Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Language rant

A long time ago, language meant English or Hindi or French or whatever and had absolutely nothing to do with C, Java or ML. Children spoke their mother tongue at home and English was drilled into their head at school. Although they finally managed to get a grasp on English, their thinking was still in their mother tongue.

But nowadays, I am witnessing a strange phenomena. Possibly such things were happening earlier too, but I am sure I was not exposed to it. On the streets, in the airport, in the malls and parks, you can see young parents with little kids. And invariably, they are conversing in English with their kids. For some reason, I am repulsed by the sight of a small Indian child talking to his parents in English. Mind you, this is Bangalore I am talking about, not some US city with NRIs. The parents converse freely in their mother tongue, but for the child, English is the only language.

I am unable to understand why parents would deliberately alienate the child from his own culture and country. Has the craze for English reached such heights that we are willing to make Englishmen out of our children, who look down upon their vernacular brethen and be unable to communicate with them ? I, like most of the people from the plains speak, understand and write only Hindi and English. Many of my friends from other states are able to speak their non-Hindi mother tongue fluently. The same might not be true a few years hence.

Here in Karnataka, people are protesting and fighting to preserve the Kannada language. It is compulsory for all shops to display the signboard in Kannada too. But these protesters must realise that their fight is not against migrants from other states. The real threat is from those upwardly mobile parents who consider it too "common-place" to talk to their children in Kannada. The Hindi or Tamil speaking people will not lead to the marginalization of Kannada, the obsession with English would. And what goes for Kannada would probably hold true for any other Indian language.

When people make a noise about such issues, it is very easy to dismiss them as chauvinistic and give examples from the past to show that it is a natural process, but one must not forget that language defines the people and their culture. There are many things which are a part of our lives, but we would be hard pressed to explain them in an alien language. When you are in an extremely stressful situation, do you think and speak in English or some other language ? How does on translate a muhavara ? Dhobi ka kutta .... will English ever express what a dhobi is and what a ghat is ?

There are many arguements put forth that knowledge of English is a passport to success in today's world, but shine of gold should not make one forget his identity. People adopt various extreme emotive positions on the issue of language. May it be Hindi vs others or English vs Hindi or Tamil vs Kannada, a balanced approach is needed. Junking English in favour of the mother tongue, as was the case recently in Bengal is short sighted, but the reverse too is not the solution.

10 Comments:

Anonymous CaliguliminiX said...

I agree with you on this and I find it very irritating as well. But when I look at myself, I realize the language in which I have maximum proficiency is actually English and not Hindi or Tamil even though I have always spoken Tamil in home and Hindi with friends. It is more to do with the fact that the whole system is very English based and it is very hard for you completely switch out of it. For eg. try speaking for one whole hour in Hindi without including even a single English word. Most likely you will not make it, or even if you do you will surely lose spontaneity. A lot of foreigners find this very peculiar with Indians, coz when they switch from one language to the other, they don't include even a single word from any other language.

This also means that when you speak to your kids / people around you will invariably introduce quite a lot of English words even without realizing it.

10:21 AM  
Blogger anonymous coward said...

@CaliguliminiX: though what you mentioned is irritating, but it is a lesser evil compared to the absolute lack of proficiency in the mother tongue.

you can speak tamil because you speak it at home. what if your parents also talked to you in english when you were small ? i am sure that you would find it impossible to communicate in tamil as an adult, even with a a few english words thrown in.

10:10 PM  
Blogger sunny said...

I personally find it good that parents now talk in english to their children, its a good practice specially if your school is not pressuring you enough for that. Society demands english-speaking people.
Also, just learning to speak a language woundn't help much in carrying it forward. Yes, if you are getting basic education in your mother tongue, that is a much better option, which should be followed.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Atish Dipankar said...

I was probably 4/5 years old when this happened...
I had gone to a grocery shop with dad and as we were about to leave I reminded him of smthing mom had told me last minute....soap... so i said
"Baba, shabaan" (Papa, soap)... my father's friend ( who was also buying stuff alongside and was a bengali) turned and said to my dad..."Teach him soap and not shabaan" to which my dad replied (in bengali)..."Soap...he will learn all his life.. shabaan... if he doesnt learn now, he never will...." and the gentleman didnt speak a word after that...

I am glad I had such parents...tho i think in a mixture of eng hindi and bengali and probably am most comfortable writing in english and conversing in hindi but i can read write and speak fluent bengali with a few words from other languages and i think its OK...

nice post as always and a topic very close to my heart... keep them coming will u :)

3:55 AM  
Blogger cathatfished said...

tricky subject.. and i can only comment from personal experience.. see ive lived across india and the Only language that works everywhere is english.. so i can completely understand parents wanting their kids to learn english, and learn it well enough to use it proficiently in a global market.. these kids will probably live and work in a multi-cultural environment, and they shd be equipped to deal with that - for the parents its more likely than not akin to giving them a good education!
i understand your point abt losing track of our culture - but i think its wrong for us to make language the only scapegoat - i do speak hindi fairly well but i cant say i have read a single book in that language.. yes ofcourse language, idiomatic expressions express a culture more than anything else.. but to stay close to our roots we have to do more than just speak our mother tongue - and we have to make a conscious effort to do that.. both parents, the kids, and the schools these kids attend.the best things you can give your children are roots.. and wings.

12:54 AM  
Blogger kyra said...

i was always proud of the fact that i spoke malayalam at home and even though i have a lot of things against my hometown, im in love with my language. and i quite understand when you mentioned the fact that you were repulsed by the idea of little kids conversing with their parents in English. i could never understand that myself. i grew up in calcutta, and none of the mal kids i knew there could speak their mother-tongue. that way, i admired the bengalis coz they were proud of their culture and heritage.
im so glad i came across this post.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Ramiah Ariya said...

Very well written post.
I have to mention a couple of "talking points" by people who think otherwise:
1. That English is the medium of communication in today's world.
While this is true, nobody is saying that you should NOT learn English. Most people of our generation learnt English as a second language and are pretty fluent in it. Most average people can learn three languages (research shows) and there is no reason to train a kid ONLY to speak in English.
2. This has happened before.
No, it has not - the extent to which languages are being challenged now in India is unprecedented. UNESCO estimated that atleast 50 Indian languages will die out by 2050.
3. It is not worth fighting for and only lingusitic fanatics fight for a language
On the contrary, English speaking yuppie middle classers are more fanatical about English than most of us (who are concerned about the cultural, literary effects of an extinction). To preserve cultural ways (such as music, dance, art and literature) is a liberal cause.

What I find irritating is that most of the people who would argue for talking with kids in English have no clear arguments. They pretend they are enlightened - but they are actually completely ignorant about literature or arts (in English as well!)
I have watched movies from countries such as Iran, Iraq, China, Japan or Korea - nobody uses a single English word. that is not because they are fanatical, but because their languages have rich vocabularies that have been preserved by their societies.
I want to tell these parents, the language you talk with your kid need have nothing to do with the language he needs to communicate later in his life - unless your kid is dumb enough just to know a single language.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Shek said...

Can you speak more on the recent case in Bengal? I am a Bengali and I and I am unaware of it.

Well said. I think kids these days do activities that involve more english than your mother tongue. Back in the day, when our parents were growing up, they interacted with friends, listened to the radio, went to school...all in their mother tongue. These days, kids watch satellite TV, learn more competitive subjects in school, surf the internet and live in an era where USA is a big superpower..and that has an effect on the language they hear most of the time. They see their parent's companies do business with US Companies and so on.

3:49 AM  
Blogger vivek said...

Well I don't find this is good as parents are talking to their kids from their very beginning.They must talk them in their mother tongue.
I don't find any reason that their kids would not be able to communicate
in 'english' ater few years.If they really wanna see their kids fluent in
english there are several schools,where english is the only communicabe language.And by giving proper attention to their kids from
their starting they can easily make children good in english.Ater all they are not going to take GRE and TOEFL or whatever.Noone is supposed to loose their base value. originity or something.This is the biggest weapon we all got.if we lost that we lost all,everything.One more thing, this is not a very small problem with INDIA , this is one of the reasons we are still developing.(or in very small rate),American's do what they think, what they want , Not what society want or what their cousin want or parents want."DO WHAT YOU WANT".That makes them No1.

6:55 AM  
Blogger vivek said...

Well I don't find this is good as parents are talking to their kids in english from their very beginning.They must talk them in their mother tongue.
I don't find any reason that their kids would not be able to communicate
in 'english' after few years.If they really wanna see their kids fluent in
english there are several schools,where english is the only communicabe language.And by giving proper attention to their kids from
their starting they can easily make their children good in english.Ater all they are not going to take GRE and TOEFL or whatever.Noone is supposed to loose their base value. originity or something.This is the biggest weapon we all got.if we lost that we lost all,everything.One more thing, this is not a very small problem with INDIA , this is one of the reasons we are still developing.(or in very small rate),American's do what they think, what they want , Not what society want or what their cousin want or parents want."DO WHAT YOU WANT".That makes them No1.

6:59 AM  

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