The National Language Conundrum: Let us embrace English as our National Language

Now this is going to be controversial. However, everybody is free to give their views on which should be (if there has to be one, and I feel there needs to be one) India’s national

Now this is going to be controversial. However, everybody is free to give their views on which should be (if there has to be one, and I feel there needs to be one) India’s national language. India’s Home Minister made a statement on the 14th of September 2019, that India should adopt and name Hindi as her National Language. As expected, this was bound to bring in strong opposition from many portions of India and so it did. And as expected, the people opposing this suggestion were also the people from whom you expected this the most. Strong views and clamour was expressed especially from chief ministers of Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Kerala etc. So much so that comments like “this may lead to dilution of pillars for which India is known for” or “we need to respect our diversity and not let such a horrendous suggestion take shape” etc. were thrown out.

So is the idea of having one common “National Language” really that wrong? Will having one national language dilute everything that is great about our country? Will our pride in “Unity in Diversity” really lower if we assign one language as the main language and let other regional languages flourish on their own?

Let us first look at some numbers and get a clear picture of the national landscape when it comes to different languages. (as per census 2011)

Which is the 1st most spoken language in India? (in %) (Source: Wikipedia)

Which is the 2nd most spoken language in India (Source: Wikipedia)

Which is the 3rd most spoken language in India (Source: Wikipedia)

Which language has the highest # of speakers (in millions)? (Source: Wikipedia)

Highest speakers as % of contribution (Source: Wikipedia)

Hindi is the undisputed queen of languages (strictly in numbers)

The fact of the matter is this: Hindi is the undisputed largest spoken language in India. After all, we are known as Hindustan for some reason (Hindu and Hindi). This is the language which I as a kid was taught in schools along with two other languages… English (Primary mode of education) and Marathi (my regional language since I come from the state of Maharashtra).

So why was I taught Hindi and not some other language spoken in India? Why wasn’t I taught Tamil or Bengali as my second language in place of Hindi? Right from my childhood, I was made aware of Hindi as our national language (although it is not officially recognized as one) and that each one of us ought to know Hindi. This was accepted by each one of us as the norm without any fuss or questions. It seemed logical that a country as vast and as diverse as India should have one common language. And even though most of us in Maharashtra use Marathi as our first mode of local communication, Hindi is something that every person is aware of, partly due to the fact that the core of these two languages is the same (Devnagri). But that doesn’t excuse other states from adopting it wholeheartedly.

So, by looking at the above stats, it is pretty clear that Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India and needs to be given the same amount of respect it deserves.

A surprise in 2nd Place: English

What may come as a surprise is the second most widely spoken language in India. And that is: English. We have all known this for some years now that India has one of the largest English userbase in the world. But when you compare it with Hindi, it still lags far behind on the national scale.

Nevertheless, this language which Indians got from their English ancestors has become a national symbol and prime success factors of India’s growth. It has firmly placed India as an economic superpower due to its huge English speaker base. It has allowed India to enjoy unmatchable success on a global stage, when it comes to placing homegrown leaders at the top of some of the largest multinationals in the world.

So, what is key to this success? Just roam the streets in India (especially states like Delhi, Maharashtra etc.) and you will not find a single person who does not know basic English. Even the most underprivileged and educationally backward population will know a few words of English. Take a look around a small street or corner and you will find small businesses and grocery stores having names written in local scripts but pronounced in English (e.g.: ओम सुपर मार्केट directly translates to as Om Super Market).

With the advent of mobile phones and India fast becoming the largest mobile market in the world, English has reached virtually every corner of India. No matter if you are the urban sophisticated creature or an indigenous tribe living thousands of miles inland, words such as talk time, mobile balance, sim card, internet etc. are rampant across India. The scale and spread of English language across a country with 122 major languages and 1599 other languages is truly mindboggling and impressive.

However, unfortunately, there are places in India where you still feel like an outsider in your own country. I will give you my own example and what I felt like 5 years back while I was in Chennai, Tamil Nadu on a business trip. Chennai is one of the 4 metro cities in India and home to large IT and Automotive businesses. So, it is expected that apart from the regional language (Tamil), it would have a population that speaks Hindi and English.

To my surprise, it was a city that most made me feel like a complete outsider. Looked everywhere, and I found hoardings, business names all written in Tamil with English or Hindi nowhere to be seen. Even a simple commute in a taxi was tedious. The taxi or local rickshaw drivers did not speak Hindi (never mind English) which made a simple task of commuting look outright difficult. I did not feel as alien in the US (where I lived for 3 years) as I did during those 4 days in Chennai only because I did not speak the local language. Just imagine, if a local Indian fellow like me faced these challenges, how can we expect people from foreign countries to enjoy tourism in such states.

It was a day that further strengthened my belief that a common mode of communication is the single most important factor in human success. After all, Language is the single greatest invention of mankind which is the key to our growth and harmony. Language helps us convey our feelings, it helps people in need, it helps build remarkable things and makes us think big. However, a lack of it is also the single biggest cause for misunderstandings, conflicts or wars. Thus, the importance of having a common mode of communication, especially in a country such as India with thousands of local dialects cannot be underestimated.

Why we cannot and should not become like Europe?

I find Europe which is a congregation of multiple cultures as the prime example of a world that is stuck in the 19th century. Each country holding on to its core languages and societal systems is indeed admirable. It has ensured that each country has held on to its identity and cultures even during the changing times. But is it really something that will take a country or the entire continent towards bigger and brighter future? I am of the opinion that it won’t. What a continent like Europe needs to understand is that its future success lies in how open they are to the changing times. It also depends on how accommodative they can be to fellow earthlings from other states without imposing large language barriers.

The challenges for outside world in EU can be seen from simple day to day examples. Take a look at any job or career sections of large businesses in EU and first thing you realize is that none of the pages are in English. Each page is dedicatedly crafted in local languages. First thing as an outsider you must do is use google translate. Imagine if we didn’t have Google.

It is expected that if you wish to work for a company in a specific EU country, you ought to be aware of their local language. Even though English is something that most citizens of every country understand, they prefer not to speak. This brings in a feeling of superiority, exclusivity, lack of respect to outside cultures and most importantly, a closed society.

This unfortunately is not the path towards 21st century success. If you cannot make people of different cultures welcome into your country by having language as the first hurdle, then you cannot expect to rise and become the truly great powers of the world.

On the contrary, a country like India which is as big geographically as EU and equally or far more diverse culturally, does not have such restrictions. Reason being each website and career section is in English, which means anyone from around the world is open to different positions with a simple understanding of English.

So isn’t this our strength? Isn’t this something we can build on and stand out among the rest of the countries? Why can’t we as Indians, think about the future and move away from petty things and agree to the fact that having one national language can make us a more strong, open and progressive society? Agreeing to a national language does not undermine everything that is special about our country. We pride ourselves in the variety of our cultures and traditions that makes us so unique. There is no country quite like India where people with differing backgrounds, cultures and languages all live in harmony.

However, for the growth of our beloved country, to make it economically stronger, to make it a successful and growing tourist destination (where people from around the world can come and communicate in one single language) and most importantly to bring a true sense of unity, we need to adopt the idea of a one nation, one national language concept.

So, which one should it be?

Looking at above statistics and aspects that are critical to our successful future, it would not be completely incorrect to assign English as our National Language. I am well aware that it is a language that comes from England who ruled us for 200 odd years and giving it the status of national language might hurt peoples sentiments, but given all the complexities, it is the one single language which has the best and true chance of succeeding as the language of choice in a country like India.

It is a neutral language which does not belong to any single state or culture. But it is a language which can take us forward leaps and bounds towards becoming a truly global powerhouse. It a language that can connect the variety of cultures not only around the world, but most importantly, in our own country.

Given the resistance to Hindi in many states (which is quite sad and frustrating), even though it being the most widely spoken language in India, it has very little chance of getting the same amount of acceptance as compared to English. In order for us to be truly considered as “One nation”, we need to act like one and acknowledge the fact that having a national language is only for our own benefit. It does not intend to undermine any major regional language and we are free to practice them without any restrictions.

However, to make things easier and less complex, it would be wise to adopt English as the official language. It is something, which we have been unknowingly practicing for decades, what is now required from us, is to officially accept this fact so that our futures can be streamlined.

Let us truly become the “United states of India” and embrace “English” as our official national language.

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