Sunday, December 22, 2013

191 - The joys of multi-lingualism

191 - The joys of multi-lingualism

The other day I got the opportunity to listen to a discussion on bilingualism under the umbrella of the Times litfest. The discussion revolved around the phenomenon and implications of bilingualism in today’s world viewed from the lens of cinema and popular culture. I must speak on the subject from the point of view of a cubicle-wallah.

India's diversity is most ubiquitous in its languages, apart from its weather, skin color, food and geography. As one travels even a fraction of the 2000 plus miles between Kashmir to Kanyakumari, one 'hears' India as much as one 'sees' and 'tastes' it. While this diversity is documented and taught school onwards it is not systematically and consciously developed. There has been a significant progress made in building the diversity of the palate and it is not uncommon to see culinary diversity at display across. Dosa is no longer a south Indian breakfast just as the stuffed paratha is no longer a north Indian phenomena. However we have not demonstrated a similar catholicity, an openness of mind in adopting linguistic diversity.  

English is our de-facto national language, Hindi a second language to at best half of Indians. So for all practical purposes half of India knows only one Indian language, if we discount English for a while. The rest of the country which has a regional or vernacular language apart from English might have Hindi as third possible language. My suspicion is that most of us do not know more than 2 or at best 3 Indian languages which is a pathetic low in a country which has 22 officially recognized languages apart from more than 1500 'mother tongues'. We must be chasing multi-lingualism while we seem to have limited success at bilingualism. 

I am sure we all would know the barriers in learning more than the languages we already know. However the benefits far outweigh the struggle. For one, nothing helps us bond and know better a people better than in their mother tongue. Language builds bridges that are beyond the here and now. When I speak in Oriya, I do not connect only the person of today but to the history of those people for centuries. I touch and get touched with the collective memory of a people which would have remained out of bounds otherwise. The world of their customs, rituals and deep rooted beliefs opens up for my understanding and empathy. Left to it all of this may develop without the glue of language also, but language achieves this rather instantaneously. 

Diplomacy is helped by language. Connections are strengthened by language. Corporate relationships are aided by language. The other day Economic Times reported how the new CEO of Pepsi food and the world wide CEO of PepsiCo bonded over their common language. Organizations that have a pan India presence include linguistic proficiency as an important factor in their people decisions and not without reason.

As I look around it is not difficult to see the shrinking space for bilingualism. Increasingly the urban youth at least is happy to be well versed with only one language, mostly English. When a language is reduced to become only a 'subject', the writing on the wall is clear - it is the beginning of the end for it. There is hardly any parental consciousness about this either and hence it is no surprise that there is no action in it. However neither are adults doing much about it.

I wonder how many New Year resolutions will be 'let me learn another language' - including mine.


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