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G.N. Devy dreams of ‘multilingual territories’ within monolingual states

Figuring out a way of conserving language diversity across India, without having to sacrifice young India's full participation in the excitement of the 'knowledge century', says G.N. Devy of Adivasi Academy and Bhasha Research Centre

G.N. Devy has lobbied for linguistic diversity in classrooms and for pedagogic methods that can help soften the clash between the ‘home language’ and the ‘language of knowledge’ for young students. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
G.N. Devy has lobbied for linguistic diversity in classrooms and for pedagogic methods that can help soften the clash between the ‘home language’ and the ‘language of knowledge’ for young students. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The human ability to use complex language, made of arbitrary and intangible symbols, distinguishes us from other animal species. These symbols belong to comprehensive and integrated semantic systems that we describe as “language". Scientifically speaking, no language is substantially less or more capable of representing the universe known to us and the thoughts that the human mind generates.

If it were possible to get back to the time when humans invented language as a means of communication and thought transaction, one would have noticed that initially every language was fully capable of handing down the entire range of knowledge—as it existed then—from one generation to the next. However, knowledge produced in all languages did not continue to remain at par, with some achieving greater sophistication than others. The resulting asymmetry between different languages, further enhanced by the social domination of one language over another, a greater profusion of pedagogic innovation in one language against another—all these, and many other reasons, have resulted in the preference for using one language over other languages as the medium of instruction in schools and universities.

Economic and political history plays an important role in why certain languages find favour with educators and others do not. In the 1840s, the Chartist movement in England resulted in the introduction of English as the medium of instruction in British schools. Till then, Latin had enjoyed pre-eminence. As the British were beginning to discover the instrumental value of English as a tool “to discipline the wayward social classes", they decided to use the language in the colonies as well. Since India was part of the British colonies, and had begun negotiating its way into modernity since the 19th century, English was welcomed here. The rest is history.

Today, as the Indian population touches the 1.3 billion mark, and a large proportion of the population is under the age of 25, the question of educating them all has become a challenge, both in scale and complexity. Despite our collective desire to attain the goal of education for all, we do not seem to have reached even the starting line—literacy for all. Class distinction, caste distinction, neglected rural sociology, inadequate infrastructure, lack of professional ethics, decay in regulatory institutions, disoriented administration and poor teacher training have, together, kept this dream in perpetual turbulence.

In a century that has come to be generally accepted as the knowledge century, this situation in India and its continuation for long will naturally lead to a “logocide"—knowledge mayhem. Is the medium of instruction one of the characters, probably the protagonist, in this tragedy, with all of us mute spectators? The last act of any great tragedy is marked by the end of not just the protagonist but also of other major characters. The languages that do not become the medium of instruction are like these other characters.

It is common, not just in India but in most countries, to hear people speaking with frustration, anger and fear of the invasion of other languages. Indeed, most languages—there are some 6,000 or more of them at present, according to Unesco and the Ethnolog—are facing the risk of mass extinction, as highlighted in a series of reports and languages atlases by Unesco. And it is not as if all of them are languages without any knowledge stock. They hold within themselves a great diversity of ways of looking at the world, of relating human consciousness with other species, nature and cosmos. The speakers of all of these languages invariably point to language imbalance in their knowledge transactions, in schools, universities, courts, governments, media and economy.

Often, some thoughtless argument in favour of a single world language is put forward.

Is not there any way which will allow humans to be globally connected yet at the same time linguistically and culturally rooted? Is it not possible to think of a pedagogy that will allow diverse human languages to continue to exist, and, at the same time, enable communities to participate in all that is contemporary, forward-looking, and at the cutting-edge of knowledge? Is it not at all possible to look at language diversity and knowledge societies as not being mutually exclusive options?

I would like to propose an idea related to the conservation of language diversity without having to sacrifice young India’s fullest participation in the excitement of the knowledge century. In order to state it properly, one needs to refer to the nature of the composition of the country as a federal republic.

Soon after independence, the Indian territory was distributed into various states. They were empowered with related provisions for forming state governments as laid down in the Constitution. The anomalous areas were designated Union territories. The guiding principle for marking states was primarily linguistic. Thus, we accepted a multilingual federation of substantially monolingual states. It is another thing that no state conceptualized as a linguistic state had just one language spoken within it. At that juncture in our history, the other languages were not in print, nor was their presence clearly visible.

Given the relatively short time of three-odd years that the constituent assembly got to think about a plethora of issues, it could not examine all aspects of the language problem. One such issue was the impact of large migrations from one linguistic state to another. Indeed, over the last seven decades, such migrations have been taking place. Migration has been the most essential characteristic of modernity. If we were to do a fact-check on every city with a million-plus population in the country, we might notice that they consist of numerous linguistic communities and have become essentially multilingual cities. Yet, the educational policies, as also the language policies, of states are worked out within the matrix of the linguistic state structure. This results in a paradox—beleaguered by numerous court cases—that has remained unresolved so far. The paradox is, if the state decides to use the state language (or languages) as the medium of instruction, the diverse linguistic communities feel culturally intimidated; but if the multilingual composition of the cities were to be foregrounded, the quality of education and learning outcomes would decline. Add to this the post- colonial irony of the vast gap between the language of knowledge and the language of life. Is this a permanently sealed question, like the irreversible punishment to the mythical Sisyphus? I think not.

Just as during the 1950s and 1960s, the creation of Union territories was imagined as a realistic proposition, it has now become necessary to recognize the million-plus cities as “multilingual territories" (MTs). Such recognition need not lead to their being delinked from the linguistic states for the purpose of law-making and revenue collection. The recognition can be accorded without having to tweak the Constitution. The Union ministry of human resource development and the state education departments need to be mandated to take this recognition seriously.

Special language resource centres (SLRCs) need be set up for an appropriate number of languages, and linked to schools as their organic extensions. Imagine a city like Bengaluru, where Kannada is a mandatory language, either as a subject or medium of instruction, or both. If the city has to have SLRCs for the other 21 scheduled languages as well as for Khasi and Garo of the North-East and Tulu, Byari and a few other languages of Karnataka, it would require about 30 language resource centres. If schools formally permit children to spend a day and a half of each week at these centres, SLRCs could help the children through the languages they understand, in revisions, tutorials and supplementary work. Every child can select one-two language resource centres of her or his choice. This will help reduce the clash between the home language and the school language.

If used imaginatively, this will also help soften the clash between the home language and the language of knowledge. This will be the most civilized way of handling our multilingual social composition. Modern information and communication technology can be used quite imaginatively to make SLRCs places where monitoring the students’ bilingual cognitive development to their advantage can be undertaken.

The first reaction to my suggestion will be: But will any government ever try this out? It is anybody’s guess whether any government will ever want to step in the minefield of linguistic chauvinism. And that is where we, the people of India, come into the picture. The recognition of our multilingualism and the need for building bridges between a child’s home language and the language(s) of learning must first come from citizens. An NGO or an institution passionate about language rights must first work this out in a few cities for three-four years, present its analysis of the learning outcomes to the formal bodies and educational administration in other states. Multilingual citizenry can be harnessed as a cultural and educational resource. Their spirit of voluntarism needs to be activated and tapped.

The results of this experiment are bound to be gainful, going by what all the research in cognitive sciences and linguistics indicates. Of course, schools—at least some of them—have to participate in the experiment. I believe that new ideas alone, however crazy they look in the beginning, can change the world. One in every six of school-going children in the world is waiting for the bridge between the word “future" in her home language and the same word in the language of “power" and “knowledge". This done, the “logocide" let loose upon young minds can be arrested at least partially. India can find its honourable place in the world’s knowledge community not by becoming monolingual and culturally uprooted but by remaining multilingual and culturally productive.

G.N. Devy founded the Adivasi Academy and Bhasha Research Centre for conservation of tribal languages and culture. He led the largest language survey in history, covering 780 languages, published by Orient Blackswan in 50 volumes.

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