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Multilingualism: the key to preserving linguistic diversity in India

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Language domination and linguistic imposition has always been an issue of political debate in India. This kind of debate is non-evadable in a linguistically diverse country. The problem is not with the debate on language as such but the nature of debate. A detail reading of articles published in newspapers on language debate gives a reflection that the debate is not towards promoting regional language rather than creating conflict between the various linguistic identities. Most of the writing generate a fear regarding the growth and survival of regional languages with the imposition of Hindi. I think both these viewpoints are ill placed. First, there is no explicit attempt at imposing Hindi towards replacement of regional languages.  Second, there is a false apprehension regarding survival of regional languages due to Hindi, as there is no evidence of decline in the speakers of any regional languages.

Language is primary means of communication and language other than one’s mother tongue is also learnt to facilitate communication. An individual naturally learns the language that is spoken by parents (mother tongue). In a linguistic diverse country where states/regions are identified based on specific language, people learn different language as their mother tongue. If a person stay in the state/region/society, where he/she can communicate in their mother tongue the problem of communication does not arise. However, for a person who has to travel/stay in state/region/society where communication in their mother tongue is not possible, an alternative language suitable for communication has to be learnt. It is also to be noted that learning language is not a very easy task. It involves a time for adaption along with a need for the same. Another evolving reality is the rising mobility of individuals from one state/region to other in search of livelihood and various other reasons. Now the issue is that if a person moving to state/region/society where communication in their mother tongue is not possible which language should they will learn. For a person who has to move frequently will try to learn a language in which mass communication is possible.

Hindi and English are the two most spoken languages in India. According to 2011 census, Hindi was the mother tongue for 528.3 million people, which constitutes 43.6 per cent of population of the country. In addition, 138.9 million people reported Hindi as their second language of communication and 24.3 million as their third language of communication. Overall, 691.5 million people 57.1 per cent of total population has the ability to communicate in Hindi. In 2011, only 2,59,678 people reported English as their mother tongue, but there are 128.5 million people speaking English as second and third language that constitutes 10.6 per cent of total population of the country. Given that English is the medium for higher education in India, nearly all the academic activities in India; writing research papers and making presentation in seminar/conference adopt the English language as the mode of communication. However, this remains limited to the educated class and may not serve as a popular means of communication.

Let me offer an instance of language adaptation as observed by me. Once I visited a construction site in a Non-Hindi speaking state where workers belonged to three different states; Assam, West Bengal and Odisha. These three are non-Hindi speaking states but these workers were communicating in Hindi to each other. During an interaction with them, they told that they learn Hindi while working in Non-Hindi speaking state as learning Hindi make them eligible for mass communication.

There is no denying the fact that regional languages must be promoted, however, in a linguistic diverse country some or the other language will take the place of language that is used for nationwide communication. It is immaterial whether it is officially declared as national language or not. The language with largest number of speakers will be accepted for nationwide communication.

Therefore besides the regional language (the native language of a specific region) there will always be a language adopted as a second language by a large majority to communicate with those other than the natives. When such a second language gets adopted by a majority that receives a status of national language (meaning a language for nationwide communication). Hence, this conflict between regional language and national language is unfounded on this ground. Regional language is important for the region while national language is meant for nationwide communication. Language needs to be considered as a means of communication and knowing multiple language enhances the capability of wider communication. The ideal way to promote the regional language is to open language-learning centres for the people with varying linguistic backgrounds. Breaking linguistic barriers lies in promoting multi-lingualism and discouraging linguistic fanatism.

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