My article on the TOI Reader’s Blog: Be practical, not emotional, about language and mother tongue

Language has been on the front burner in India lately due to various events, but even otherwise, it is always in ‘Keep Warm’ mode along with Religion and Caste. In a country as linguistically diverse as India, the question of language always triggers highly intense emotional and passionate responses from different quarters.

Even so, I am always taken aback by the vehemence with which most people support what they call their ‘mother tongue’. Different claims are made to prove the superiority of their own language. These range from being the oldest to the richest, the holiest, the most computer-friendly, the most royal and even divine. A colleague scornfully told me that his mother tongue was spoken and handed down by the Gods while another said his language had been spoken by royalty since times immemorial. Yet another stated that he was honoring a particular language by learning it.

All such pronouncements are usually delivered as self-evident facts without any need for proof and with ill-concealed contempt for mere mortals like me. I know in many states in India and abroad, Indians are so fanatical about their language that they will neither converse with you in any other nor allow you into their personal and professional circle. Recently, people were quarrelling over which language ‘owned’ the eminent singer, late Shri SP Balasubramaniam – Telugu (he was born in AP), Kannada (most songs) or Tamil (best songs, apparently)!

One frequently hears people saying how proud they are of being of this or that mother tongue. One can be proud of something one has earned or worked to obtain. As a Tamilian, I can legitimately claim a little pride for having learnt Gujarati or Marathi or even English, but how can I be proud of being born as a Tamilian? That would be like saying the one is proud of the money that one has inherited!

To me, language is like a smile, the shortest distance between people as they say. I do not view any language as sacred or even special in any way. It is critical as a means of communication, or more precisely, as a means of information exchange, just like a currency is for goods and services. Nothing less, but nothing more either. Why then do people obsess about a language?

Language, like money, is what language does. And just as having the local currency of a place is a great advantage and often mandatory, so is knowing the local language. It takes the sweat off routine activities and thus eases daily life. Knowing many languages is like having many currencies in your wallet. It sets you free.

A language forms over history, thrives, evolves and becomes ‘rich’ in its literature and the arts in direct proportion to the number of its speakers and exponents, and not because special blessings have been bestowed on it. Ancient Kings may have spoken it, but it has probably evolved so much over time that even they would need a translator now!

People should treat human languages as dispassionately as they treat electronic ones, like Python, Java and other computer languages. These are continuously evolving or being replaced by better ones. Nobody gets hysterical when they do. In fact, youngsters today are enthusiastic about learning new computer languages and even come up with their very own social media lingos, with acronyms and/or emojis that nobody else understands! Enthusiasts are always trying to invent a single human language that can eliminate the need for all other languages.

In my opinion, people need to stop being emotional about their own language and be practical instead, learning languages based on societal or personal necessity. Here in the US, Indian parents insist on children learning their mother tongue and even compel them to attend classes, knowing fully well that they will never need or use it in their lives. Yes, knowing any language is great, but barring an interest on the part of the child to pursue it, it is going to be forgotten soon. Why not learn Spanish instead? Wouldn’t that be more useful when they go to Cancun during spring break?!

The spread of a language is essentially organic in nature and cannot be mandated on a society. A prime example is Hindi in south India. Hindi is already understood and spoken all over the region, thanks to the popularity of Bollywood and a highly mobile working population. Many north Indians immigrants in the south speak the local language fluently. I may be mixing metaphors here, but given time, the required language will automatically gain currency among the people without compulsion or even evangelism.

Another example, ironically, is that of a foreign language, English, that is quietly becoming lingua franca in India and globally. That is precisely because it is immensely practical and fulfils the need for a single language in an increasingly diverse world community.

It does what a good language is supposed to do – make human communication and interaction easier. Nothing less, but nothing more either.

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