Opinion

Tongue twisted

Tongue twisted

The draft National Education Policy (2018) may have narrowly missed rekindling the language wars, when a sentence was read by the southern states to suggest that Hindi would be imposed upon schools in the region under the three language formula. That was averted by some swift damage control, but an impression that English is being demonised lingers. Besides, it appears that English-speakers must bear the burden of corrective action, to arrive at a level playing field in education and in professional life. It is suggested that English has been privileged by the “economic elite”, and has been turned into a “criterion” of education and a “prerequisite” for professional success. These phenomena do indeed exist on the ground, and contribute significantly to inequality in access to education, resources and jobs, but it is not the result of a nexus or conspiracy. English was first valued as a product of empire, and then it rapidly became a world language that is understood in almost all countries. It is now an instrument of access globally, and not only within the power structures of the country. To devalue it in the course of supporting the other Indian languages would amount to reducing access for a generation of students. English usage grew organic, and while language has indeed economically divided the people, a top-down firman, however well-meaning, is not a practical antidote.

The draft policy puts the onus to correct the imbalance upon “the elite and the educated”, who are called upon to value languages native to India, and to increase their use in the workplace, educational institutions, and daily conversation. The last category may be redundant, because only an infinitesimal minority converses exclusively in English. Languages of Indian origin are already valued and it is implicitly acknowledged by the boom in literature in translation, which uses English as a bridge language. The exhortation to value languages other than English in the workplace, especially in hiring, is perplexing. Companies are answerable to shareholders, not to the government, and managers follow the dictates of the marketplace, not political imperatives. If proficiency in English brings in better returns in a connected world, managers will hire accordingly. Lastly, the suggestion that languages other than English must be promoted in education is known to be disastrous. Such a political intervention was attempted in state-run schools in West Bengal, and it harmed the employment prospects and professional mobility of a generation of students.

The use of languages of Indian origin can be promoted without painting the English-speaking community as the overweening oppressor. Students should be allowed to take a number of languages, including the mother tongue. Languages widen access, and the more tongues a student can speak, the better she will do in life.