On the Language Debate in India

(Only for the patient, really long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter. If I do, I might post it separately for a wider discussion)

I have been hearing about the language debate in India for a while now. My personal philosophy (perhaps) inspired by Gandhi has been to speak in the language that the person I am talking to understands.

Now that I have lived in the US and traveled the world a bit I understand the importance of knowing/learning multiple languages. For whenever I had a reason to learn, I spent at least some time learning Italian, Danish, German and currently Spanish. First three language choices were directly inspired by good reasons. Italian roommate, visits to Denmark and Germany and however slight possibility of moving there and gaining an idea of how it will be like. The last one, though, was what language gives me an immediate advantage, after English, now that I am going to stay in the US for a long period of time – the second most spoken language in the country!

In this context, let’s look at the stats for India – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers_in_India (and keep them at the back of our minds, we will come back to this). Hindi is spoken by over 50% of the population (liberally including minor languages which are very similar to Hindi) and English by about 12%. (Even if we take the conservative estimate of 26% pointed out by the scroll article, Hindi still stands as the most spoken language in the country, no other language comes anywhere close).

Now, I see and agree to the point that people complaining about Rahman not singing exclusively in Hindi are ignorant fools. But I don’t agree with the larger debate about the government imposing Hindi on the country and the problems non-native Hindi speakers tend to point out with it. Let me elaborate:

First some facts: Indian central government recognizes only English and Hindi as its official languages. No other language choice makes sense (looking at the stats and that English is necessary to stay relevant). States are free to choose their official languages, which most do, nobody is taking away that right from them.

  1. If the central govt representatives (a similar argument applies to things like passport) like the PM use Hindi to communicate (which is understood by the most number of constituents and is hence the most reasonable choice for central govt, apart from English), does the rest of the country not care at all about what they have to say (unfiltered/not lost in translation)? Who is at a disadvantage here with not knowing a common tongue? Will people prefer English which is understood by less than 20% of the country?
  2. The most literate parts of the country are already learning Hindi to a good extent (as I was surprised to learn from my time in South India (~6 years)). Even if they are not officially learning, they pick it up from ultra popular Bollywood movies. The part that I do not understand is (which I have heard and seen but not verified with data) when someone knows a language that the person they are speaking to understands, why would they want to use any other language apart from that which is understood by both? I have heard stories of especially Tamil people (I admit, fully unverified) who know Hindi not ready to converse in Hindi with people who only understand that language (wait, isn’t that imposition of a language?). With my time at NIT Calicut (4 years), I often used to wonder why my batch mates would speak among themselves in Malayalam while I am standing right among them and they know I can’t understand them (while we all know English), it affected me so much over the years that I chose to bring it up during my CSED farewell address.
  3. Related to my last point in 2: I often hear from American friends that they notice how Indians assimilate so well with Americans while Chinese don’t, they observe the difference is that Indians in the US tend to speak to each other in English, while Chinese people mostly choose their native tongue whenever they talk to each other (no matter who else is standing near them). I personally found it really hard to make Chinese friends who had not already spent many years in the US or some other non-Asian country because e.g. I couldn’t pick up on any casual conversation they were having near the water cooler. Coming back to India, so many friendships across cultures that I saw at NIT Calicut were bound by a common language. Especially, given we were in Malayalam majority populace, I saw Malayalis who defaulted to speaking in English most of the time making more non-Malayali friends. Jaseem, you and I wouldn’t be friends like we are if you defaulted to Malayalam with most of your friends. AFAIK, you did not. The point I am trying to make is that people need to understand each other and a common language binds them (applies to the country as a whole as well, if we were to choose a language, it couldn’t be English).
  4. We have already established why it makes sense for non-native speakers to know Hindi (numbers, opportunity cost, understanding the rest of the country). Now let’s talk about why the argument given by some people that why is it that a person from South India is expected to know Hindi when they go to the North but not the other way around. Though I agree that the expectation on the North end is based on ignorance but the expectation by individual states in the south tends to be foolish. The answer is fairly simple looking at numbers alone, but let me elaborate. Learning a language takes a lot of time (you admit you are bad at learning human languages, for a relatively very smart person; I am struggling on my own with Spanish for past couple of months). Why would anyone learn a new language unless they had significant gains to be had from it? My own story: I tried picking up words in Malayalam, but decided to give up learning the languages as I didn’t see myself moving to Kerala for any reason. Kannada in Bangalore made even less sense as it is a well-educated city and most people can speak either English or Hindi. I would have considered investing in learning Kannada if I were looking to move long term there (a possibility not entirely discounted). Aren’t those rational decisions?
  5. If a foreigner comes to our diverse country to travel, which of their language learning investments make the most sense? Namaste or vadakkam?

None of this is helping contribute to the degradation of other languages in the country (I would like to hear how if they do). From how I see it, it helps to bridge the divide among the country and solve some real existing problems (like people who do not know English being able to read their passports).

It is funny, how everywhere else people celebrate knowing multiple languages, while in India we celebrate and argue about our ignorance of them.

I should also mention my political biases perhaps. I don’t agree with most things that Modi govt is doing as people here might have seen with my posts from past month or so. So anyone reading this should not make the silly mistake of counting me among the bhakts.

Further, I wrote somewhere about how I consider English as the language of the Internet which has connected the whole world together, but how I was disappointed that I couldn’t communicate easily with my family over the Internet (who are not comfortable with English). With the introduction of Gboard on Android that changed for me and I am really happy to be able to chat with them on WhatsApp in Hindi. I came to understand my original philosophy about speaking to someone in the language that they know best, yet again.

Originally written as a comment on Facebook in response to a post by Jaseem.

Posted with tags opinion language Hindi English political