War of the words

The great philosopher Ludwig Von Wittgenstein in his reflections on language remarked that the limits of one’s language clearly registered the limits of one’s thoughts. The integral relationship between languages and ideas, concepts and experiences is known to, and even experienced by, all people, and does not just happen to be the specialised subject of enquiry of only philosophers of language. Individuals and communities give expression to their creative, emotional and intellectual selves only through language that can be oral, written or gestural. It is this multi-dimensional nature of language that makes it much more than a mere instrument of communication as most people make it out to be. The utilitarian aspect of language is the least of its qualities.

Even as we acknowledge the complex, rich and multi-dimensional nature of language and understand its creative and cultural significance, we cannot overlook or ignore the fact that languages gain or lose significance going by their “power” to give individuals and communities  all that they seek to fulfil their aspirations and, even, very practical desires. The function of a language as a tool that meets the demands of those who choose it is an issue that needs to be understood carefully.
The Indian social context with all its rich linguistic and cultural diversities reveals several things when an attempt is made to understand the position of the many Indian languages, the bhashas, especially in relation to English which has always been a “special” language in all our dealings with it.

How do Indians relate to their mother tongues? What are the emotional/intellectual/creative bases of the people in their relationship with their specific mother tongues? How do we come to terms with the phenomenon of young Indians, particularly from the urban contexts and from the middle and upper middle classes, turning away from their mother tongues and choosing to study English, French, German, Russian and, in more recent times, even languages like Japanese, Korean and Chinese?

Serious flaw?
How do we account for the fact that a number of Indians go to places like Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore to teach English, much more than other languages or disciplines? And, more significantly, why is it that even those staying on in India disregard their mother tongues whether they happen to be children of parents with a common mother tongue or, as in many cases, they happen to be children of parents whose mother tongues are different? The fact that youngsters have no regard for their mother tongue/s, whatever be the mother tongue/s of the parents, has very serious cultural and political implications.

Reductionist positions shaped by linguistic chauvinism and crude nationalistic/jingoistic jargon would be totally unproductive (apart from causing socio-political tension) for one genuinely concerned about the tragic consequences of this phenomenon for India as a culture and a society.
Simplistic ethical judgements, as far as the younger generation is concerned, turn out to be only pompous and do not help one comprehend the contradictions, dualities and paradoxes that India, as a nation-state, has created for itself by its political and economic choices. The state/status of languages in India has been determined by the choices of its governing bodies, and, of course, through the approval of the middle class.

When the younger generation turns away from the mother tongue it is more because of the principles of ‘economism’ that the entire Indian society has accepted as inevitably necessary. Such an acceptance is ‘universal’ and all class/caste/political groups have contributed to it in equal measure. The last two decades of globalisation have seen a consolidation of this ‘economism’, and, unfortunately, this situation now seems irreversible.

What is the ‘economism’ of recent decades that one needs to understand? There are several manifestations of the ‘economism’ of the modern world and it has many levels of incarnation. However, the single edifice on which ‘economism’ is strongly built is the non-negotiable argument that the modern world needs thorough professionals in vital areas that alone keep this contemporary world going ahead. It is only uncompromising ‘professionalism’ in strategic areas like Information Technology, defence technology, business management, industry oriented experimental studies — certainly with practical results — relating to agriculture, medicine that is the real need of our times and the future.

Professional competence in a highly competitive world alone ensures survival and success. In a global situation where success and survival are the prime values abstract, philosophical concepts and ideas, notions of justice and equality become redundant, irrelevant and sentimental entities. And, the only language that sustains and carries the mantras of survival and success necessarily has to be technically and scientifically precise, devoid of metaphors, and all other idiomatic expressions.
Only a standardised, homogenised technical and scientific language can ensure all these. Dialects and local languages — in fact all native languages — that are out of the modern world system are but hindrances, impediments and, hence, need to be done away with. Narratives and discourses that are filled with the experiential and creative idioms of communities that are outside the framework of the modern world system are nonsensical sentimental trash of people who just do not belong to the new world order, and the world economic system, for they are totally unproductive and unprofitable.

It is against the background of the social darwinism of the new world system and its world economic order that we need to recognise the problem young people have with their mother tongues. Mother tongues — Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Tulu, Konkani, Urdu, Telugu etc. etc.— do not ensure a place in the new world which is built almost entirely on individualism, technical competence, professional skills and managerial efficiency. It is ‘professionalism’ that makes only a certain kind of ‘language’ legitimate and useful and treats all other linguistic systems and knowledge traditions as meaningless and unwanted.

Global nation
This is the new variety of ‘internationalism’ that draws the younger generation away from all mother tongues, for they happen to be ‘backward looking’ languages not in tune with the dominant tone of the globalised world. A world absolutely dependent on information and technology cannot accommodate plural traditions of language, knowledge, experience, imagination and creativity that come from communities that are heterogeneous in nature.

The decentred democratic anarchy of communities and societies is a threat and a nuisance to a world order that believes in centralisation, standardisation and a monolithic social/political/economic order. Diverse linguistic codes and varied expressions of different communities, by their defiance of a single order, are dangerous to the well being of a hierarchical, tyrannical order. When young people turn away from their mother tongues they are only helplessly obeying the merciless order of a system that does not tolerate, let alone respect, plurality and heterogeneity.

However, certain crucial distinctions need to be made while referring to young people opting for English, in particular, and other foreign languages. The choice of English in our times is not of a language that imparts a sense of history, gives a cultural sensibility, lends a strong political awareness, and shapes fundamental virtues of justice and equality. On the contrary, it is an instrument that teaches communicative skills, gives technical information and organises managerial material — all required to survive the onslaughts of an ever fluctuating market.

The demands of the market compel young people to turn to functional English in a mechanical manner bereft of imaginative and experiential depth, vitality and utterly devoid of a historical/political consciousness. This is the reason why most youngsters in the corporate world — of software, bio technology, business management — remain culturally deracinated and politically neutral, which is indicative of their ethical amorality. One can illustrate this argument with a single example. There are studies in management that use cultural texts like the epics (‘The Mahabharata’, ‘The Ramayana’ etc.) to bend them to locate business managers as epic figures. This is done to exaggerate the role of the entrepreneur and the manager, and not to internalise moral dilemmas, historical conflicts, issues of justice and truth and the role of the human being as an agency of moral action that the epics portray.

The model given to youngsters revolves round dehumanised ideals of efficiency, competence and profit making. The language used is dehistoricised/depoliticised and remains morally neutral. This is the paradigm of language that our youngsters are compelled to choose for survival and success. The crisis of language is essentially our civilisational crisis.

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