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Looking at the question of language

Two acquaintances of mine who are also HT readers recently got into an argument about whether it was important for a newspaper to ensure that its pages were free of grammatical mistakes. Sumana Ramanan writes.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2012 00:56 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Two acquaintances of mine who are also HT readers recently got into an argument about whether it was important for a newspaper to ensure that its pages were free of grammatical mistakes. One of them said newspapers should make preventing errors of language a priority and that such mistakes were the thin end of a wedge — a symptom of a larger lack of commitment to excellence. The other felt that a multilingual society such as ours should make allowances in matters of grammar, that it should not expect the linguistic quality seen in newspapers published in monolingual countries, such as the UK, France and Germany.

As usual, as a fence-sitter, I can see both points of view. If one has decided to work in a particular language, then one had better work towards using it correctly. Unless a newspaper takes a puritanical view about grammar, it could open the door to a profusion of mistakes. Also, a newspaper full of grammatical errors can be a sign of a more widespread acceptance of shoddiness.

On the other hand, it is equally true that India is a multilingual society. In Mumbai especially, a journalist working in an English newspaper, especially a reporter on the field, should ideally know three languages – English, Hindi and Marathi. On top of this, given Mumbai’s heterogeneity, many reporters have other languages as their mother tongues. In the West, even bilingualism is considered a great achievement, so expecting someone to juggle four languages is asking for a lot.

At the end of the day, poor grammar in newspapers reflects larger problems in our education system. First, it is a system that devalues the humanities and social sciences in favour of science and mathematics — a system that lays an overwhelming emphasis on deductive-logical skills over verbal ability. Many schools consider you to be intelligent only if you are good at mathematics, failing to understand that it is now well accepted that there are multiple intelligences. Second, it is a system that has not understood how to teach languages. For example, the German Goethe Institute or the French Alliance Française do a far better job of teaching language than most English-medium schools in Mumbai do of teaching Marathi, despite the latter having the huge advantage of being surrounded by native speakers.

Most journalists emerge from this education system and it is difficult for newspapers to compensate for the system’s deficiencies. As an insider, I can say that they definitely try. It is a constant struggle, and as the Readers’ Editor, I welcome readers to help the newspaper raise the bar by pointing out mistakes.

Indians who are grappling with so many different tongues are perhaps in danger of becoming a people with no language — they can’t really claim mastery over any one. My pet theory is that India desperately needs highly sophisticated bilingual education — schools that teach English and the language of the state, with Hindi perhaps as the third language. But this is not the place to elaborate on this. Continue to write in though!