[lg policy] (no subject)

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sun Sep 30 14:38:04 EDT 2018

 [image: The language question]
The Edge <https://www.thehindu.com/topic/The_Edge/>
Multilingualism should be embraced for its upsides in identity, creativity
and economics

India is a multilingual country; we publish newspapers in 35 languages.
India’s languages are incredibly expressive; Himachal Pradesh’s 16
languages have 200 words for snow including one that means ‘falling when
the moon is up’. Languages are fundamental to identity and social cohesion,
but our shifting language policy is driven by the perceived primacy of one
language, outdated assessments, and misjudging impact of choices. I would
like to make the case for a sensitive rethink of language policy in
education that bends towards multilingualism and recognises our needs of
identity, creativity and economics.


Linguist, Claude Hagege says languages are not simply a collection of
words; they are living, breathing organisms holding the connections of a
culture. Ethnologue Editor Paul Lewis warns about the close links between
language and identity; if people begin to think of their language as
useless, they see their identity as such as well, and this leads to social
disruption. Almost all higher education is in English and we must listen to
Mark Tully’s argument that it must become a “genuine link language of the
country, not just, as it is at present, the link language of the elite”.
The demise of Indian languages has nothing to do with English; Firag
Gorakhpuri and Harivansh Rai Bachan — two interesting poets of Urdu and
Hindi — were professors of English literature. Our English is our own —
recognised as a different syntax, phonology and lexical structure. But home
languages are critical because they encapsulate our culture, who we are,
how we think differently. We need a healthy attitude to languages that
moves away from parochialism, build languages with time-tested traditions
in homes, and scientific teaching of language in schools. Co-existence of
many languages, races, cultures, and religions has been the essence of
Indian heritage, with established traditions of a language at home, one for
work and another for socialising, and we must retain that.


Multilingualism is a key to creativity; it impacts cognitive development by
affecting the function and structure of the brain, catalyses executive
functioning, problem solving and task switching ability, and creates
original thinking. In India, the role of English has become like Windows;
an operating system because of higher labour mobility, it’s role in
business and technology, and our economic trajectory towards services. Can
that be enough? The Economist suggests that 2/3rd of 572 multinational
companies credit multicultural teams for their success. The economic
upsides of multilingualism are many but the most obvious is in jobs and
wage premiums.

Harvard educator Nonie LeSaux suggests that language building needs an
accumulation of experiences and interactions — at home and school —
developing both skills and knowledge. Studies in African countries,
possibly the only other linguistically diverse heritages, show that
bilingual literacy teaching needs structured learning programmes, using
high quality resources and training. Development of languages needs the
support of aligned standards, sequenced curriculum, instruction, and
assessments, and also renewed curricular approaches and resources. But our
policies and assessments need updating first. We need to get to schools
where identity, heritage and diversity are legitimised and there is freedom
to work with languages based on the community needs, where early immersion
in two languages replaces the jerky start or stop of the three language

Countries are narratives and the stories we tell our children have long
shadows. A multilingual India is more tolerant, more creative, and more
innovative and hence more economically successful, politically stable and
resilient than a monolingual one. People are ahead of politics on this
issue but schools are held back by policy. Set us free so we can do two
languages well.

*The writer is a Managing Trustee of Neev Academy*


 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

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