Linguistic Populism in India (prelude to Alternative language principles for an Indian school)
Conference contribution, 2019
Sanskrit can be a great language for science and administration in India: everyone uses its words, it favours no one, it embodies much of India’s civilisation, and its word-building readies it for today’s needs. Instead, Hindi was chosen as official language in a populist move favouring the largest linguistic group and disfavouring the South and Northeast of India.
Each state imposes its own language. Indian governments have for 70 years given majority speakers unearned privilege but little else: all science, technology and higher studies are done in English. The politics has been only about power. In most subjects, no Indian language has been developed to a level fit for higher study.
Language skills have declined across the board. People no longer learn languages neighbouring their own; they talk to people from neighbouring states using the bad Hindi they learn for Government jobs. Many call Hindi the ”national” language (it isn’t). Othering is widespread. People sing Hindi songs in ”national” competitions where their pronunciation is mocked. Hindi films get laughs by simply showing a caricatured ”South Indian”. Tarun Vijay of the BJP in 2017: ”If we (Indians) were racist, why would we ... live with South Indians? We have blacks ... all around us”.
Globalisation brought high-paying jobs requiring technical skills and English; Hindi and state languages lost their status. But now even the poor want English-medium schools. Since most teachers can scarcely speak English, their schools will teach bad English and little content, exacerbating India’s education problems.
One could instead teach children in their first language, giving them a strong foundation in their culture (and their often hoary literary traditions) and in English as a foreign language. Will India pause its rush to disaster and implement this or other solutions?