Wednesday, August 6, 2014

English vs Hindi


Language is primarily a means of communication.  More importantly, it is the primary means of communication.  Secondarily, it is an integral part of culture; it is the most important carrier of culture.

The struggle going on in Delhi against the English questions in the CSAT exams is a multidimensional struggle.  It seeks to anoint Hindi as a dominant language in India.  Indirectly, it is an attempt to impose the lordship of Hindi over the whole of India, though it may appear to be something much simpler and pro-poor.

Some time back, when Mr P Chidambaram, then Union Finance Minister, visited Kerala he asked the man sitting near him to translate into English what a bureaucrat was speaking.  “But he is speaking in English,” answered the bewildered man.  [Chidambaram would have understood had it been Malayalam.]

George Orwell

This anecdote which became a quasi-legend in Kerala illustrates the importance of language as a means of communication.  Language is useless unless it communicates something effectively.  Can a civil servant in India afford not to know English?  Please don’t argue that English is a foreign language and we need to establish the indigenous languages.  I think that is the one of the silliest arguments that anyone can put forward.  Indigenous languages are too many for any one of them to be an effective link language in India. 

We, Indians, need a common link language.  Hindi could be that language if it did not carry the bag and baggage it does.  The simplest problem with language is that it carries a culture with it and seeks to impose that culture wherever the language finds roots.  That is as natural as McDonald’s imposing English in the heart of Bihar.  [I’m using the word ‘culture’ rather euphemistically.]

There is a difference, however, from McDonald’s imposing English to its clients and the government imposing Hindi (or any language) on a whole people.  The former is a choice and the latter is an imposition.  A choice can be shirked off, but an imposition becomes a burden sooner than later.

One of the most prominent Malayalam newspapers carries an editorial today [Malayala Manorama, 6 Aug] on this issue that is being fought over in Modi’s Delhi these days.  The editorial concludes with a very telling paragraph which I translate below:

“The CSAT questions maintain the curricular standard of class 10.  Logical thinking, analytical skills, decision making, etc are the contents of the tests.  Opposing English in the name of a national language may have to be considered as a volt-face on certain realities.  If Hindi is given undue importance in this matter, the South Indian states will be at a debilitating receiving end.”

The editorial is not at all reactionary in tone or content.  It is a very mature response to the issue.  It names the umpteen Commissions set up earlier on this matter and asks why their suggestions have not been heeded to.  It also implies that India is not a country where Hindi can be an effective common language.  There are more states in India that do not use Hindi as a language for normal communication.  Hindi imposed itself on many states even as McDonald’s did.  Beyond that commercial use, any language can be an oppressive force when imposed directly or indirectly. 


It is better that the people of Hindi speaking states learn enough English (class 10 standard) and pass the existing CSAT than make unnecessary changes which would indirectly handicap candidates from non-Hindi speaking states.  

13 comments:

  1. An excellently written post, being a recruitment consultant i converse with people all over India. sitting in Kolkata, technically from a Bengali Family both Hindi and English are same to me. I had to acquire it out of the house. You converse in Hindi to a candidate in Southern India or even eastern India that person won't be able to comprehend you and for crying out loud only 40% people in India speak Hindi. We have more people speaking English than the entire population of England. English has helped in building the outsourcing industry in India and has helped us in many ways. We are a nation of professionals and English is something which gives us access to converse with some of the prominent superpowers. What is the trouble in that? A civil servant should be of a higher IQ why can't we for once strive for excellence rather than striving for mediocrity?

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    1. It is more of a political ploy, Datta. Certain vested interests are making use of the youngsters for getting Hindi imposed on India deviously. This way, the govt doesn't have to take the blame for imposing the language. The govt will say it was forced to do it. And it will get 2 birds with one shot: give an edge to Hindi & give that edge to the Hindi speaking people.

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  2. Totally agree with you, Sir.
    Even i have een wanting to write on this subject.
    So terrible that the 'language of politics' is all that they care...

    We need English. CSAT is necessary to recruit the eligible.
    UPSC has some very wise people manning it who have given 'expert-recommendations'.
    Better to follow the rules.
    Which country has the examinees dictating what they want to be examined about! The height!

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    1. *been* wanting to write...

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    2. True, Anita, India gives too much freedom to its examinees. The way CBSE keeps simplifying exams is an example.

      When the whole world is becoming more and better informed and equipped with newer skills, why are we demanding easier options, I don't understand too.

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    1. Bhavana,

      I'm a simple school teacher who never in his life got an opportunity to write a CSAT. I studied all through in a Malayalam medium govt-aided school in a remote village in Kerala, and here I'm now teaching English in an IPSC Public School in Delhi. Mastering English is not all that difficult, that's what I want to say, in other words.

      Homework? Well, if we teachers don't do homework, who does? I listened to umpteen TV discussions on the topic, read quite a lot on it, and then wrote this piece. See the link below, for example, which says that many of the general tests are of class 10 level.

      http://csat.testbag.com/exam-analysis.php?tp=2&eid=CSAT&val=CSAT-2014-Exam-Pattern

      When you cry so much for the Hindi belt, why don't you think of the other regions where the candidates have to answer the questions in English, a language which is not their own? Aren't they discriminated against? Think of the various tribes in Northeast who answer the entire tests in English only.

      Please read Aditi's comment below for more.

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  4. It's the need of the hour article. For the policy of divide and rule is still in tandem in our country even after the Britishers left is a matter of shame...for some personal gains....the overall progress and a broader mindset is compromised.

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    1. It's more about the politics of language than anything else, Chaitali. Otherwise India would have been more English than England by now :)

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  5. First. If a civil services aspirant can not follow the comprehension passage in English even to choose and tick the correct response in MCQ in the CSAT paper, where she is not required to write any descriptive answer which can be evaluated to her detriment if she does not know English that well, she is unfit to be a civil servant. It is a prima facie illegitimate aspiration. A civil servant needs to interact with not only the people who knows her language, but also with others who do not.

    Second. Those who have got their degrees, perhaps even with very high marks through rote-learning, are likely to be more comprehension challenged than those who are not products of rote-learning. Rote-learners would score high marks in GK questions in any MCQ, where they can rote-learn trivia, but would naturally do poorly in logical questions.

    Last, it is incorrect to say that the questions are biased against Humanities students. It is akin to saying that Humanities students can not see logical patterns or solve puzzles because they are intellectually inferior to science and engineering students. This premise should be strongly rejected by any serious applicant with a Humanities background for CSAT instead of pleading for leniency on account of perceived handicap.. A civil servant needs comprehension skills, articulation, as well as basic skill of numeracy to do her job effectively.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Aditi. I couldn't have said it better. My knowledge on this topic is limited to what I learnt from the media and personal observations of current politics. You have given the facts more clearly.

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  6. This is really bad and an unnecessary struggle, another case of inflated ego :) this time in the garb of language. I totally agree with you on this point : "Hindi imposed itself on many states even as McDonald’s did. Beyond that commercial use, any language can be an oppressive force when imposed directly or indirectly." Hindi is my mother tongue and I would love it to become a universal language but not like this. Any person would love his mother tongue being spoken everywhere. But we are living in a diverse world. Besides, why to make so much fuss when there are more important issues to be addressed like poverty and environment degradation. Humans have messed up priorities hehehehe.

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    1. Glad, Roohi, for that sense of understanding you possess. Most people love their language, especially since language is part of culture. But in a country like ours, we just have to be practical. All the more so, when we are adapting a lot of western ways - in dress, food, lifestyle - I wonder why make a fuss about giving due importance to the global link language.

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