English towers above Babel of India's tongues

To Calcutta's literary and intellectual elite, there's no question which is the richest and most expressive of India's many languages. It's Bengali, the language of West Bengal State, of course, and Bengalis are as passionate in defending the beauties of their language as they are in writing and declaiming their own poetry.

Yet earlier this year West Bengal's intelligentsia turned out for a 12-hour sit-in and rally at a main Calcutta thoroughfare to protest the state government's decision to knock English out of the public primary schools. They argued that children who did not learn English simultaneously with their beloved Bengali in the early school years would be crippled socially and economically --

The intensity of the dispute has startled the West Bengal left-front government, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Some of the top party and government officials have been criticized for sending their own youngsters to private schools where English is the medium of instruction.

Still raging, the controversy illustrates one of modern India's most perplexing problems. Nearly 34 years after independence, the language of India's former colonial masters remains the only nationwide medium of communication. For upward-aspiring Indians, English is still the ticket to economic, social, and geographic mobility.

It's not a lack of local alternatives that preserves English as the language of the Indian elite. The Indian Constitution recognizes 15 widely spoken tongues as national languages, and hundreds more are spoken throughout the nation of 684 million people.

The problem is that, like the Bengalis, most Indians are fiercely proud of their own state or regional languages -- and are unwilling to give anyone else's regional language national supremacy.Although 64 percent of the Indian population is illiterate, language is one of the most volatile political issues in India.

India's Constitution, adopted in 1950 but much-amended since then, specified that Hindi was to become the official language by 1965. But the northern Indian language, the official tongue of six states and the central government, has met stiff resistance, particularly from southern India. The result is a parliament-approved compromise in which the central government speaks in both Hindi and English, and communicates with non-Hindi-speaking states in English.

In practice, the Tamil speaker from Madras, the Marathi speaker from Bombay, the Kannada speaker from Bangalore, and the Hindi speaker from Varanasi have no linguistic meeting ground --the Indian population that speaks at least some English. If they want to pursue higher education in science or technology, there's little option; few textbooks are available in regional languages.

Even Hindi, the most widely spoken of the Indian languages, is a minority tongue; no one language is spoken by a majority. The central government is promoting Hindi; civil service applicants, for example, must know either English or Hindi.

But it is moving gingerly in order to avoid linguistic clashes such as the riots that left 125 dead in southern Tamil Nadu State in 1965, when the government tried to make Hindi a compulsory subject in the local schools.Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her ministers periodically announce they have no intention of imposing Hindi on any part of India where it is not wanted.

"In our country, you need to know two or three languages to survive," remarks a Bengali, ticking off the mother tongue, English, and Hindi in the case of the majority living outside of the northern Indian Hindi-speaking belt.

The West Bengal government's controversial new language policy means that youngsters attending government-run schools will not get the chance to study English as an optional subject until at least the sixth grade.

Although many Indian states have the same policy, literary-minded Bengalis argue that children will be handicapped by starting English too late -- or not at all, given the state's high dropout rate. The only winners, they say, will be the private English-language schools run by missionary societies and commercial language schools, whose enrollments and t uition fees are expected to soar.

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