A Tech Truce in the Language War

Another language controversy has broken out after the home minister talked about making Hindi a unifying language for India.

Published: 22nd September 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st September 2019 06:50 PM   |  A+A-

Another language controversy has broken out after the home minister talked about making Hindi a unifying language for India. To be fair to the honourable minister, he said it on the event of Hindi Diwas, a day to celebrate and honour Hindi, a language spoken by roughly 40 per cent of Indians. It raised a storm in the non-Hindi speaking states, as the opportunistic regional politicians whipped up subcultural passions, while Hindi fanatics thumped their chests and flooded the social media and comments sections of major newspapers with racial abuse. 

It was perhaps a year back, I had written about the insecurity felt by the non-Hindi speaking states when a language that is more alien than English is imposed on them. There are many who learned Hindi willingly and would continue to do so, but any forceful imposition of any language or culture would only result in fissiparous tendencies. 

India has more than 3,000 dialects, 300 languages and 22 official languages. Many detractors of Hindi are afraid that it would strangle the languages of their respective states. Take the case of the classical languages of Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia. The respective state governments are doing everything to promote these ancient languages, while they object to the Hindi hegemony. They point out that the official Hindi has choked the once-flourishing tongues like Braj Bhasha or Maithili. They don’t want their languages to face the same fate.

There is some merit in this argument. Many tongues of the Gangetic plains, which were flourishing even during the British period, are slowly giving way to the pervasiveness of official Hindi. But isn’t other official languages of India doing the same thing to the minority languages in their states? The Tulu of South Karnataka and North Kerala districts has as much antiquity or perhaps more than the respective classical languages of each state.

But in either of these states, most of the documents are in Kannada or Malayalam, the films are in these two languages, the education imparted is either in English or these two state languages and so on. Despite the brave efforts of Tulu or Kodava speakers, the battle to preserve their age-old languages against the state language is a losing one. There are many tribal languages in Odisha, which are slowly being swallowed by the powerful Odia. Same is the case with tribal languages of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh or Jharkhand. 

All these make the language battles a war of different shades. Our politicians use this as a tool to divert attention from their failures or whip up passions to lift their sagging fortunes. There is bad news for such people. The language question is being fast settled by the improvement in technology. The future has already arrived and it dawned on me recently. My books have been translated to Bahasa language among others. I find many of my Indonesian readers discussing my books on Facebook. Though the translation isn’t perfect, I am able to make sense of their comments, appreciation and criticism with the help of ‘translate this’ button on Facebook. I comment in English and they are able to understand the same in Bahasa. 

In Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a creature called Babel fish. When it is placed in the ear, it would translate any language in the universe to any other language. Most technological breakthroughs are first envisaged in science fiction before they become an everyday gadget. Apart from Google Translate, Google has a translation feature in its Pixel earbuds. It can deliver voice translation using an Android app. Skype translator can now handle 10 languages. Most of these devices, including Google Translate, are now handling only one way translation in one setting. That is, if I type in English and someone wants to read it in Hindi, his mobile settings need to be set so. 

A Chinese startup, Timekettle, has come up with a device called WT2 Plus, which does simultaneous translation of about 36 languages. The portable device, as claimed by the field testers, helps two speakers to freely converse in real time in their respective languages, using an Android or iOS app. The WT2 Plus allows a free-flowing conversation between different language speakers without the need to constantly switch the direction of interpretation. It is almost like the Babel fish of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

India is sitting on a treasure trove of opportunity. No country is blessed with so much diversity. Every Indian language is blessed with a rich literature and tradition spanning hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Diversity is a boon, but it can be a curse too as evidenced by our frequent language disputes. We boast we are a technology power house. Why should such innovations come from China, while in the silicon valley of Bengaluru we get busy painting Hindi boards black? It is time we developed our own gadgets and apps that can understand and translate all our languages and dialects to each other seemlessly and in real time. 

In many German educational institutions like Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the professors give lecture in German and the students can follow it in English using the translator app. Imagine the scenario in our IITs or medical colleges. The lecture may be in English or Hindi or any language of the expert’s choice and each of the student will follow it in their mother tongue. Envision the potential we will be unleashing from our one-and-a-half billion population. 

The money and effort we spent thrusting our favourite language down the throats of unwilling people in the name of national or state unity could be spent in developing such tools. It would open up huge employment opportunities and would preserve the rich linguistic tradition of India.mail@asura.co.in

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