Can our languages survive globalisation?

Globalisation in the modern era is a trade-related process. It began with the signing of General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) in 1947. The World Trade Organisation replaced GATT in 1995. 164 nations form this world of trade. Both GATT and WTO are purely economic treaties. There is no clause regarding the political, cultural or language issues in the treaty. The repercussions are collateral to the evolving economics of global trade carried out with transnational capital.

Globalisation was floated by the developed countries and accepted with trepidation by the developing countries. Global mercantile trade is worth $18 trillion and India has about 1.7% share of it. Governments the world over push to grab a chunk of trade to create wealth and employment. The amorphous nature of market-driven trade has changed the nature of market, nation-state, technology and language.

The market under globalisation is manipulated ruthlessly for profit. Import of farm produce which is already in surplus gluts the market and prices crash, leading to farm distress. Better profit margins in one place move employment to places where raw material and labour are cheaper, leading to fluidity in employment and unemployment. The very question why governments cannot safeguard the interests of their farmers and producers is contrary to the core ideas of globalisation. Protectionism, when it comes as response to undeniable distress to a large section of population, is too little, too late.

The political nation-state, too, faces a challenge to its fundamental ideals. Foregrounding of market and profit pushes welfare to the background and alters the power structure. As one academic noted, “Power is held and effectively enforced by transnational capitalist ventures, international organisations, media empires and invisible consortia of decision-makers.”

The markets make political decisions; the nation-state becomes a cohort of corporate houses; national leaders are roped in to add legitimacy to transnational trade. The profit made by these business houses is projected as the gains made by and for the nation-state. Within this rubric the citizens become consumers. Nations who safeguard the corporates under the pretext of national interest face a steady rise in rural poverty. The corporate sector grows powerful enough to plant and dethrone regimes which are not in tandem. Little surprise that a majority of the nation-states have Right or Far Right lea­ders who themselves are business tycoons.

Globalisation does need a language for global transaction. How do we define global language? Any language can merit the nomenclature of ‘global language’ provided it is used in many countries. Chinese, Hindi or Arabic did not become global languages as they are country or region/religion-specific. Spanish and French could have come close to being global languages, but they were eclipsed by English, thanks to the superior backing of British imperialism and advancing technology it had. English was already the language of administration, judiciary and education in most British colonies, but even so, imperialism by itself would perhaps not have catapulted English into being the language of global transaction but for the rise of the United States as a global power. This posited English as the international language of finance, politics and culture. Globalisation with technology has accelerated the use of English. Irrespective of the translation tools, information is available in English much before in other languages.

Language is not only the harbinger of socio-cultural change but also the last vestige to go. The turn began when agrarian societies shifted from food grains to cash crops. The songs, ballads, sports, cultural activities connected with the cultivation of rice and ragi in South India are almost gone. It is these activities that kept the language of the region alive. The conditions for the growth and development of local languages were curtailed. Standardisation, choice of one variety of language over the other, strong purification of language contributed to the vanishing of the earthly touch in home, local and regional languages. This broke the emotional connect between people and languages. The more a language is standardised, the more it distances itself from the speakers of the language. Given these conditions, globalisation accelerates the language shift.

Urban India found it easier to jump onto the bandwagon of IT and IT-enabled services. This sector absorbed youngsters who had been educated in English. This, in turn, created a demand for English as the language of education. The English language has tuned into economic capital. Linguistic capital is language skills exchanged for economic capital. Helping non–urban youth of India acquire English to match their urban counterparts is a daunting task, but the market dictates the choice of language.

In multilingual India, English is also perceived to connect educated speakers of various languages outside the Hindi belt. This position that English enjoys is contrary to the historical resistance to it. Globalisation has altered our perception of language. Socio-linguists find it difficult to explain linguistic fluidity within a theoretical framework. The ease of explaining language within the Classical, Imperialist and Nationalist templates vanishes before the non-conformity of globalisation. Inertia in policy implementation, ambivalent attitudes, people’s choice of a language cutting across class and creed need academic explanation.

The struggles and sacrifices for the formation of linguistic states belong to the generation that was born in or earlier to the 1950s – the youngest of them touching 70 now. With a 50% youth population, a relook at language and identity is essential. Have the narratives on language, linguistic states and the lure of the local been repackaged for the youth in a way that would convince them to take forward the legacy? Incidentally, the language movements that redrew the cartography have almost lost their steam. Free-market globalisation is constructing a fluid linguistic identity. Nevertheless, an individual can possess a rainbow linguistic identity. That has to be the takeaway for language under globalisation.

(The writer is a former faculty of RIESI-Bengaluru and Associate Professor, Nehru Memorial College, Sullia)

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Can our languages survive globalisation?

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