India is a multi-lingual country; by a rough estimate, more than two hundred languages are spoken here, not counting the dialects, which are very many, and which, say the linguists, can be viewed as potential languages. These languages belong to a number of language families and are inscribed in a bewildering diversity of scripts. Such linguistic diversity is not found elsewhere in the world.
As for the people, quite a few know more than one language. Some of them are bi-lingual and some, tri-lingual, but it is by no means rare to find multi-lingual in our states. We can call them so, even when we fairly strongly define the concept of ‘knowing a language’; for instance, we may take the stand that someone can be said to ‘know a language’ only when he demonstrates that he has the ability to use that language creatively in some domain of activity.
In our country, people are multi-lingual in interesting ways; for one instance, a Sora speaker from Odisha might know, in addition to his mother tongue, Odia, English, and Telugu, and another, from the same area, the first three of the languages mentioned above and Urdu or Manipuri. This is not an unusual phenomenon in the country, with such extensive migration taking place within the country – never mind the very recent reverse-migration; it will be reversed soon. This, hopefully, is a fairly representative picture of the Indian multi-lingual scenario.
There is an aspect of our linguistic attitude that deserves attention. Generally, one asserts one’s linguistic identity in terms of a single language, although the person concerned may be a truly competent multilingual, being fluent in three or even four languages. It is always like, “I am a Bengali, but I can speak English, Hindi and French too”. A speaker of Marathi or Tamil might be using English in his professional life and also for creative purposes, but he would still identify himself (or herself) as a Marathi or a Tamilian, as the case may be.
There would hardly be any who would declare their linguistic identity in terms of two or three languages, like “I am a Bengali and a Marathi”, except in a special situation. For instance, if a Bengali, say, an IT professional, has been living in Mumbai for many years and has acquired the Mumbai lifestyle, he might like to tell his Marathi-speaking friends at an informal party that he is a Bengali and a Marathi, in order to assert his claim as an ‘a cultural-insider’ (who must therefore be entitled to the relevant privileges). But back for a vacation in Kolkata, he is unlikely to tell his fellow-Bengalis in any situation that he is a Bengali and a Marathi. Now, he is not an exception; we, not excluding the linguists, are all like him. .
Many states of India have effectively only one official language: the language of the majority of that state. Some states, like Bihar, Bengal, and UP, do have a second language, but that does not seem to have altered the situation very much from the point of view of equal educational opportunities to all in the state.
Odisha (at that time, Orissa), during Biju Patnaik’s Chief-ministership, had declared all the fourteen (at that time, fourteen, now twenty-two) Scheduled languages as the official languages of the State, but such a decision had no real impact, in either education or administration. The idea couldn’t surely have been to implement it; it was probably to assert the liberal attitude of the State with respect to a contentious issue.
Governance in Odisha even now is carried out in English and Odia, more often in the former than the latter, although the official language is Odia. Use of English is considered to be undesirable and demands from various quarters, including the intellectuals, have been made from time to time to conduct administration in Odia alone. There seems to have been no effective demand from language activists for the use of three or four (even two!) languages for the purposes of administration and high-school level education in the state.
In this scenario, there is just one significant positive, namely that one has the right to reach the State or the Union government in any Indian language and has the right to receive the government’s response in the same language. This is arguably the only significant implementation of multilingualism in the country.
There are linguistic minorities in every state, but how often have the linguistic majority demanded, in the true spirit of multilingualism, that the same privileges that they enjoy in say, education, be accorded to the language-centric minority population in the state? How often have the speakers of a language (really the ‘standard dialect’) asked for similar linguistic privileges to be given to the speakers of a dialect (of that language)?
In fact, the ‘linguistic’ relation between the so-called dialect and language speakers has never been very relaxed. Some ten years ago, commenting on a post by me, Dr. Giridhar had observed that “rarely in Telugu cinema do the heroes or the heroines speak Telangana Telugu; they speak the Telugu of the coastal Andhra. Telangana Telugu is left to the comedians and the villains”. Hopefully, things have changed during these ten years.
So, despite our multi-lingual reality, which is loudly celebrated more by the linguists in seminars and conferences than the people, are we then temperamentally ‘mono-linguists’, to coin a term for this attitude, irrespective of how many languages we may know? It is quite like the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude. ‘Them’ we can respect, and live comfortably with, but they are still ‘them’. Is multilingualism in harmony with this attitude?
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retired Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
( Images from the net)