Having studied English literature, the image that flashes across my mind is the scene between Miranda and Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest wherein Miranda was boasting of educating Caliban, but Caliban contrarily retorts:
You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you /For learning me your language!
Caliban’s outburst could be an apt response to any language coercion; the only benefit of learning his master’s language is he now knows how to curse in the same language.
Would I be supportive of Caliban? Perhaps not, although his poetic language makes a compelling case.
Educated in a regional medium till SSLC, I decided, though there were other options, to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature on the advice of my relatives who wished me to be placed in a well-paying job. Naïve that I was, the Nehruvian expression, “English is our major window on the world” or “a treasure trove of world knowledge” had no appeal but what mattered was a “high-salaried” job to “settle down” in life. However, acquiring English was akin to the Sisyphean struggle—pushing a boulder upon a steep hill. It taught me that “learn English in 30 days” and learn English in a “fun way” are hollow ad gimmicks.
Fortunately, after the formal degrees, everything turned out to favour me; I got placed in a reputed institution and eventually retired from teaching at a university. I even had a short stint of an assignment abroad and was engaged in some sort of professional activity throughout my career. But what fascinates me is that even after the official retirement, English is keeping me active in multiple ways. Yet another benefit of dealing with the learnt language is that I went from being monolingual to bilingual, enabling me to occupy two worlds simultaneously. I would sum up my experiences of learning English by a single expression—self-fulfilling.
Like English, I would love to learn Hindi if it can dangle a carrot; not only me, but anyone would lap it up. Restricting my temptation to adopt Martin Luther King Jr's rhetoric, "I have a dream…", let me state it as: If I were to learn Hindi, would it get me a placement in Tesla? Would it enable me to travel like a modern Marco Polo or Christopher Columbus? Would it help me interact with Boris Johnson? And If I were to learn it, would I be able to be like Mark Zuckerberg, a tech giant? Or at least can I become a better human being?
Learning a language, including one's own mother tongue, is difficult owing to cognitive demands. But the necessity of daily use compels us to learn and the majority confines it for fulfilling the basics. Barring a handful, everyone is far removed from Harold Bloom's 'taxonomy' of knowledge employing language for analysing, synthesising, and evaluating. Especially in today's context, when an avalanche of information submerges people, they are passively absorbing it with nonchalance; consciously no attempt is made to read between and beyond the lines, leave aside dabbling in creativity. So, why should I spend my lifetime learning other languages? When linguistic competence forms the core of one's identity, why should I encourage any effort to strip it?
People can't fritter away their physical or cognitive energies. They detest chasing a utopian world, especially one that contradicts their definition of it, and require assurances to lead their lives purposefully. Just because most people in a country know the language, should it be thrust down the throats of everyone in a land that has multiple thriving languages?
Justifications such as Hindi as an “important part of the unity of the country”, “people should communicate in the language of India” and “Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English” don't hold much water as there are countries with several official languages.
Bolivia has the greatest number of official languages tallying up to 37. And although 78 per cent of the US' population speaks English, it has still not been granted the status of a national language - all these exhibit a tranquil coexistence.
I neither entertain Hindi-phobia, nor am I a Hindi-hater. But if someone can assure me that when Hindi becomes a national language, millions of jobless youths can find jobs, all Indians can avail basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter, and India can emerge as a 'city upon a hill', I would have no hesitation to learn it.
If I can be promised that Hindi can banish ignorance to usher in enlightenment, shatter discordances to supplant harmony, and raze down moral bankruptcy to reinstate righteousness, why wouldn't I embrace it?
Efforts to bring in uniformity in any form of human endeavour, would only result in maiming minds, bruising emotions, alienating people and ultimately, incapacitating human potentials. Human evolution has taught us that any kind of imposition—be it religious, cultural or linguistic—has only led to strife and suffering. So, coercion is worthy of protesting and rejection.
(The wrtier is National Secretary, English Language Teachers'Association of India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)