have great benefits for the development of several other mental faculties. It is also a shame because at the time when schools in other countries are exploring and trying different means to teach their children a bit of this most refined, highly developed language, some of our biased ideologues have been advocating for cutting down the already-diluted exposure that Indian students get to Sanskrit through their schooling years.

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have clearly stated, that the Sanskrit ought to be the national language of India.
[Sanskrit] opens the door to all the languages of India. I think that is indispensable. The ideal would be, in a few years, to have a rejuvenated Sanskrit as the representative language of India, that is, a Sanskrit spoken in such a way that—Sanskrit is behind all the languages of India and it should be that..... Because now English is the language of the whole country, but that is abnormal. It is very helpful for relations with the rest of the world, but just as each country has its own language, there should... And so here, as soon as one begins to want a national language, everyone starts quarrelling. Each one wants it to be his own, and that is foolish. But no one could object to Sanskrit. It is a more ancient language than the others and it contains the sounds, the root-sounds of many words....Some of these roots can even be found in all the languages of the world—sounds, root-sounds which are found in all those languages. Well, this, this thing, this is what ought to be learnt and this is what the national language should be. Every child born in India should know it, just as every child born in France has to know French. He does not speak properly, he does not know it thoroughly, but he has to know French a little; and in all the countries of the world it is the same thing. He has to know the national language. And then, when he learns, he learns as many languages as he likes. At the moment, we are still embroiled in quarrels, and this is a very bad atmosphere in which to build anything. But I hope that a day will come when it will be possible. So I would like to have a simple Sanskrit taught [in the Ashram school], as simple as possible, but not “simplified”—simple by going back to its origin... all these sounds, the sounds that are the roots of the words which were formed afterwards. (The Mother, CWM, Volume 12, pp. 414-415)
No education in India can be truly Indian in spirit if it continues to ignore the learning of Sanskrit. Thankfully, some private institutions have been making some efforts to bring back the glory of Sanskrit and are encouraging and promoting the learning of Sanskrit for learners of all ages. Much more needs to be done, especially by the political machinery in order to give Sanskrit the much-needed push in formal educational system of India.

I close this post by sharing an informative video which provides a good background on this very important issue facing Indian Education.

Another helpful reading for those interested in learning more about the cultural significance of Sanskrit as well as several other aspects related to the 'fear of Sanskrit' is found here.

Image source: 1, 2 


This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for the previous post in this series.