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Speaking the right language

india Updated: Sep 17, 2010 22:05 IST

Union minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal is clearly a follower of Confucius who once said, “If language is not correct, what is said is not meant…” Something perhaps that India and China could well do without. So, Mr Sibal’s initiative to introduce Mandarin in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum will go a long way towards exciting interest in schools about China, still largely a mystery to most Indians who seem to identify far more with more distant lands like the US. Mr Sibal is on the right track, given that China is not just a powerful neighbour but also a huge consumer of global resources. Just about everything we take for granted is made in that country. And, definitely, language is a huge connector as we have seen in the case of English.

The average Indian connects far more with things English than anything in the neighbourhood and in this context, it would do well if Mandarin would catch on among our young people. The Chinese are already making every effort to send their young professionals to countries like India and it would make eminent sense for us to reciprocate. The fact that India has eased the cap on visas for the Chinese shows that we are keen on making it easier for us to intermingle at the professional level. India has been the beneficiary of having had English as a universal language, despite the efforts of many leaders to impose vernacular languages on us. States like West Bengal have suffered hugely because of this insular approach. It makes sense in a globalised world to enable our people to learn as many international languages as possible. The United Nations recognises several languages most of which students in India opt for. But, we have rarely looked at Asia as a potential field for acquiring either new jobs or language skills. Maybe this is what has spurred Mr Sibal to introduce Mandarin into the syllabus.

What his ministry now needs to do is to encourage more interaction at the school and university level in the form of scholarships and academic exchanges. We have perhaps been far too West-focused in our approach to education. If China reciprocates the gesture to introduce Mandarin into our school syllabus, with perhaps introducing Hindi into theirs, a foundation could be laid for not just greater interaction at the learning level but at the level of erasing misapprehensions that have plagued our relations historically. Both China and India have huge civilisational traditions that are not understood enough in each country. If the language barrier is lowered, maybe other more intractable barriers will also fall if both countries really put their minds to it.