The Indian Economy Blog

November 21, 2005

The Languages Divide

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Amit Varma @ 11:36 am

Sudheendra Kulkarni writes in the Indian Express:

[T]he neglect of Indian languages, and the unstoppable dominance of English, is not limited to literature. It can also be seen in education, administration, judiciary, and commerce. The decline and slow decay of our native languages is one of the most worrisome socio-cultural phenomena in contemporary India. It has created a new class divide in our society — those who speak English vs. those who don’t, with the former displaying an all too visible superiority complex. Travel across rural and small-town India, and you’ll encounter persons who know only a smattering of English but rank themselves “higher” than a good writer in Assamee or Oriya who cannot speak English. It is this sad scenario that prompted Kusumagraj, a Jnanpith laureate Marathi poet, to bemoan in a different context: “Indian languages, through very rich in themselves, are in a pitiable condition today. They are like a person clad in glittering clothes but standing with a begging bowl before English-speaking power-centres.”

According to Kulkarni, the solution lies in the government setting up a “National Board for Translation of Indian Literature.” I’m not sure that approach will work, and I think the change will come more from private entrepreneurs and publishers, who have much more of an incentive to tap into latent demand or create it. The government would be better off enabling and incentivising such ventures in the private sector — maybe via tax rebates — than by spending taxpayers’ money on it much less efficiently. To continue with Kusumagraj’s analogy, these ‘beggars’ don’t need charity, but well-paying jobs. The government can’t provide that; only the market can.

Earlier posts on the subject: 1, 2. Link via email from Joby.

1 Comment »

  1. Here’s a question – how many people who would be regular visitors to this blog (and other similar blogs) have read Premchand in the original? Or attended a kavi sammelan? Or read Ghalib in the original? Not too many, if I were to hazard a guess. And this is just speaking about Hindi / Urdu. Why is that? I think it’s partly to do with our not studying the ‘mothertongue’ beyond class ten, and partly to do with the fact that English is the language of the private (and much of the public) sectors in the economy. The concern about the slow death of regional languages is valid; but so long as English remains the lingua franca of business and governance, its primacy will not be challanged.

    Another question, which hints at a contradiction, is the following: Why is the predominant print media in India in English, while the predominant audio-visual media (TV, films etc) is in the vernacular? Because most of our schools are “English medium”, while we continue to speak in the local language. So in India, or middle class India at least, we teach our kids to read in English, but talk in the local language. Unless this contradiction is corrected, the local language literature will continue to die, but the film and television will conitinue to prosper

    Comment by Aniruddh Gupta — November 21, 2005 @ 2:49 pm

  2. Languages, culture and traditions spontaneously evolved in civil societies and were not created by acts of law. As long as there is popular interest in preserving traditions, they will thrive without government intervention. No tradition or cultural trait (deemed however desirable by elitists) can be preserved through government intervention.

    It is elitist on the part of the author to look down upon voluntary choices made by individuals in their perceived self-interest. Those who feels strongly about native languages should commit their personal wealth and time to the endeavour and convince others to do so “voluntarily”.

    Comment by vivek g — November 21, 2005 @ 7:11 pm

  3. I agree with vivek g., popularity will decide. If learning to speak and write in English is going to give me the opportunity to go higher than otherwise, then that is exactly what I would do. In fact, the original author chooses English to get his point across to a certain demographic – the English-speaking, educated folk who read the Indian Express – or the English-speaking power center(?). However, I don’t believe the original author is trying to ‘save’ regional languages. He claims:
    * that the English print media is prejudiced and snubs regional literature.
    * that we need to find new ways of promulgating regional literature.

    It is not elitist to preserve regional literature. If we can preserve Premchand’s work ignoring the fact that it wasn’t written in English originally, then I think that would be the same as preserving the works of Shakespeare.

    ‘‘Regional literature in India is much superior to Indian English writing. We only lack good translators.’’. I am hardly qualified to decide if that is true. I am in favour of seeding the market to support regional literature as the blog suggests. I don’t believe that the Government should do so through direct intervention.

    I do hope that we will preserve this superior regional literature.

    Comment by Santosh — November 21, 2005 @ 9:29 pm

  4. It is true that Indian languages are neglected owing to the globalisation. I was more comfortable reading English rather than the mandatory paper on M.I.L. As a teacher I feel that the root casue of the problem lies the way the curriculum is designed and the way literature teachers teach that makes pupils shy from Indian languages. All said and done, there should be no qualms if one likes reading literary works in English. I bet if Vikram Seth and others would have gained any fame would they have written in any Indian language.
    It is really hilarious to talk of state support or state programmes to promote Indian language writing.

    Comment by y v sai madhav — November 22, 2005 @ 12:07 am

  5. I’m not sure that approach will work, and I think the change will come more from private entrepreneurs and publishers, who have much more of an incentive to tap into latent demand or create it. The government would be better off enabling and incentivising such ventures in the private sector — maybe via tax rebates — than by spending taxpayers’ money on it much less efficiently. To continue with Kusumagraj’s analogy, these ‘beggars’ don’t need charity, but well-paying jobs. The government can’t provide that; only the market can.

    I dont think there’s a market at all.
    Who reads in india? The market is tiny.
    This is why a lot of writers sell indian exoticism to the west where b/c of the exchange rate shitty writers with communist propoganda take advantage of the wests gulliability.
    A private foundation is the only way out. Lets face it literature is political, (its allways been thatway) so the governments choices will allways be mired in political bickering. A literary ngo of sort can digitize old literature(fund audio translation) gain some cash by selling to nri’s and interested parties accross the globe and subsidize local writers.
    Regarding the coverage in indian press it is what it is.
    Indians become not only more self confident once they learn english but smug towards other indians.
    When i was growing up in india i had a mean spirited english teacher in an expensive private school(expensive for Madhya Pradesh).
    An incident which remains with me to this day was when the woman had made fun of a schience teacher who would in his lecture jump back and forth between hindi and english.
    I went back recently and talked with her for 5 minutes or so and i had mentioned thesaurus and the woman had no idea what a thesaurus was. I cracked up laughing b/c this woman had the worst attitude of all the teachers there, and now i know how much she knew.
    The english msm press in india for the most part is the same way. Its arrognat and cocky and not engaged in real journalism of any sort.

    Comment by Guru Gulab Khatri — November 22, 2005 @ 1:09 am

  6. “The Sahitya Academy” and “The National Book Trust Of India “,the govt.of India have established these two organizations specifically for the purpose for which Kulkarni proposes to establish National Board of translation of regional literature.And if the problem is lack of good translators,it is debatable what purpose the national board of translation will serve.

    Comment by aak — November 22, 2005 @ 3:57 am

  7. Hi aak: The last statement is hilarious: “if the problem is lack of good translators,it is debatable what purpose the national board of translation will serve”.

    To those who are familiar with the Monty Python series, this will be a “department of redundancy department”.

    Comment by Vivek G — November 22, 2005 @ 5:05 am

  8. Regional languages have limited practical utility compared to english for jobs and careers. That’s why even poor people want to send their kids to private english medium schools. Moreover, english is the language of business and commerce and it is certainly advantageous to be fluent in english even if the regional languages catch up with english in terms of economic utility. Regional language lovers should ensure that their languages provide the same level of knowledge base as the english language. Otherwise, the regional languages will continue to be irrelevant.

    Comment by sv — November 22, 2005 @ 11:16 am

  9. There are a few points made on this post which I do not agree with.
    English is not the most widely read or used language in India. If it were the sales of papers like Malyalam Manorama and Denik Bhaskar would not be so high. It is people like us who like in this bubble of ‘intellect’ who feel that all the people who matter speak english.

    There is a lot of demand for good regional literature. The problem with our society is our outlook towards culture and art. We do not regard it as sacrosanct, and consider it to be a rich man’s indulgence or a poor man’s mistake. Unless we start respecting (economically and socially) the efforts of a writer, we can not expect literature to florish.

    It is the English writers who reach fame, not because of their Indian audiences, but because of the international ones. Setting up of a translation board will help regional language writers to reach out to the same audiences. Should this board be government controlled? I think not. Arts and culture need the freedom of expression our government can not support without bias. It needs to get patronage from publishing houses, more importantly it is us the people who need to move beyond crappy romances and start reading quality indigenous literature. the market will react to the demand.

    Comment by Megha — November 22, 2005 @ 1:34 pm

  10. For me, a Briton just back from three days in India, it’s interesting to see these comments on the use of English. Before visiting I had thought English fluency was obviously a national strength for India. Now I am not so sure. Although I was only there a few days, the fluent English speakers seemed a separate caste, and those with very limited English–the vast majority–locked out of a huge world of opportunity. I found it incredible that people have to use English when travelling across the north-south divide in India. I ended up wondering, can a nation that does not have its own standard native language be a true nation? By all means keep up English, but surely Hindi should be first language throughout the land? The will to develop grows from self-respect, and you cannot have that if you as a state depend on the alien language of a former colonial power.

    In England, Norman French was the language of the elite for over a century after the Norman Conquest, but never really spread among the masses despite the importance of French as an ‘international language’. English perhaps faces the same situation in India. It is an artificial intruder, and over the long term, as the nation grows in prosperity and self-confidence, I hope it will naturally wither.

    Comment by oohkuchi — June 15, 2007 @ 4:21 pm

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