The Tower of Babel, Bruegel.
The Tower of Babel: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

(Published in the Business Standard, June 30, 2014)

In a country criss-crossed by centuries of traders, explorers, invaders and curious travelling locals, deciding what language should be dominant in the 21st century is no small thing.

The local languages have deep symbolic resonance, but choosing one over another could cause explosive resentment. The institutional languages are imported from elsewhere and formalising one of them as the official tongue would spark justifiable anger. As Morocco grappled with these issues, their struggle with identity politics, history and present-day language domination would have been dazzlingly familiar to Indians – if we had been looking at our language politics in a more global framework, which we’re not doing.

The debate in India over dominant languages – the imperial legacy of , the present and contested crowning of – was summed up years ago by in his song, “I am a Third World Child”: “They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Maybe practise birth control/Keep away from controversial politics/So to save my third world soul/They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Don’t be scared of a suit and tie./Learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner …

For most postcolonial countries, this was the devil’s bargain: entry to the global world and its suits and ties, at a price. Even when English was subverted, taken over, rendered fully Indian or given a Nigerian accent, it came with Clegg’s warning: to speak in English was to exchange your dreams for the dreams of the foreigner.

This is the platform on which most countries across the world build an argument for the use of local languages, but as with India, few countries stop to see if the position of English remains as culturally dominant as it once was, or check the health of their own languages before making the switch.

In a telling note by the Columbia Global Centre, linguists examine the dominance of English in scientific and educational research. They note that this is a problem of influence. Original research is published in many languages: from French and German to Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. But the journals that make the highest impact and that exert the most influence have been in English.

This has strong implications for India, where the demand for any Indian language to be made official must take into account two major factors. One of them is an institutional failure – just as until very recently, the Hindi-language publishing market had been swamped by English bestsellers by Indian authors in translation, the lack of original research conducted in most Indian languages is both revealing and alarming. This is a failure of the imagination as much as the will, as though we find it hard to believe that the job of academics and scientists should be to think along original, free and creative lines.

Indian researchers don’t yet have the dilemma that Spanish or Arabic language researchers or thinkers do – should they address the local audience that understands them, or reach for a wider audience elsewhere with no shared cultural context in common? But if we do adopt any Indian language as the official one, its reach will have to go beyond courts, schools and the bureaucracy: in order to thrive and have influence, a language must encourage creativity and originality.

The other problem that India has with language hegemony is put very well by , associated with the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which counts at least 780 Indian languages as opposed to the government’s official count of 122. Mr Devy’s arguments for the need to protect rising languages such as Bhojpuri is eloquent. Instead of one tongue to rule them all, one tongue to bind them, the state should look at how best to preserve this diversity.

Some years ago, the writer wrote: “I dream of an english/full of the words of my language./an english in small letters/an english that shall tire a white man’s tongue …

Historically, that has been one way out of the language tangle: the proliferation of feeder languages, pidgins and creoles, so that there are many Englishes, many Hindis instead of one dominant language.

But the world might be changing faster than we realise. It is hard to estimate actual language use on the internet – social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, are “deep” sites, hard to search, and Web spiders are not very good at estimating the reach of local-language blog platforms and sites. It seems, though, that English is only one of many dominant languages online; it may be in the lead, but the internet speaks Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and several other tongues.

In 2012, the then Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, suggested that students be given the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese in order to access nearby Asian markets. Importing those skills would be expensive, and the proposal may never take off – but Ms Guillard may have stumbled upon the next wave in language shifts across the world.

Instead of conquest or imperial domination, it might be regional affinities that decide which tongues you bring into your life. And the language of the neighbours might leave a better taste in our mouths than a language forced upon you by conquistadors, internal or external.