Not double dutch, we need these languages

  • Chanakya, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 29, 2014 23:12 IST

Do you get the feeling that we are spending an inordinate amount of time debating whether or not it is right to do away with German and have Sanskrit as a third language in schools? I certainly do. Now I know that the minister for HRD has informed us of the unconstitutionality of having German as the third language and indeed, on the principle of law she is right. But, the larger question to my mind is whether or not we should strive mightily to afford our children the chance to learn languages that might enhance their skills in future.

I was hugely surprised the other day when I heard from the minister for education of Mauritius that the tiny island nation was actively pursuing the setting up of a Mandarin centre so that more students could study the language of the new power on the block, China. China is aggressively pursuing the promotion of English with a military-like precision. This is wise thinking. Earlier, there was a rush to study Japanese and most jobs in organisations like the UN consider the knowledge of French or Spanish, among other languages, an asset.

Sanskrit is indeed a valuable language to know, our scriptures are written in Sanskrit though translations in just about any language you want are available. But it is great classical language like Latin. At the risk of running foul of our cultural custodians, how is Sanskrit going to help your child or mine to access jobs and avenues of study in a globalising world? The schools ought to offer as many languages as is economically feasible provided they have the requisite number of students. Even if Sanskrit is to be introduced to the exclusion of all else, let the demand come from parents and students, not people who have no real stake in the education system.

If we had not embraced a foreign language, you would not be reading, or I writing, this column today. English is our greatest asset today, something we use even to cock a snook at the mighty Chinese. It has given us the mover advantage in education, in IT and in jobs abroad. Now we get the occasional barbs about how Macaulay’s children don’t have any real connect with India, which to my mind is bunk. English has been the link language for India.

For so many of us who have migrated to cities for work, English has seen us through, enabled us to make friends, get good jobs, pursue higher studies. In fact, Indians with their command over English are sought out in foreign countries as health workers, teachers, engineers, domestic staff and so on. Should we shun English because it was brought to us by colonial Britain? In fact, India has more English speakers than Britain today, so in a sense English is our language. The language, ever adaptable, has incorporated so many Indian words in that we feel right at home speaking in it.

So, HRD minister Smriti Irani should be zipping around the countryside, pushing to widen our language base. For example, like the far-sighted Mauritians, we should be pushing Mandarin among our students. We already have English in our kitty, so why not the language of the next superpower? None of this is to diminish the importance of Indian languages. But our endeavour should be to offer as many relevant foreign languages as possible to our students. The lack of language skills should not be an impediment for our young people in achieving whatever they aspire to internationally or nationally.

At the same time, I have no truck with insular people protesting the promotion of Hindi. If we can agree on an internal link language other than English, why not Hindi? My point is that we should not be so hidebound on these issues. Like knowledge, which is ever growing and which we should welcome, language too should be seen as an enabler.

Decades ago, the West Bengal government in its infinite ignorance decided to do away with English in all schools. As a result a whole generation grew up without the benefit of this universal language. It helped no one that the politicians of the time were so inward-looking and foolish.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is proud to speak in Hindi in international forums but he is equally at ease with English. He does not make an issue of it as the worthies from the RSS whose worldview begins and ends in Nagpur do. One RSS luminary went so far as to say that if one had knowledge of Sanskrit, one would not commit suicide. All right, Sigmund Freud, move over. If they don’t want to go beyond Sanskrit, so be it. But leave our children to pursue their dreams in whatever language they want. Language should not be a barrier to any Indian anywhere in the world. This is not exclusive to our pride in and our knowledge of our own great languages.

If certain sections of the RSS or others, for that matter, try to push their own insular agendas on to the education system, the HRD minister should show them the door. She would be well within her rights to do so.

In a globalising India, we should be able to showcase all the skills we have in regard to international languages. We do have the Max Mueller Bhavans and Alliance Francaises in our metros. I think we should expand the reach of these organisations even as we add languages to the curriculum.

We should be able to anticipate future job markets and impart skills in the relevant languages. But for all this, we must be open to influences and ideas that are not as Indian as our insular friends would like. As for these pushy people, all I can hope for is that they are reading this column. Unfortunately, a Sanskrit translation of this is not available at the moment.

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