Ticketless travel and language policy? Read on...

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun May 22 16:35:36 UTC 2005

P Nandakumar

From: New India Press, Sunday

There's good news for ticket-less travellers all over the world. Ticket
examiners in the underground rail system in Stockholm have been informed
that they have no right to detain free riders. In fact, if any commuter is
detained, arrested or even subjected to intimidating behaviour for not
being possession of a valid pass, she has the right to sue the law

Part of the reason for the scales tilting in favour of illegal travellers
in the Swedish metro system seems to be presumption that there could be
legitimate reasons for not possessing a valid ticket. There could be also
another factor playing in: the perception that here is a real lack of
communication between the travelling public and the railway officials. The
communication problem has become aggravated by the fact that commuters now
speak a plethora of languages, from every nook and corner of the enlarged
European Union, as well as from countries waiting at the threshold for
entry into the Union. The best bet for the ticket inspectors may be to
speak English, but this could raise a general outcry, given the
apprehensions expressed about small languages in the Union being a kind of
endangered species!

For us in India, the discussions and the fears expressed in Sweden in this
context strike a familiar chord. It may be recalled that Revernd Caldwell,
in his book, A Comparative Grammar of The Dravidian Languages, written
well over a century ago, had firmly ruled out the possibility of English
replacing the languages of South India in popular use. His point was that
English could scarcely make more inroads within a short span of time, than
what Sanskrit could achieve over a period of several centuries.

Reverend Caldwell also made a number of interesting observations in his
book on society in South India. He seems to have singled out the people of
Kerala for criticism on their practices of ostracism and exclusion, noting
also that it was the Malayalis who tended to shrink away most sensitively
from contacts with foreigners. He also laments the lack of response of at
least some sections of the population in Kerala to entreaties from
missionaries, and comments that the more industrious, adventurous and less
exclusive Tamils have taken up opportunities and positions in British
colonies, all of which would have been within the grasp of Malayalis also,
if only they had been more outward-oriented in general.

But all that is past history, and if Reverend Caldwell could materialise
again in India today, he would be the first to acknowledge that the social
landscape in Kerala has changed beyond recognition. The people of Kerala
have shown themselves to be as enterprising and adventurous as the Tamils
or any other groups.

As regards the power and position of English in the country, the story is
only the same as anywhere else in the world. The Queens language continues
its triumphant march everywhere, with even people in former French
colonies now opting for English, no doubt with a keen eye on career
opportunities. Within the European Union, though all languages have the
same status, and there is continuous translation into all languages during
all summits and meetings, English undoubtedly enjoys a special position,
and is most widely spoken.

It is sometimes stated that the EU has a lot to learn from India, which is
an older union of states with a number of languages and vastly varying
standards of living in her different regions. But in the matter of
communications within the union, the EUs procedures and language policies
serve as good examples for us to emulate.

To begin with, it may be noted that the languages of all the member states
are official languages of the union. At official summits, there is
simultaneous, concomitant translation into all these official languages
even as the proceedings are being conducted in English or French as the
case may be. So Karunanidhis recent demand for making Tamil a national
language may be something that can be reasonably put forward by all
states. Not only that, such a demand is not all that difficult to be met
and practically implemented, given the advances in communications

It is quite another matter that, in practice, English is more equal than
other languages in the European Union. The special status of English in
the union can be attributed, in the final analysis, to the influence and
economic power of English speaking nations (read: the USA). It is indeed
inevitable that the language most widely spoken in the union and among its
trading partners gets a preponderant status. Inevitably again, Hindi will
retain its premium position among Indian languages even when all regional
languages are made official national languages, since it is spoken by some
60 percent of the population as a mother tongue, and since it is not
possible to do business in most parts of India without some fluency in

Thus, the economic power equations will ensure an appropriate place for
and an increasing competence in  English as well as Hindi. But there is
definitely a pressing need to popularise the literature in the regional
languages; this should be considered an important input into national
integration strategies inasmuch as there will be a focus on building
awareness for, and appreciation for, regional languages other than ones
own. In this context, it may be remarked that the decision to make Hindi
the national language was taken very early, in 1929, at a meeting of the
Congress leaders with Gandhiji in the Sabramati Ashram. Katherine Frank
mentions this in her biography of Indira Gandhi. At that time, it was a
necessary, anti-colonial step to counteract the influence of English, a
move which has lost its significance in an independent, resurgent India. A
statement from Gunter Grass in Calcutta seems to have been necessary for
writers and intellectuals to say that the study of South Indian languages
and literatures should be encouraged in the east and the north and vice
versa. Grass was speaking his mind on the excessive Indian infatuation  at
the cost of any serious interest in Indian regional languages  with
European languages. Clearly, what is direly needed is a pragmatic and
generous language policy, which recognises the contributions of all
languages and provides opportunities for their study from early school
years. Such a strategy will also preempt extreme reactions  such as the
opposition to Kamal Hassans choice of the English title Mumbai Express for
his Tamil film, and the cruelty of the headmaster in Kerala who shaved his
students head for (the crime of) speaking Malayalam in an English medium
school. Hassan did try to explain that the Tamil language was not going to
face extinction because of his choice of a title. His statement is perhaps
a distant echo of what Reverend Caldwell said about the staying power of
Tamil long ago.

It is still not clear how the ticket examiners in the Stockholm
underground railway system will be able to meet the new challenges that
they face. It may be the case that all applicants for posts in the
Stockholm railway system will be examined for multiple language fluency.
What seems to be clear is that the demands of globalization are the same
everywhere, be it India or Sweden. As we have learnt in India the hard
way, the acquisition of skills is vital to be able to reap benefits form
the opportunities thrown up by the globalization process, and to prevent
getting impoverished or even crushed by the process.


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