India: bursting at the linguistic seams

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Feb 2 14:43:11 UTC 2005
FindArticles > UNESCO Courier > April, 2000 > Article > Print friendly

India: bursting at the linguistic seams -

Amitav Choudhry

India is one of the world's leading multilingual countries, but today many
of its minority languages are facing extinction as majority languages gain
ground India, with a population of around one billion people, is often
regarded as a model of harmonious linguistic coexistence Within a single
state. It has two official languages (Hindi and English), 18 major
languages Scheduled in the Indian Constitution, and 418 "listed"
languages, each spoken by 10,000 people or more. All-India Radio
broadcasts in 24 languages and in 146 dialects; newspapers are published
in at least 34 languages; 67 languages are used in primary education, and
80 in literacy work. The constitution guarantees all citizens the right to
"conserve"  their language, and all religious or linguistic minorities
have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of
their choice.

But organizing multilingualism in a land whose multilingual tradition goes
back several thousand years is no easy matter. The Indian Union today
consists of 26 states and six Union territories, a number of which were
formed in 1956 on a unilingual basis to reduce the number of linguistic
minorities by bringing together people who speak a common language. But
the official languages adopted by the states and territories are not
necessarily spoken by all their respective populations; not one of them is
completely monolingual.

English, a social status symbol

This structure has encouraged the development of some languages at the
expense of others. There are, for instance, over 1,600 languages known as
mother tongues, the great majority of which have no official status and
therefore lack protection. Further complexity is added by the fact that
every language community consists of at least three interlanguages. Hindi
alone has 48 variants. In this country where nationhood is a recent
phenomenon, language has become a focal point of socio-political action.
Unsurprisingly, language policy has always been a subject of debate and
controversy between politicians, educators and planners.

Today in the official domain there is a strict hierarchy of Indian
languages. At the top are Hindi and English. Next come the official
languages of the states and territories, followed by languages which,
although not used for administrative purposes, are spoken by more than a
million people. Hundreds of others at the foot of the ladder are monitored
by a Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities who only has advisory powers
and cannot force state governments to follow his recommendations. Some
state governments are optimistically hoping that minority languages within
their jurisdiction will die out before they get a chance to be used in

Meanwhile, English is gaining ground. In 1949 constitutional provision was
made for parliamentary business to be transacted in Hindi or in English
but that after 15 years only Hindi should be used. However, after this
time had elapsed, Hindi was just as much a foreign language as English for
two-thirds of the population. Regarded as a "neutral" language for wider
communication, and the language of technology, modernity and development,
English is also a social status symbol. The resultant Anglomania is
detrimental not only to the growth of Indian languages but also to the
"normal" development of Indian society. It sometimes reaches grotesque
proportions. Politicians who decry the use of English sometimes send their
children to the best schools in which English is the medium of

It is up to the intellectual elites of minority communities to promote
their mother tongues. Often bi- or trilingual, they must initiate projects
to keep out the neo-colonial intruder, give a new impetus to dying
languages and adapt them to the modern world.

(*.) Head of Linguistic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute,

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