Monday, March 10, 2008

Leaping into a bilingual world, 24 February 2008

My friend, the linguist, Peggy Mohan, likens the evolution of the English language in India to the mobile phone. Just as our masses are leapfrogging to cell phones without going through a landline stage, she thinks that English might evolve in the same way from elite to a mass, second language of the fast growing Indian middle class. If functioning with pre-literate dialects is not to have a phone; and learning a standard regional language, say shudh Hindi, is to acquire a landline; then aspirant wannabe’s Indians might actually leapfrog from their pre-literate mother tongues to literacy in functional English.

This English is a skill above all, linked to getting a job, and associated not with the culture of Shakespeare but with the popular culture of Hinglish--Bollywood, FM radio, SMS, and advertising. Of course, mixing English words with our mother tongue has been going on for generations. Earlier it was basically the aspirational idiom of the lower classes. Now it is also the fashionable idiom in upper class drawing rooms in south Delhi and south Mumbai. This English is shared and democratic.

India’s poor send their children at great sacrifice to private, English-medium schools of varying degrees of quality. These children face incomprehension initially but eventually most of them manage to take a leap into a new world. This happens because a child is naturally bilingual. Our education mandarins dismiss these schools and think the parents stupid. The same mandarins thrust shudh Hindi down their throats for fifty years but all they achieved was an unemployable person. Now, at least, these children can get a job—so, who is the one who is stupid?

This should be a wake-up call for our education establishment. Unless we drastically reform how we teach regional languages, they might suffer the landline’s fate. According to Alok Rai, author of Hindi Nationalism, shudh Hindi was never a peoples’ language. It arose from a power struggle in the mid-19th century between Brahmins and Kayasthas, each of whom had their own schools and scripts--Devanagari and Kaithi By the time Brahmins won in the 20th century, English had become the language of the elite. At Independence, the Hindiwallahs tried to impose their Sankritized Hindi on the nation but they failed. Had they promoted Bollywood’s Hindustani, they might have succeeded. Yet they didn’t learn. So, the Hindi we are taught is artificial and soulless--like the landline, it doesn’t connect with the masses.

Instead of fighting Hinglish, our educationists must teach Standard English and regional languages in a lively and relevant way to naturally bilingual children. Studies show that if a child learns both languages by the age ten, she is advantaged for life. The problem is the dearth of English teachers. We at SKS Microfinance plan to overcome this with interactive English teaching on the computer, using a program like Pygmalion, which Karnataka is using in select government schools. It trains teachers to become facilitators. The child talks to the computer, who corrects her each time she makes a mistake. We aim to make 600,000 children bilingual in 600 primary schools, charging Rs 250-350 per month fees, for which SKS will provide loans to its 17 lakh customer base. Our schools will be run by professional edupreneurs like Educomp or Career Launcher and employ the new $100 computer. Tell me now, isn’t this how our government should be thinking? The Chinese government is.

Stephen Jay Gould, the biologist, argues that human evolution is not smooth and continuous but a series of jump steps, with long periods of stasis punctuated by quick flurries of adaptation. This explains perhaps the dearth of missing links in the fossil record. Languages evolve similarly. It took English only a hundred years to produce Shakespeare. Hinglish might do the same in the 21st century.


The Unadorned said...


This is an interesting post; one is just goaded to think.

Think of a scenario: the US loses its commanding height and China comes to the forefront. Will not Mandarin be learnt the way English was in previous centuries? See what happens when dollar stumbles in a small measure. The software fellows are in doldrums; the BPOs start paying less; there are people recruited to be shown the way out. Then, why would people learn English with all its phonetics?

A rice-eater will always remain a rice-eater, howsoever great is the attraction of piza. It's good as a diversion only. Can people leave drinking water and only depend on Coca-cola? So mother tongue will remain merely because of the sheer number of people speaking it, because it is the easier and more natural choice.

Besides, Hindi is gaining respectability. Is not Penguin India publishing books in Hindi? What about the pulp called "Wordi Wala Goonda"? Did it not sell in millions? They say it was a publishing record.



Piyul said...

Hi Mr. Das,

Was fascinated to read this blog. How simply marvellous to be able to reach out a language to so many people across the country. Wonderful!

Have been doing some research amongst the youth segment in small towns recently – my clients include HUL and Nokia, as well as for my PhD thesis - and with over 300 million mobile phones in the young country today, I thought I would share an interesting trend visible - of how language is evolving in a 'texting' or an 'sms' world.

Of texting in own language using the mother tongue phonetics. Like ‘Udya chem. notes gheyun ye’ (‘get your chemistry notes tomorrow’ in Marathi) or ‘tui kothay’ (‘where are you’ in Bangla).

Very soon, language is evolving to choosing the words from a repertoire of English, even Hindi and own mother tongue – that takes the least no of characters to write!! Thus ‘De’ is more popular than ‘give’, ‘God’ than ‘khuda’ !! Besides, the written words are now spelt in its contextual representation - Use is actually usey (use dekha to ye jana sanam) and ‘the’ could be the past tense of ‘tha’ (whereas ‘da’ is used to mean the English ‘the’).

And believe you me, there is absolutely no confusion in the communication between sender and receiver – what with the furious level of texting going on amongst a close gang of friends in our collective culture, and language is evolving at breakneck speed. The internet never really took off in India (still a mere 35 million users) but what the cell phones are doing out there is something phenomenal!

As they pick up (and use) more and more English, the idea is to go with the sound of it than the spelling – we have just begun doing some ‘twitter groups’ (a relaxed and more mobile version of online focus groups) and the youngsters text me at the beginning of their messages a rather cute ‘Wasup, didi’ - they have picked up this word ‘what’s up’ from their more happening peers, and ‘didi’ is still an endearing hark back to old times of giving respect to a stranger in a more familial and less impersonal way.

I read your recent blog on Gujarati Chitrahaar, and at the risk of sounding facetious wanted to share an anecdote. My husband and I have always preferred watching the DVDs of Hollywood movies that come with subtitles – to be able to understand the accent – and thus the movie in its entirety!! But more seriously, that is the same reason we notice, that the mass youth loves to watch reruns of some of the cult movies (cult in their youth culture usually involves action and horror - e.g. that movie on Egyptian Mummies. Or movies of Schwarzeneggar) in English – ostensibly - to learn the language. And why ever not!

My regards,

Piyul Mukherjee

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