Monday, December 3, 2007

Conundrums in the Politics of Language in India

I was at a fabulous talk given by Dr. Ajit Mohanty, who is a visiting scholar from the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at J. Nehru Uni in India. He's written several books on language policy in relation to tribal groups in India, with a social justice perspective.

These are some snippets that caught my imagination:
  • Language in India is very hierarchical, and English has won out at the top (as can be seen by the fact that English medium schools are by far the norm (as opposed to Hindi medium or state language).
  • English has became powerful in post-colonial regions particularly in areas where there were previously competing local languages (as in India, much of Africa) - whereas if there was a homogeneity of languages before (e.g. China, Korea), then English doesn't become as strong.
  • For many multilingual speakers, there is no such thing as a primary language - it depends on what you're using it for (e.g. at home your primary language is Norwegian, but for your work it is English, for your prayers, if you're Hindu, it's Sanskrit...etc.)
  • Minority language speakers often make a difference b/t the utility of the language, and the cultural/integration aspects. If they don't see a utility for their own mother tongue, then it doesn't get onto the priority of the school system and it slowly dies or loses status.
  • The Indian system is established for the majority speakers, requiring 3 languages - mother tongue/state language, then Hindi and English. But if you're from a tribal caste, then you have a 4th in there... which is ignored in terms of your formal education b/c the state language wins out instead. (despite the fact that policy states that either your mother tongue or the state language can be taught).
  • Kids learn very early on (b/t 2 and 10 yrs old) how to interact in a multilingual environment, even if they don't know the language of the other speaking
  • In 1970 there were about 88 different languages taught in school, and now there are only about 40...or something like that.
  • Although the number of official languages has expanded from 17 (?) to 22 in recent years - including 2 tribal languages in 2003 (the first that it has happened)
  • Indian national policy says it is supportive of multilingualism, but really in practice it is not...


houshuang said...

Thanks a lot for posting this, a very useful summary!

Ronna said...

Good post.