A steady, unwavering stream of sunlight poured into the hushed room through the parted drapes, like a constant stream of consciousness. Lounging back in the comfort of a James Wingback with my feet firmly rested on the Bond Ottoman I savoured the delightful feeling of nothingness. That moment when there is no ingress or egress of thought and yet you are in touch with all your quiescent senses. That rare occurrence when you are in communion with the universe and yet away from it all. When nothing defines your identity because it ceases to exist. Sadly, even the blink of an eyelid sets in motion the plug-ins to the many realities of here and now.
That moment lost, I reached out with one hand for the cup of Dark Roast Double Shot and the other thumbed into life the inescapable cell phone. A post put up by a communications strategist on a social media platform caught my eye. It decried the fact that even big brands would often have Hinglish (a mish-mash of English and Hindi words with the Hindi words too written in Roman alphabets) headlines for their advertisements in vernacular language publications, in different parts of India. It eminently argued that though pan India osmosis of Hindi over the years would make the words comprehensible, it would still fall short on persuasion as that happens best in one’s mother tongue.
It is a fact that Hinglish was confected mainly as a result of two sets of occurrences. Firstly, the prominence of Hindi and the politics around it in India which started as early as the British Raj with their support to Urdu and Hindi as the identity of the two- religion divide. The acceptance of Hindustani as a confluence of the two languages unique to India died somewhere along the way. In 1950, the constitution adopted Hindi in Devanagari script as the official language for use by the Union. Over the years its constant presence has slowly seeped in, even to states where Hindi is not the native language. The grand repertoire of popular music and cinema in Hindi has played a remarkable role in popularising spoken Hindi.
In a land of diverse languages, the discomfort with Hindi being the common language brought English back, which anyway was always there even if not in the statutes. The Official Languages Act, 1963, allowed for the continuation of English alongside Hindi in the Indian government indefinitely until legislation decides to change it.
The long tail of colonial hangover for knowledge of English language as the gateway to success set in motion the second set of occurrences. Academia, business and bureaucracy all embraced English as the language for progress. With a large number of parents who wanted to get this passport of success and social status for their children, more schools that promised proficiency in English mushroomed than there were qualified teachers to teach. As a result, multitudes learnt a smattering of English, neglected their mother tongue, giving birth to a plethora of potpourri with Hinglish being the most successful in its adoption.
The insight that Hinglish is comprehensible but not persuasive to the vast majority whose native language is not Hindi is a cogent argument; because that was neither the language that you grew up hearing around you in your most formative years nor is it the language you use to articulate your innermost thoughts and emotions. Though over generations that could have changed, had it not been for the power of the language that people speak at home being one of the most potent expressions of identity.
There has been growing scientific evidence that learning is better assimilated when taught in the first language; the sounds of which are absorbed from the time in the womb through the first few years of existence. It brings a sense of comfort and security, lessening the cognitive conflict of learning in a new language that does not automatically connect you to your earliest experiences. There is also a view that even an instructed second language acquisition is better received when imparted and aided in the native language. The government’s move to impart all education in native language till the fifth grade is based on this understanding and will give a fillip to bring back the focus on what is considered to be the first marker of identity.
The firmament of success is fast changing and with it the context of languages in our life. The portal to accomplishment was chaperoned by English because whether you were a doctor, engineer, architect, banker, bureaucrat or any of their ilk you would have had to have had your instruction in English. The advent of careers that are the envy of all and do not need to be buttressed by English are changing the equation too. Sports, entertainment and grassroot level entrepreneurship leading the way. Achievement gives you confidence and that was entirely predicated by a language but now the tide is changing.
India is a land of unparalleled linguistic diversity, with 22 languages recognised in the Eighth schedule of the Constitution and over 19,500 mother tongues recorded. It is a rich heritage of the spoken and the written word that must be secured and used to maximum advantage. In celebration of our diversity though we cannot forget the crying need for collective integration and identity as one people. That is where English should play a critical role. It is alien to all us yet been a part of our lives for long. It can still play the role of a common thread within us and to connect with the outside world.
The prominence of the native language is coming back. It can pay us rich dividends in building a country of more equal opportunity and shared respect of our diverse heritage. Unfortunately, managing diversity is also a daunting task. Leaders can turn the identity game into alleys of personal gain. In an increasingly polarised world finding national ambitions beyond identity, that we as a nation can come together for, is going to be the foremost challenge in the coming decades.