makes us human. During the process of natural evolution, the human brain
acquired the ability to engage with the world primarily through linguistic transactions.
Language, therefore, has become the mode of knowing for Homo sapiens. Being the
foundation of knowledge, language plays a pivotal role in formal institutions
of knowledge. It is as necessary for thought and knowledge to exist as are air
and water for the survival of life.
evidence shows that humans came to use language, a semiotic system made of
verbal icons, some 70,000 years ago. The species continued to develop the
brain’s linguistic ability as well as the semantic complexity of languages in
use throughout these millennia. The intermittent prolonged spells of the ice
ages did not deter the species in its language pursuit. We are now at a stage
when a newborn manages to learn the entire language capability of the brain
developed over the last 70,000 years.
By the time
a child enters school, she already has the language competence that schools
promise to give her. This is not to undermine the importance of formal
education. Schooling can indeed bring a greater self-awareness of the language
one uses. It can, under ideal conditions, help the learner in acquiring a
greater ease in processing abstraction and judgment, the two highest cognitive
abilities that the human brain has developed. It is now established beyond
doubt that if a child receives formal instruction in the language of its home
environ, the ease of doing cognitive transactions is enhanced.
tries to understand the nature of the language controversy that erupted last
week, it should be instructive to ask how many languages children in most other
countries are required to learn. The answer to this question can leave us
ashamed and angry. In England, Germany and most European Union countries,
children are required to study only one language in primary school and another
language of their choice in middle school. In the U.S., it is English and
Spanish or some other language as a ‘second language’. In Japan, it is Japanese
and English from the primary level. In Hong Kong, it is primarily English, but
also Mandarin and, if children wish, some Cantonese. In Egypt, Arabic is the
primary language of instruction with a six-year stint in English as a ‘second
language’. Almost all over the world, with the exception of some former
colonies, children are required to study primarily one language and another one
as a ‘second language’. In India they are asked to tackle three languages, and
if their home language happens to have no formal status, they are faced with
the daunting task of having to cope with four languages.
Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring had reported in 2016
that there were 47 million drop-outs by the 10th standard in India. Of course,
gender discrimination, absence of toilets for girls, economic marginalisation,
poor infrastructure, inadequate teacher training and lack of employment at the
end of high-school education contribute to the ‘expulsion’ of young learners
from schools. But equally crucial a reason is the language challenge. If we
have to bring this great injustice to an end, sooner or later India will have
to accept the scientific premise that education in the mother tongue is the key
to the life of the mind. ‘Mother tongue’ does not, however, mean the language
determined by the state as a desirable ‘first’ language but a language that
parents think will give the child the ease of learning.
question of language education as well as that of the language for education
has three important facets — linguistic (including neurological and pedagogical),
political and administrative. Since Independence, we have laid a
disproportionately high emphasis on the administrative side of this question.
For purely administrative considerations we have kept oscillating between one
position and another, bringing in its trail bitterly fought language battles.
The colonial legacy of English as a language of modernity and knowledge has
made it difficult for us to bring the vacillations to any rational conclusion.
The nation appears to have forgotten the violent language movements in the past
in Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka; now the draft National Education Policy
(NEP) has opened a festering wound once again.
The face of
the controversy stoked through the draft is of a political nature. During the
last two decades, NEPs have become an old habit with us, though none of them
resulted in any genuinely fresh breakthrough in education. The new NEP draft
comes at a time when the nation is sharply divided, thanks to the
no-holds-barred abusive rhetoric during the recent election. It is not
surprising that what was post-haste deleted came to be seen as imposition of
Hindi in violation of the linguistic sovereignty of the States guaranteed by
The zeal of
the BJP to spread Hindi in non-Hindi States is based on deeply flawed premises.
To begin with, the government does not have any authentic data on the
linguistic composition of the country. The 2011 Census data on languages,
published last year, was heavily doctored. It presents Hindi as the ‘mother
tongue’ of over 52 crore people by subsuming more than 5 crore claimants of
Bhojpuri and more than 9 crore speakers of nearly 61 other languages — claimed
as ‘other’ by their speech communities — from Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh,
Uttarakhand, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. ‘The
Hindi’ is probably spoken by not more than 30% of the population, but it is not
the mother tongue for the remaining 70%. Knowingly causing risk to any
indigenous language has been described by the UNESCO as ‘an act amounting to
genocide’. I will use the term ‘phonocide’ to describe the expansionist
aspirations in the name of nationalism. The aspirations are not to be
attributed to the speakers of Hindi, but to the politics of the pseudo-nationalists
who have no patience with the cultural diversity of India, so sensitively
enshrined in the Constitution.
reaction that came up reflects democratic aspirations of the non-Hindi
languages. The sparks that flew — before the controversy was hurriedly doused,
probably temporarily so — foretell the larger political narrative for the
coming years. In numerous ways, it is likely to be a conflict between the
pseudo-nationalists and the constitutional democrats, a conflict over culture,
language, knowledge, faith, history, world-views and approaches to modernity.
One hopes it does not take the form of a north against south conflict.
Language, being the foundation of both civilisation and knowledge, has
naturally become the opening move in what is to come.
G.N. Devy is Chairman, the People’s Linguistic
Survey of India