On Indians and their Languages


Decided to write on this topic today, because my previous article on this topic titled “Should Indians bother to learn Indian languages” was much appreciated on Facebook. If you’re interested in this topic, please read my earlier article as well, because this is a continuation, and I won’t be repeating the earlier ideas.

I like to write on this topic because I think of myself as an amateur linguist and love learning new languages and am familiar with seven languages: English, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, French and Italian. However, I clarify that I’m “familiar” and not “proficient” because I can’t read/write in all of them, and as for French and Italian, my abilities are very poor right now due to losing touch. In addition, all the ideas I’ll put forward are just my opinions and can be disputed. You are welcome to question them or give me any additional insights.

That being said, I’d like to first start with English. It’s a no-brainer that it’s important to know English to ensure your employability. I’m in no way suggesting that it should be replaced by another language. But, I think the tendency that many privileged Indians have to look down upon or make fun of people who don’t speak English as well as they do, should change. Because, probably the only reason that their English is worse might be because they belong to a disadvantaged background, or because they come from an area where there are fewer English speakers.

Instead of doing this, we could channel our energies on learning our own mother tongue/any other Indian language well. By “well”, I mean proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing. If you are already proficient in all three respects, spend more time reading up the literature in that language. This is important because language and culture are interlinked, and if one diminishes, the other also goes down. However, I agree that there are always elements of culture we need to change to become more progressive, and am not referring to those (dowry, caste, female foeticide etc.). I’m referring to enriching components like literature, arts and music (e.g folk songs) that must be preserved. So, instead of making fun of someone else’s English, try learning your own mother tongue/any other Indian language better.

Apart from preserving culture, this is good because it will enhance your thinking abilities and problem-solving skills. Research has demonstrated that people who are bilingual have better problem-solving skills than people who know only one language, in the same manner, people who are trilingual have better skills than those who are bilingual and so on and so forth. It’s come in handy for me because though I’ve got a knack for getting into problems, am also very good at solving them because I’m familiar with many languages 🙂 😉

Lastly, I want to talk about the evolution of language. It’s interesting that we’re told to follow rigid rules of language like grammar and spelling, but we also know that languages evolved over time! If rigidity is the way to go, how did languages evolve?! That’s why I advocate that you must often break rules and get “poetic” whenever you can (as long as it does not cost you marks in exams).

Lastly, I’d like to state that I’m posting this article without much review and checking – with a large portion probably written in Indian English. I don’t understand why people have problems with Indian English, when they don’t have problems with American English! When so many Indians move to the US to study or work, they willingly adopt American spellings, in the same manner, they could accept Indian English. If we can acknowledge American English and Australian English, why not Indian English? After all, the population of India is much greater than the population of Australia and the US put together 🙂 😉





Should Indians bother to learn Indian languages?


Recently attended a talk by Prof. Neelam Mansingh (Padmashri Awardee, theater artist and Professor at Panjab University), found it very inspiring and informative, and would like to share the gist of it with you.

Prof. Mansingh started by talking about how studying or spending time on “art” might not get you a job or stop a war, but can lead you to appreciate and understand the finer elements in life and ultimately make us all better human beings. She probably explained it all much better in much better words, but that was the gist of it 🙂 🙂 However, what I found most interesting in her speech was that she spoke later on about the relevance of Indian languages and the second-hand treatment they get from us Indians, compared to English. I have been thinking along the same lines for some time and found it very interesting that she chose to speak about it.

She has been active in promoting Punjabi language and theater and has received many accolades for it. She recounted about how she had organized a play in Amritsar long back for her friends, most of whom happened to be convent educated like her and was taken aback to find them embarrassed that the play was in Punjabi rather than in English. Most of us won’t find this surprising because we happen to be more proficient in English rather than in any other Indian language. That’s fine because English is the most lucrative language to learn from a career point of view.

However, what’s really upsetting is that many of us are taught to look down upon Indian languages or consider them inferior. For example, in my school, we were strictly forbidden to use any mother tongue during breaks. It was done with the intention of encouraging kids to speak English, but many teachers would poke fun at kids who spoke in Kannada or Telugu etc. This attitude has damaging implications because language and culture are totally inter-related and inseparable. When you treat a language as inferior, you subconsciously also start to assume a culture as inferior. By that, you are depriving kids of the immense cultural wealth and literature that come with knowing a particular Indian language.

We Indians are not the only ones who are guilty of this attitude towards our own languages. When I read Tolstoy’s novels, was surprised to learn that many elite Russians of his era spoke in French to each other because they assumed French to be a culturally superior language compared to Russian! Of course, we must continue to learn and excel in English, because it gives us a competitive advantage in many ways, no doubts about that. But I think it’s equally important to stop having a derogatory view towards Indian languages.

And, it would be great if we could encourage our kids to excel in at least one Indian language (whichever is most convenient, depending on where you are), because it will enrich them and make them proud of their roots, by allowing them to experience the great culture and literature. I feel bad at times that I can only read Telugu (my mother tongue) with difficulty and cannot write in it 😦  That’s because growing up in Karnataka made it compulsory to study Kannada and Hindi in school, and learning Telugu separately would have been too tough. But, I feel so much the better for knowing Hindi and Kannada, and feel that much more enriched. So, it was really wonderful to see an accomplished artist and academic like Prof. Mansingh speak up for Indian languages (in perfect and impeccable English). 🙂 🙂