[lg policy] Language Privilege in India isn't as straightforward as you think

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Aug 17 11:31:20 EDT 2018


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Language Privilege In India Isn’t As Straightforward As You Think
By
Parvathy Suresh <https://feminisminindia.com/author/parvathys/>
-
August 16, 2018
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privilege is an often over-looked concept which in fact plays a crucial
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Being part of an elite higher education institution where people from
almost every part of the country mingle has made me more aware of my own
identity. The next step in the process of understanding and grappling with
multiple aspects of my identity including religion, sexuality, region, and
gender was also coming to terms with this idea of privilege. Privilege as I
understood was multifaceted and depended on the whole corpus of your
experiences, entitlements, and bereavements.

One facet of such privilege that I never before noticed was that of
language. A person’s ability to speak a certain language can also determine
his or her position in the spectrum of privilege, especially in a country
like India. Many students who came from different parts of South India,
including me, were expected to know Hindi or learn Hindi once we began
college. The medium of instruction was English and almost everyone was
English educated, yet whenever a group of students were having a
conversation there would be moments when they would just burst into speech
in Hindi and expect everyone to be a part of the conversation.

Now this might come from the fact that Hindi as a language is taught across
the country. In most non-Hindi speaking states, the government follows a
three language policy whereby Hindi is to be compulsorily taught. However,
the quality of Hindi education in most of these areas is deplorable.
Students mug up a few lines here and there the night before the exam in
order to pass (I still remember binge watching SRK’s movies the night
before my Hindi exam to memorise a few dialogues). Moreover, the quality of
teaching also suffers as teachers are themselves not native speakers and
were educated in an equally deplorable manner.

So the ultimate effect is that most of us gain the ability to read and
write the language and perhaps understand some amount of speech, just
enough to enjoy a movie. This means that when students who are native
speakers of the language suddenly burst into speech in fast fluent Hindi,
we are effectively excluded from the conversation.

But this is never addressed. Most people I have spoken to about such
exclusion would much rather have me learn the language through more
exposure to it than switch to English which in the kind of surroundings I
live in, everyone is equally fluent in. While everyone seems quite
oblivious to such ubiquity enjoyed by Hindi even in a South Indian
metropolis, English speaking has been seen as a kind of privilege. And I do
agree to this for two reasons: first, because of its wide usage across the
world and the consequent opportunities it opens up and second, because it
acts as a common denominator in our country where hundreds of languages are
spoken across regions.

A person’s ability to speak a certain language can also determine his or
her position in the spectrum of privilege.

Fluency in English is also recognised as a corollary of other forms of
privilege which is also something I cannot deny. However, when
understanding a person’s language privilege in a country like India,
English speaking privilege has to be contextualised.

For many from the North Eastern part of the country, it might just be a
mark of their *colonial past*
<http://raiot.in/talking-about-race-migration-colonialism-and-the-english-language-in-delhi/>
and not financial or social privilege. And for many others like me from
Kerala, it might be a basic requirement since even State government jobs
require knowledge of the English language and most of the working
population is employed in the service sector where low level jobs as well
require proficiency in English.

However these factors generally tend to get ignored as many of my Hindi
speaking friends who have actually had better schooling than me tend to
measure my privilege or my background merely based on my English speaking
skills. The fact that I come from a state where almost everyone who has had
access to secondary education speak good English due to the kind of
employment opportunities they have access to is completely ignored.

The same might not be true for large portions of the Hindi speaking
populace. They have the option of writing several national level tests in
their mother tongue while the non-Hindi speaking minority have no option
but to take them in English. Hence, when it comes to English language
privilege it cannot be understood independently of the region a person is
from in India.

Also read:* Privilege 101: Your Handy Primer To Oppression And Privilege
<https://feminisminindia.com/2016/11/10/primer-oppression-privilege-101/>*

The intention behind this rant is to point out two things I’ve
noticed/faced as part of the non-Hindi speaking minority: first, Hindi is
*not* the national language. Our country is one with a lot of diversity and
we would all be much better off recognising it for what it is, rather than
trying to homogenise it; second, just like the case with any sort of
minority, Hindi imposition is a very real problem that minority language
speakers face. So if you’re a Hindi speaker amongst a group of people, all
of whom know English but some do not know Hindi, just be considerate and
talk in English.

Our country is one with a lot of diversity and we would all be much better
off recognising it for what it is, rather than trying to homogenise it.

My reasons for listing these down are a few personal experiences, two of
which I shall recount. I study in a premier educational institution in the
country and here, your command over the English language can decide a lot
of things, but something it definitely does not expose is your background.
Based on my ability to speak English, most people characterise me as an
upper class, upper caste individual, someone who has had ‘an easy,
privileged life’.

This saddens me as it takes away my identity as a lower middle class,
backward caste woman and diminishes all of my experiences based on this
identity. My ability to speak English seems to determine my privilege, but
for me, the language was a basic skill I picked up knowing that it was the
only way for me to connect with the different language groups in this
country.

Also read: *I’m #SouthIndianAndProud, Are You?
<https://feminisminindia.com/2016/07/21/i-am-southindianandproud-are-you/>*

Recently, a campus group I am a part of, organised an event. One of the
panellists, a native Telugu speaker, decided to deliver her speech in her
mother tongue with an interpreter translating the same to English. Upon
this, a person came up to me and asked, *“Why can’t she speak in Hindi if
she knows that language as well?”* This question is the mark of privilege
that Hindi speakers, as the majority, enjoy.

The reason of the behind asking this question was that the majority of the
audience were native Hindi speakers. Now the problem with this is the fact
that Hindi is still a second language for the panellist and her knowledge
of the same comes from her need to communicate with the people she works
with who may only speak Hindi. She might be able to express her thoughts
and experiences with more clarity in her own language. Moreover, not all
people who attended the event were native Hindi speakers, including me. So
even if she were to speak in Hindi, a translation would still be necessary.
And it also runs the risk of her not being able to express herself fully.

every time a South Indian is expected to speak perfect Hindi, it is
definitely a sidelining of a minority.

We create a lot of hue and cry over religious and political minorities
being pushed to the side. We raise our voices against the imposition of
Hindutva. But language and culture are equally important parts of a
person’s identity and in the absence of vote banks based on linguistic
lines (except perhaps in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) this is largely
ignored. *Articles
29 and 30 of the Indian Constitution
<https://www.gktoday.in/academy/article/article-29-30-cultural-educational-rights-in-indian-constitution/>*
recognise minorities on the basis of language as well. So every time a
South Indian is expected to speak perfect Hindi or a Hindi speech is found
acceptable over that of any other language in a diverse gathering, it is
definitely a sidelining of a minority.

Therefore, there is no stand-alone English speaking privilege in India. It
intersects with every person’s other regional linguistic identity as well.
So this intersection is what needs to be understood when analysing language
privilege in a country like ours. Without that, it is impossible to see
where one stands on the overall privilege spectrum.


-- 
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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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