Education, governance in Mother Tongue will strengthen India’s linguistic, cultural diversity
M Venkaiah Naidu, Vice President of India
Our ancient land has always been a crucible of linguistic and cultural diversity. Over centuries, India has seen the efflorescence of hundreds of languages and dialects which have coexisted in our colourful cultural mosaic with remarkable vigour and vitality. Let us not forget that one’s mother tongue is more than the primary mode of communication—it is inextricably tied to an individual or social group’s cultural identity. Therefore, it is imperative that Governments frame policies which promote learning in mother tongues, while ensuring that these guidelines are implemented on the ground.
It was in response to the worsening plight of many languages and the grim prospect of their disappearance, as also to help protect the cultural and linguistic diversity of member-States that the UNESCO in November 1999, declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day. The UN agency also predicts a bleak future for more than half of the world's languages stating that they will no longer exist by the end of the century.
The theme of the 2021 International Mother Language Day— "Fostering Multilingualism for Inclusion in Education and Society" is predicated on the principle that multilingualism promotes inclusion. This is in line with the true spirit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's model of governance encompassing all segments of society under the overarching principle of Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas.
For us in India, International Mother Language Day has special significance—cultural and linguistic diversity form the bedrock of Indian civilization. Our values and vision, aspirations and ideals, life and literature find expression in our mother tongue. With a multiplicity of languages and a rich spectrum of dialects, we have regions which are repositories of ancient knowledge much of which stands imperilled today. This is mainly due to an institutionalized mindset driven by a pervasive pressure of looking down upon one's mother tongue and wearing the linguistic badge of competence in English as a false sign of superiority. This attitude, bordering on disdain for the mother tongue, starts early—with our school education system structured on prizing the knowledge of English as a hallowed virtue. I have always spoken in unequivocal terms against this mindset—a symbol of psychological enslavement. Mahatma Gandhi had, with characteristic foresight warned, that "if the English-educated neglect, as they have done and even now continue, as some do, to be ignorant of their mother tongue, linguistic starvation will abide."
Multiple studies have revealed that for boosting self-esteem, enhancing creativity, as also for better assimilation of knowledge, the vehicle of instruction during the formative years of a child should be the mother-tongue. As Nelson Mandela pointed out—“if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
The very expression ‘mother tongue’ suggests the intimate setting of the language closest to one’s environment from the earliest years. The former UNESCO Director-General, Koichiro Matsura summed up this point eloquently when he remarked that "the languages we learn from our mothers are the homeland of our innermost thoughts," describing each language to be "as valuable and distinct as every irreplaceable human life."
Parents and educators alike must disabuse themselves of the deeply ingrained belief that good education is possible only if the medium of instruction is English. I strongly believe that teaching and learning activities in schools must take place in the mother tongue of children at the primary level during the formative years of their lives. This is when children should be empowered with confidence through strengthening their linguistic and cultural roots.
I believe that parents and teachers must then seek to widen the world view of children by helping them learn a National and an international language. In many parts of the world, children grow up often having to navigate their way seamlessly through everyday life relying on the use of at least two languages. Such a multilingual and multicultural environment is a part of day-to-day experience in many States of our own country as well. Studies have demonstrated that these enhanced linguistic skills lead to better cognitive development in children. Exposure to other languages in addition to one’s mother tongue, helps build cultural bridges and opens windows to new worlds of experience.
Every language is a storehouse of native wisdom, replete with its rich literary and intellectual heritage, folklore, proverbs, sayings, aphorisms and idioms. Vigdis Finnbogadottir, former President of Iceland and UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador for Languages noted quite aptly that "languages are among the most precious, and at the same time the most fragile, treasures of mankind.”
According to the Language Census, whose findings were widely reported in 2018, India is home to 19,500 languages or dialects. There are 121 languages spoken by 10,000 or more people in our country. There is an urgent need to revive and revitalise the 196 Indian languages which fall under the “endangered” category.
I have always believed that we need to rely increasingly on our mother tongues in governance across multiple streams. Communicating with the common man in a language he understands is taking governance to his doorstep. I wholeheartedly welcome a range of initiatives introduced by various wings of the Government of India to conduct examinations in regional languages/States’ official languages.
In the Rajya Sabha, a provision has been made for its members to express themselves in any of the 22 scheduled languages. Marking a significant step towards multilingualism which will eventually result in universal access to justice, the Supreme Court decided to make available translations of its judgments in six of the 22 official languages, in the initial phase.
I would like to reiterate the fact that every single language is a cultural treasure-house of values, customs, traditions, practices, stories, behaviour and norms. To engage with any culture and appreciate it in the true sense, one needs to access its language. Language and culture, through history have shared a symbiotic relationship with each enriching the other. As an important marker of culture, language, therefore, is the doorway to a social or ethnic group. Let us strengthen and revitalise the vast multitude of languages which course through the vibrant civilizational veins of our multilingual and multicultural society, interwoven as they are with individual, regional and national identity.