Ashok r. kelkhar





Language is so familiar to us that it is difficult to take stock of it systematically and objectively. Most of the time we look upon language merely as an instrument, something to be used and left alone, so to say. It is only when we become conscious of difficulty either in the course of using it in order to make ourselves understood or in the course of selecting a language for a given situation that we take notice of it—only to lose sight of it again once the difficulty is removed. In a way this casualness about language is man’s glorious asset—consider the ease with which any child, born rich or poor, in cultured or primitive surroundings, can learn at least one language unless it is totally deaf or dumb or with a serious mental handicap and consider also he ease with which that child once it masters it by the age of seven can unthinkingly think and feel his way through life in the medium of language. But when serious problems arise with language this same casualness gives people a dangerous sense of confidence; everybody considers himself an expert and offers solutions that either don’t work or work only with deleterious effects. Thus anybody who let’s say speaks Spanish natively considers himself qualified to teach the language to a non-Spanish-speaking person; even selection committees that ought to know better concur in this mistaken view. By the same token every Indian who considers himself educated has his pet solution to the problem posed by the diversity of languages in India.






            Looking a little more closely at this problem is perhaps a useful point of departure when one tries to arrive at the language picture of India at the start of the 21st century of the Common Era. In what sense is India’s language diversity a problem? (How is it that nobody thought it was a problem, say, in the year 1501? How is it that nobody thinks of the language diversity of Europe as anything more serious than a nuisance for travelers and advertisers?) Now the fact that India has many languages is neither good or bad: it is simply the legacy of history just as Europe’s many one-language nation-states is a legacy of history. What is good or bad is what we make of this fact. Indians have tended so far to leap to one of two extremes. They either decide that the multiplicity of languages is a silly nuisance all the way, that the linguistic states was a serious mistake, and that whatever pet union language one espouses, Hindi or pet English or even Sanskrit, should take over all the fields of communication that matter. Better each of them young and make it the medium of instruction at all stages of education. A place to the local lingo may grudgingly be conceded in the kitchen council or the neighbourhood chat.  Alternatively, they decide that pride in one’s own language is not complete without an obstinate refusal to adjust or compromise with other languages or accept the need for certain all-India communication networks. Adopting either of these two extremes, namely, the suppression of regional languages or intolerant pride in regional languages amounts to a misuse of national linguistic resources. Nobody in this right mind would suggest that airplanes alone or bullock carts alone ought to be the means of transport in a huge and highly populous country like India. We need airplanes AND bullock carts AND a variety of other vehicles to fulfil the country’s needs. Decisions about language should be taken in a level headed manner after a through analysis of costs and benefits. There are some signs that forces of common sense and good will are slowly reasserting themselves in decisions about language in today’s India. One only hopes that by the turn job in making people at large and decision-makers in particular realize the folly of these two extremes.




            To put the matter positive terms, EVERY language in India (English included) is a link language for SOME purpose. Thus standard Marathi is simply the link language between different regional and social dialects of Maharashtra, some being varieties of Marathi, others being linguistically more or less distant from Marathi. If a young Tamilian from Pondicherry can specialize in French, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be given the opportunity to learn the Marathi language and literature within the school and college system if he wants to. After all the union languages need not be the only channel between the regional languages--- shouldn’t there be somebody to translate directly from Marathi to Tamil or the other way round? (This is of course especially true of neighbouring regional languages like Telugu and Oriya.) Instead of making a bugbear or a fetish of learning additional languages, we should amplify, improve, and diversify language-learning facilities in a planned manner. Language-planning does not spell language compulsion, but language freedom. To learn a new language is to gain the membership of a new community, a new freedom. The so-called three-language formula, it is hoped, will be called upon as a broad aim, a direction, and not as a straitjacket for imposing equal ‘suffering’ on Indians from different language regions. (Thus, the so-called argument that EVERY Hindi speaker must learn one of the four Dravidian languages even in the absence of any practical or cultural motivation just because the speakers of Dravidian languages are expected to:’suffer’ learning Hindi as a union language is little better than a piece of silly churlishness.) Again, if the educators of Maharashtra need all help and encouragement to improve the quality of teaching English as a second or third language in Marathi-medium schools, it is also important that they be given help and encouragement to improve the quality of teaching Marathi as a first or second or third language in English-medium or Hindi-medium schools in Maharashtra. (After all, isn’t Marathi the link language of the region?:) If the present drift and lack of will in this area allowed to continue, we shall by the end of this century have on our hands a generation of Indians who are not articulate in ANY language at the formal or informal levels of communication. The deceptive Phrase ‘working knowledge’ can pave the way to an inarticulate and therefore eminently manageable multitude--- a prospect welcome only to totalitarian governments or business monopolies.





            I have so far that equality and fraternity are ideals that are as much valid in the field of languages as they are in the fields of polity and economy. I shall now go on to show that if we purse and practise linguistic equality and linguistic fraternity in the next fifteen years we should win linguistic liberty as well. Unfortunately, in our obsessive preoccupation with India’s language diversity. We tend to overlook the more important problem of India’s language slavery. The crucial point is briefly this—if we learn another language like English or Sanskrit or Hindi or Arabic to gain a fresh mode of thinking or feeling our way through life, to gain a supplementary or even a complementary view of life, we have added to ‘our’ freedom; on the other hand if we learn the other language like English or Sanskrit or Hindi or Arabic so that it supplies our only view of life or even supplants our native wisdom, then our freedom stands abridged and our capacity for self-reliance gets eroded. Whether we become slaves of an indigenous tradition (witness the barrenness in respect of the prose of ideas in Medieval and post-Medieval India) or of an imposed or imported tradition makes no difference. Language is not merely a means of conveying thought and feeling, it can also be the means of concealing the absence of any true thought or feeling. (Witness the turgid prose that many Indians claiming some eminence write.)


            When the proposal to introduce Marathi as a medium for college-level lectures was being mooted in the 1950s, a colleague of mine at the time cynically observed that English is the best since one can merrily bluff away without our students getting wise to our bluff it will be only a mild exaggeration to say that Indians have been bluffing like this for the last ten centuries at least --- the channel of bluffing may be a classical language like Sanskrit or Persian or a foreign language like English. If our regional languages come into their own, the bluff will be called in no time, as a college lecturer trying to bluff in Marathi quickly finds out to his cost.





            Until recently we were called an under developed country. But of course, as history tells us, we were once one of the economically and culturally more developed societies in the world of those times. When we stopped developing economically and culturally, we became an under developed country. Now we are being called a developing country? Is this merely a euphemism, a slave to our hurt feelings? Not quite. We can certainly observe the slow transformation of an agricultural, feudal, rural, traditional society with poor communications into a more industrial, egalitarian, urbanized, innovative society with better communications. Our languages nurtured in the older way of life have not fully kept pace with the development. Instead of becoming a vehicle of development language becomes a drag as when an Indian patient gives a verbose, imprecise, erratically selected and organized life story to his physician who has to piece together from this rigmarole the semblance of a crisp, fairly accurate, relevant statement of the complaint in preparing the case paper.


            If the regional languages have to come into their own, they should become capable of coping with the triple communication needs of a modern society. Even if India were a largely monolingual developing country, it would still face this problem. The needs are the following:       



            i) the need for impersonal, standardized suitably technical expressions of science, administration, and other routinized content:


            ii) the need for a richly personal, non standardized, creative expression of novel ideas and feelings in literature and thought:


            iii) the need for a public vehicle of shared ideas and feelings in journalism, corporate life, politics--- a vehicle of wide access and appeal and yet free from either bombast or staleness.


            The triple instrument will be forged by our writers and speakers. What terminology committees or literary workshops or debating competitions can do is merely to assist this activity. Our educators can train our readers and listeners to be more discriminatingly and more open-mindedly receptive to communication.


            The linguistic path to the 21st century is both a matter of avoiding pitfalls and temptations and a matter of clear-eyed, vigorous, deeply cooperative communicative activity. It is not a ready path waiting for us to follow but a new path for us to beat and occasionally blaze into existence.


Ashok R. kelkar

A-2, parimal

1239-A, Apte Road






            This was published in: Indian 2001, ed. Ratanlal surana. Kolkata: Mitra parishad, 1987.