Monday, December 15, 2008

Hindi as National Language

India's law panel does not want to adopt Hindi as official court language - news. Apparently, judges cannot learn the language at their age, which is one of the reasons they feel this wouldn't fly. Some years after India's independence from the British, it was decided that Hindi will replace English as the "Official language" with time frames like 15 years, though it has not taken off in decades.

When I was in grad school, I used to get into arguments with some Hindi speaking friends, who'd express surprise that someone from India doesn't speak it's "national language", and ask if I was really from India. Much of the argument would be defensive,with some absurd points that wouldn't go anywhere. Over time, I think I have become more persuasive.

First, why is such a "national language" is needed. Usually the answer is for "national integration". Then drawing a parallel - why not enforce a "national religion". If everyone is Hindu, then that will also contribute to national integration. If you can have national integration with no national religion, then it should be possible to have national integration with no national language. This is fairly convincing, and the proponents of national language will likely give up, except that it can be argued religion is personal, but language affects two or more people communicating. That begs the next question.

Which two (or more) people are going to communicate? Largely, it is going to be within a state, where most people speak the same language. Mostly, people talk to family, neighbors, school, work, stores, most of this is in the local lingo. This is true by definition, since India chose to create linguistic states. So, the vast majority of the communications don't need a national language, but only certain situations like people traveling to another state or dealing with national or inter-state level communications will have need for common language. That begs the next question.

Why not just let these people who travel learn the other language? People learn based on the incentive caused by the need to make money or such interest, which is easier, than being forced as a rule. Indians who go to US take the trouble to pick up English, and students write TOEFL exam. The Marwaris or Sindhis who come to Tamilnadu to open clothing retail learn Tamil - fact is they have a Tamil accent and dialect of their own in Chennai. Likewise, if anyone goes to neighboring China,which might be nearer than a far-away state like Kerala, they will feel compelled to pick up Mandarin or Cantonese. National and state boundaries are just conceptual lines. It is unlikely a the local milkman needs to travel to another state often, so he wouldn't need to pick up any other language. It is going to be people who do business or seeking work elsewhere, and their families. They can learn the local lingo, since they are the smaller population relative to the larger static population that remains local. But, that begs the next question.

What if we forced all the milkmen to learn hindi, from when they were kids? Wouldn't that be a convenience, since no one needs to learn the local lingo? Easily said than done. At the time the national or official language policy was discussed, more than 70%of population was illiterate. meaning most hindi speaking folks themselves can't read/write hindi. Given this, how can we expect the similar 70% illiterate population in another non-hindi speaking state to pick up hindi? They cannot even read or write in their own mother tongue. Adding to this, the grammar is different. the script is different. Hindi is relatively easy to learn to speak, but it is not reasonable to assume so for hundreds of millions of people.

If learned judges can't easily pick up the language, it is difficult to expect others to learn.
Hopefully hindi speaking folks who think all of India can and should speak in hindi, realize some or all of this above. Promoting Hindi as a national language is about solving the wrong problem. Better approach would be to encourage a multi-lingual approach, where regional languages are also used when necessary, provide learning incentives such as free hindi classes to quietly promote, as opposed to enforcing rules or adopting unrealistic policies to promote hindi to fill a seeming gap.

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