Gather 40 Indians from different regions across the country in one room, try to conduct a training and see how you end up communicating what you intend to; the most important question is: which language will you use?
Before I came to India, I believed that Hindi is the official language of the country. I knew that there are many local languages in India but I, kind of, thought that Hindi is the one taught at schools, the official language that unifies all. My previous assumption was an undermining of Indian diversity as I came to uncover in my first week. Infact, Hindi, as a language, sometimes drives division and conflict between its speakers and non-speakers in some areas of India.
Before I came to India I thought to myself that maybe by learning some Hindi, I will be able to get by easily, especially knowing that the origins of Arabic, my mother tongue, and Hindi are very close. At that point I was just thinking so simplistically of India, I realize now. As I was looking into Hindi classes in Bangalore, the city where I live, I asked a friend for her recommendations and whether it was easy for her to learn Hindi – just assuming that she must have learnt having spent more than a year in the country. My friend's reply was that she didn’t really need Hindi for two reasons; first, Bangalore is such a westernized city with a demographic majority of IT people who speak Silicon Valley not Hindi, or in other words, everyone spoke English, hence, I would get along easily. Second, even if my friend learnt Hindi, it would be of no use in Bangalore when the local spoken language is Kannada (pronounced pretty much as Canada). It took me a while to understand what this “Canada” actually is, since people spoke English and French in the country “Canada”, I didn’t understand why my friend didn’t just say people in Bangalore spoke English and French – she actually meant a language named: “Kannada”.
In my first week of orientation to India, I came to know that there are 27 officially recognized languages of India, let alone all the local and tribal languages. You can find the official languages designated on the currency’s paper notes - Indian Rupees. Is there anything that can be as simple as one pattern that can be applied across India from any cultural, social, linguistic, economic or historical perspective? The answer in India is: Absolutely Not! As life unfolded, there were several things that fascinated me about India and on top of the list the idea of “language diversity” came.
To give you a glimpse of what this language diversity looks like, you need to understand that mostly all Indians that I have met agreed that there is a considerable difference between the south and the north of India. This difference has its roots in history and is manifested in languages, cultures and traditions, arts and music, people's attitudes, clothing, skin color and cuisine. India has 30 states; those were all separate kingdoms before the unity and independence from the British colonization in the 1950s. In other words, these states were all separate countries with their peoples, tribes, histories and traditions. Imagine the diversity that results as you combine all of these kingdoms into one country, what we know today as ‘India”. I have listened to several opinions on whether this unity was useful or un-useful to the people, debates that tackled the economic versus the cultural aspect and that looked at nationalization and unity versus diversity, multiple identities and freedoms. I will definitely dedicate other pieces to such points of views while I try to focus on the idea of language here.
As a result of the combination of all the kingdoms in this part of the world to become India as of today, different native languages remained and evolved over time. Examples of these spoken languages are: Kannada in the state of Karnataka where Bangalore is and where I currently live, Marathi in the state of Maharashtra, Telugu in the state of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Tamil in the state of Tamil Nadu, Malyalam in the state of Kerala, Konkani (and also Portuguese) in the state of Goa, Punjabi in the state of Punjab and Gujarati in the state of Gujarat. All these languages have their completely different scriptures and their resulting cultures like poetry and movie productions for example. It can be overwhelming to think of the amount of knowledge in India. Keep in mind that these are only a small number of languages present in India that I came to know about through interacting with people from different origins and living for a short period of time in Bangalore.
Moreover, you can follow the division of language according to other categories, for example: most Muslims will speak Urdu, so Urdu is spoken in the state of Jammu and Kashmir but also among Muslims across different parts of the country – take nothing as a rule but maybe majority of cases, this was the most precious lesson I learnt. Different castes and sometimes occupations can designate people’s knowledge of different languages, for example: Pandits (religious Hindu men) of the Brahmin cast (the highest in the social caste hierarchy) will speak Sanskrit – the old Indian language in which the Vedic Hindu wisdom books were written.
Indeed, Hindi is spoken among most people in the country but, again, it is not a rule. For example, the state of Tamil Nadu is so proud of its Tamil language that parents and children reject learning Hindi at schools and they see it as an attempt from the government to have a hegemonic culture expressed by a dominating language. Hence, Tamil parents are much keener to educate and root their children in Tamil. Given that every state has the freedom to determine its official language, it is easy for Tamil parents to make sure their objective for their children is met. Infact, Tamilans look down upon people who speak Hindu in Tamil Nadu; the previous was shared by my work supervisor who is originally from the state of Tamil Nadu.
A middle class Indian person in an urban setting would very easily speak 3 languages since childhood, which could be Hindi, their local/state language and English. Since mobility across Indian states, mainly in search for jobs, has a high prevalence among Indians, you would most probably find this middle class Indian person learning a fourth language, which is the local language of the state he/she moved to. Again and again, there are no rules. Some parents prefer raising their children adopting a western life style and only enforcing English in the household while other parents focus more on local languages. Many factors can interfere in the number of languages Indian citizen masters. It is definite, though, that Indians have an affinity for picking up languages easily and by default this is a skill that makes people smarter and allows their mind to experience different thinking patterns. Take this woman who makes my coffee at work and who speaks to me in English. She is from the state of Tamil Nadu and speaks only Tamil and Kannada, as she works in Bangalore, but she was also able to pick up basic English pretty easily from being around in the office and listening to people's conversations.
As I work in the education social enterprise sector in India, I see the massive numbers of education social enterprises that emerge daily with an emphasis on making sure Indian children master the English language. Such enterprises are totally centered on products like online platforms, mobile applications, in-classroom multimedia products and others that teach English vocabulary, conversations and grammar in different interactive ways, while using fancy marketing packages to parents and schools of all socio-economic levels. These social enterprises are market driven – meaning they do not come out of thin air, there is a need for their presence. There is a rising interest of Indian parents, almost a mania, to make sure their children learn English.
As the company I consult for works in operating community schools in rural India, I see low-income parents who only speak local languages come to the learning centers to check upon the level of their kids in English. Even if these parents will never be able to communicate with their kids in this English language, they want to make sure their kids have this opportunity for going up the social ladder in life, for moving to cities and finding job opportunities. Nobody can blame these parents, they have the best intentions for their kids. However, who will make our food? who will make our houses? who will preserve nature? Or guard cultures with its multi-lingualism? Little can parents do when the world is driving all children in one way through a global education system that is designed to produce factory replicas! Learn English, go to the city and find a job!
I once spoke with a developer of education curriculums in India and she said: "we are creating all of these English programs for the kids in villages when they have no one to practice their language with in the village. To practice their language, they need to go out of the village. The pattern of thinking in English is different from thinking in Hindi. Are we confusing the children? Do they even need English?" The curriculum developer asked me as she was questioning herself out loud. "It is debatable", I said.
As I sat the other day in a training for 40 field staff members of the company I consult for in India, who come from only 2 states across the country, Karnataka and Maharashtra, I found the trainer asking people to introduce themselves and mention which languages they speak. It was fascinating to see the range of languages spoken in the room and keep guessing or tracing how everyone could have possibly acquired every language they speak. I could easily see the trainer's dazzled face as she contemplated which language to use for conducting her session, what would be the most inclusive language? … Hmm … there was none! The trainer knew Hindi and English but she ended up inviting one of the participants beside her on stage to provide continuous translation to Kannada as well. As I sat through the training, it required extreme focus and mental effort since Indians can so easily and skillfully shift between 2 – 3 languages in one sentence before I even realize that the sentence ended. Fascinating it was!!
For my benefit, I have been doing well getting along with English in Bangalore. It does become a challenge when I visit rural villages and I really, badly, want to speak with someone, a mother, a kid or a teacher, beyond the smiles we exchange together or when I, for example, want know the life story of my auto-wallah (my auto rickshaw driver). Should they learn English? Should I learn their 27 languages? Or .. should we just smile and know that deep down something deeper connects us as humans? Even if we don't have a common word in a common language to define it.
Reference for the words in this Article's title:
Hello: Greeting in English
Namaste: Greeting in Hindi
Namaskaara: Greeting in Kannada
Salam: Greeting in Arabic and Urdu
Disclaimer: The information I write on culture and society in India is not based on academic research, it is based on interactions with and stories from people during my daily life in Bangalore, India. If you are looking for academic information, please consult academic journals and research papers that state proper citations and references. I could be mistaken and the views I present are "my" interpretations of the stories I hear as an outsider at the end of the day. However, I believe that accounts and narratives of regular people living everyday life are a powerful source of documentation and information.