‘We need to remain linguistically relevant to the rest of the world…

We need the right people in the right place to genuinely steer the education system to safer shores’

Interview: Tejshree Auckle, Senior Lecturer – UOM

In the context of the World Hindi Conference due to start tomorrow, we sought the views of Tejshree Auckle, senior lecturer in the Department of English Studies at the University of Mauritius, on some issues about Hindi and how to go about promoting its use. T. Auckle, who is particularly interested in issues of language policy as well as language alternation in multilingual communities like Mauritius,  elaborates on language use by colonisers as a tool of economic and trade exchange through its communication  potential, and also as a means of control. She makes some interesting points about English being a dominant language internationally even though England does not formally have it as its official language, and how some former colonies have taken a firm decision to revert to their national language. Read on…

Mauritius Times: The August 18-20 World Hindi Conference, which is hosted by Mauritius, is expected “to produce concrete suggestions to make Hindi popular globally including at the United Nations”. This raises the question of why nations go out and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their language/s?

Tejshree Auckle: Issues of language policy and planning are intricately tied with those of nationalism and in-group identity marking. Following World War I, many countries, especially those in mainland Europe, put forward a number of measures to promote feelings of nationalism amongst a population that had been left scarred and battle-weary. One of the symbolic means through which such feelings of nationalism could be nurtured was through the adoption of an official or national language that could act as a glue to bind the different factions of a population together. This led to the creation and implementation of the now oft-cited motto: ‘One nation, one language’ resulting in nations like  France passing fairly restrictive laws such as the Toubon Law to regulate the number of foreign words – or in the case of France again, the number of anglicisms – which are deemed permissible in the public domain.

For countries struggling with the aftermath of colonisation, the need for social and political cohesion was even more strongly felt. While some countries opted, for pragmatic reasons, to maintain the language of the coloniser as official language, others like Tanzania made a deliberate choice to adopt an indigenous language as either official or national language, in an attempt to further underline their freedom from the shackles of colonial rule. Similar to African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o choosing to shift from English to Gikuyu in his publications, the choice of say Swahili over English in Tanzania aims to send a strong message to the former colonisers, telling them, in no uncertain terms, that the social, political and even psychological manacles of colonial rule have been broken for good.

Also, we should bear in mind that, in some cases, the use of different forms of political and diplomatic machinery to actively promote certain languages is a necessity. According to Survival International, by the year 2050, 50% of the world’s estimated 6000 languages are set to disappear. As per the UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages, every two weeks one language disappears. From a statistical perspective, the rate of attrition of languages is deemed to be even faster than that of the extinction of animal species. Both the injection of funds and the active intervention of national and international bodies are, therefore, required to either slow down or halt the downward spiral towards language endangerment and eventually language death.

* It’s going to be a tough competition out there (for India), isn’t it, what with France’s Alliance Française, the UK’s British Council, the latter-day Confucius Institutes of the cash-rich People’s Republic of China. There is also the entrenched advantage acquired by English, which is the most common official language with 67 nations giving it that status (Wikipedia). French comes second with 29 countries, Arabic third with 26 countries, Spanish fourth with 19 countries. Portuguese is the official language of 9 countries and German is official in 6. What’s your take on that?

English is here to stay, whether we like it or not. As the country with the highest number of colonies, the United Kingdom has left behind a thriving linguistic legacy. Similar to English, other languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese are currently given official status in many countries due to their co-association with a former colonial regime. These are countries which have also invested significantly in maintaining diasporic ties with their former colonies. Post-independence, many former colonisers have maintained a seemingly benign but nevertheless, fairly strong, helicoptering presence in the social and political lives of their former protégés. Competing against them is certainly going to be difficult.

In addition, one should also take into consideration the instrumental value of a language. Let us, for instance, take the case of the education system itself. While students in many parts of the word can now study, up to tertiary level, in the medium of instruction of their choice, the fact remains that the language of academic publishing remains English. Without a sound grasp of the English language, quite a lot of subject-specific knowledge would remain inaccessible to students. Graddol, in 1997, predicted that the 21st century would witness a major ‘shake-up’ in the hierarchy of the world’s major languages, with key players like English and French losing some of their stronghold over speakers. So far, this has not been the case. In fact, statistics published in March 2018 by the United  Nations reveal that 97% of the world’s population speaks only 4% of its languages. Needless to say that all the aforementioned languages figure quite prominently in the hit parade of the top 4% of the languages utilised by the majority of the world’s 7 billion-plus population!

Linguist Gabrielle Hogan-Brun has coined the term ‘linguanomics’ to refer to the economic potential of languages. According to her, the law of demand and supply applies to language as well in so far as it is also subject to the vagaries of market pressure. Apart from its range of other benefits, language remains an economic resource. When utilised wisely, business flourishes. History bears testimony to the fact that languages and trade always go hand in hand, offering opportunities for expansion and development. So far as the employment market is concerned, studies have revealed the existence of a wage differential between those who are proficient in a language like English and those who are not. In simpler terms, knowledge of English has a higher market value than say knowledge of Gikuyu.

A word of caution though: the above should not be taken as a free pass towards English-only monolingualism. Hogan-Brun cites statistics published by the British government which indicate that Britain loses 3.5% of its GDP because of a lack of foreign language skills and cultural awareness in a workforce that remains, for the most part, monolingual in English. The bottom line is: being mutilingual is an asset. But we should remain aware of the economic ramifications of our decision and exercise our freedom of choice with caution.

* Wikipedia also informs us that some countries, like Australia, United Kingdom and the United States, have no official language recognized as such at national level. “On the other extreme, Bolivia officially recognizes 37 languages, the most by any country in the world. Second is India with 23 official languages. South Africa is the country with the most official languages, all at equal status to one another, in the world. Bolivia gives primacy to Spanish and India to both English and Hindi.” It’s quite paradoxical that the UK has become the world’s language superpower without an official language of its own, isn’t it?

Linguists like Schiffman and Shohamy make a key distinction between overt language policies, on the one hand, and covert ones on the other. While overt language policies refer to explicit, formalised and codified systems of rules and regulations that govern the use of languages in primarily the public domain, covert ones make no explicit reference to any language in any kind of legal or adminstrative document. Instead, they rely upon inferences derived from other policies or constitutional provisos.

What the UK has, in essence, is what would be labelled as a ‘covert’ language policy. So, while on the surface, it would appear to be ironical for an English-speaking superpower like the UK to have no formal language policy in place, in actual fact this is hardly the case. Given the dominance of English in the tertiary education sector, taking the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam is a must for any student wishing to study in a British university or one which uses English as its medium of instruction. At $200 or so per test and with approximately 2 million or so students taking the test annually, it is estimated that just creating and administering the IELTS nets the British Council a tidy half a billion dollars in revenue per year.

In fact, I would suggest that having no overt language policy is actually quite beneficial overall for the UK. It’s like having one’s cake and eating it too! Not only does the UK provide itself with a way out should it be, as it usually is, accused of linguistic imperialism — after all, how can a country with no overt language policy actually promote any kind of linguistic imperialism in a sustained and systematic way? — but it also manages to further extend the reach of the tenacious tentacles of the English language over the rest of the world. So far as I am concerned, this is what a win-win situation looks like!

* A comment in an Indian paper (The Economic Times) refers to the logo of the World Hindi Conference, saying that it presents the “image of a ship struggling to keep sailing in the water (…) similar to  the difficulties Hindi is facing today”. What would it take to increase the popularity of Hindi globally, and promote it as a language of globalisation?

There are different ways of increasing the popularity of a language. One of them is by increasing people’s exposure to that language. So far as Hindi is concerned, this is already being done by its film industry. The use of Hindustani in Bollywood movies and songs extends the reach of the language beyond the shores of India.

Another means through which this could be achieved is through the promotion of what is known, in the linguistic literature, as acquisition planning. In other words, ensure that children are learning the language both at home and at school and are being encouraged to use it continuously along with other languages in their daily life. A popular language is one which is used routinely for different kinds of conversational ends and in different contexts. It is certainly not one which remains enshrined in textbooks or utilised for entertainment purposes in different kinds of media.

As for promoting Hindi as the language of globalisation, then, harsh as this may sound, we need to remind ourselves that globalisation is, at heart, an economic phenomenon. The BBC defines globalisation as the process through which the world is becoming interconnected as a result of massively increased trade and cultural exchange. And contrary to popular expectations, globalisation is certainly not new. Ancient civilisations such as those in Greece or Egypt also fit the definition of what is today considered as a ‘global village’. To be very honest, the rise of ancient civilizations in China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome was reliant upon successful trade relationships with other countries. And as Hogan-Brun reveals, early traders already knew that they needed to understand their clients to produce a good economic return across language divides. As markets grew, more communication was needed to attract buyers and to be understood by them. So, traders learnt the languages of their clients and clients those of the traders in order to buy and sell relevant products.

For the time being, Hindi cannot be considered as a key player in the world of trade. Even India does not draft its international trade agreements in Hindi. High-level trade negotiations are still carried out in English. To promote it “as a language of globalisation”, we need the country where Hindi originates to actually start using in the world of trade. If Indian citizens and politicians themselves opt to switch to another language during trade negotiations, then the rest of the diaspora will follow suit. The example has to come from above though!

* To quote the Indian media again, the World Hindi Conference is billed as a mega show to “connect diaspora in the fifth year of the Modi government”, it’s “yet another outreach effort for the strategically located Indian Ocean Region”, and it will “focus specially on Bollywood and the global reach of Hindi through movies”. You have in the preceding statements different objectives – geopolitical as well as soft power projection, etc. These are legitimate objectives for an emerging power, isn’t it?

They might certainly be lofty objectives but I would take issue with the word ‘legitimate’. What bothers me is that India seems to be placing the responsibility of promoting the Hindi language on its diaspora. Mauritius, being one of the few countries to have welcomed such a high number of Indian immigrants during the Indenture period, clearly is called upon to play an important role.

For something to be legitimate, it has to either conform to certain laws or rules or be able to be defended or justified with logic. Mauritius, like the UK, has a covert language policy. We have a de facto official language, not a de jure one. Promoting a diasporic language like Hindi neither conforms nor violates any law or rule because we do not, at least explicitly, have any! As for it being able to be defended with logic, so far as Oriental Languages are concerned, I don’t think this is possible. Oriental Languages have become the symbol of our loyalty to the motherland of our ancestors. We react emotionally to any decision that threatens this umbilical cord that ties us to India. This is not to say that speakers of other languages like Kreol are devoid of this emotional tie to their language. In fact, I would suggest that one of the biggest challenges with regards to language policy in Mauritius is to find a way to navigate through this maelstrom of emotions. Perhaps, having no overt language policy is, actually, a kind of language policy in and of itself!

* Indian External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is quoted as saying, while launching the conference logo in April, that “the conference is important to ensure that the language exists among the Indians living abroad.” Are we doing ourselves enough to keep the language alive here, or are we losing the battle to other languages like French, Kreol – or even Bhojpuri, though in the latter case they might not be mutually exclusive?

From a linguistic perspective, a healthy language, that is one which is alive and kicking, is one which is utilised as first language by a big enough pool of speakers. Any language which is not being utilised as a first language and has stopped being transmitted from one generation to the next, cannot be considered as a language which is alive. So far as Hindi and many other so-called Oriental Languages are concerned, they cannot be considered as being ‘alive’ in the strict, technical sense of the word. Admittedly, they are taught to students at school. They are even used in different domains such as the media. So, in popular parlance, they are considered as being ‘alive’.

Yet, if we compare them to languages like Kreol and Bhojpuri, we automatically notice the difference between the two categories of languages. While the vernacular Kreol and Bhojpuri are utilised conversationally, in the media and at school, Oriental Languages like Hindi do not always enjoy the same privilege. Yes, there might be some families where Hindi is spoken as the first language. But, these cannot be considered as the exceptions that prove the rule! So, to answer your question – are we doing enough to keep Hindi alive or are we losing the battle? Firstly, I would suggest that we do away with the metaphor of ‘battle’ altogether. The languages co-existing in the Mauritian linguistic landscape do not need to battle it out for supremacy. They just need to be used by as numerous a pool of speakers as possible. Secondly, so far as I am concerned, I believe that certainly enough is being done to ensure that Hindi is transmitted from one generation to the next.

In Mauritius, the expression ‘is enough being done?’ is often used as a polite euphemism for ‘is the government doing enough?’ to support a particular cause. So, if the question is ‘is the government doing enough?’, my answer would be, ‘indeed it is!’. It is, for instance, investing in the teaching of these languages at all levels. But, are we, as parents or educators doing enough? Not necessarily. Until and unless Hindi manages to transcend the confines of books and the media and become one of the media of communication in the home domain, we are not doing enough.

Let us start with Hindi teachers from all levels of the education system. Until they start transmitting the language to their children and ensuring that this is used as one of the languages in the home domain, then, no, we are not doing enough. What faith would the parent of a child learning Hindi have in the language if the one teaching it and furthering its cause refuses to speak it at home and encourage its use as home language because he/she believes that it would eventually hamper the academic development of their child?

Are we, as individuals, doing enough? So long as we continue relegating the language to just textbooks, the media or religious and other kinds of ceremonial purposes, then we are doing the language a disservice. In essence, what a lot of parents and teachers are saying is that the language should be kept alive for ‘those who need it’ but so far as they are concerned, because there is no so-called ‘job prospect’ associated with the language, their children do not need to either speak it fluently or use it as a home language. Such a conflicted attitude is bound to have an adverse impact on the vitality of any language. So long as Hindi remains mired within this quagmire, then, as linguist, I believe that we are, certainly, not doing enough.

* As a linguist, what would you say are the enabling factors, besides the input of Bollywood, that could be envisaged, for the promotion of Hindi in Mauritius – on the assumption that we wish to give primacy to Hindi over Bhojpuri?

To be very honest, all linguists will tell you that the only tried-and-tested method for the successful promotion of any language is to ensure that it is actually used, both at the written and spoken language, as a co-dominant language in as many domains as possible. Priority, though, should be given to the home domain.

Classical Hebrew was a dead language until it was revived by Ben Yehuda. The only reason why modern Hebrew exists today while other endangered languages are surely but steadily moving towards extinction is that Yehuda did not rely only on the education system to teach the Hebrew language to children. He encouraged and oversaw the use of the language in all domains of life. He, himself, used the language with his children at home. Another case in point is Paraguay where an indigenous language, Guaraní, is spoken by 95% of the population. Like its neighbours, Paraguay was also colonised by Spain but post-colonisation, it has made a conscious effort to transmit Guaraní to the younger generation. Consequently, Guaraní is today a thriving language compared to the other indigenous languages spoken in neighbouring countries which are on the brink of extinction.

There is no magic pill or potion that can enhance the vitality of the language. As goes the saying ‘practice makes perfect’. Until and unless the language is used by parents with their children, any other measure adopted will be reduced to the status of a ‘gimmick’ and this is certainly not what we want for Hindi. So, let us use the language to the optimum. It is, so the literature tells us, the only enabling factor that can play a determining role in changing the destiny of a language.

* We do not hear very much from the Speaking Unions, except for the one popularising Bhojpuri. The question therefore is how much of the promotion of languages, be it Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Urdu, etc., should be sponsored by the State or would it be best taken care of by the grassroots?

As mentioned previously, the State can only do so much. The promotion of languages has to happen at grassroots level for it to work. One of the buzzwords in the field of linguistics at the moment is that of ‘revivalistics’ or ‘revival linguistics’. It is a subfield of linguistics dealing with the revival of endangered or extinct languages. Research has shown that no matter how much the state invests in such projects, unless they win the support of the grassroots, they are bound to fail. This is the primary reason why some aboriginal languages are today in the pink of health while others are still languishing in the dungeons of oblivion.

* At one time in our history, in the late 40s, Hindi proved to be an enabling factor for the grassroots to participate in the electoral process, and this went on to change the electoral dynamics and political landscape. It the 1970s, there was an attempt to enhance the status of Kreol, and this might have influenced our political and socio-cultural landscape. Will things take a different turn with the onslaught of globalisation?

Since English is the language most commonly associated with globalisation, I expect that Mauritius will have to make an effort to ensure that its population remains proficient in English. As a small, insular community, we cannot afford to linguistically isolate ourselves. Currently, there is this tendency to view the adoption of English versus that of Kreol as an ‘either/or’ situation. To be honest, this is hardly the case! Even the UNESCO has moved away from championing the cause of mother tongue-only education and today promotes a ‘mother tongue-based education’. The difference isn’t just at the level of terminology but also at the level of the pedagogical approach to be adopted by education systems worldwide. The aim is to use the mother tongue alongside other languages, from the very initial stages of the schooling process itself up to higher levels. Mauritius already has such an education system. It would be sad to overhaul a system which is actually being suggested as model to other countries.

The one reason proposed by many to stagger the introduction of English to a much later stage of instruction is the high rate of failure in both English as a subject and other key subjects like Mathematics. The mere introduction of the mother tongue will not automatically reduce the rate of failure. Finland’s students outperform those from every corner of the world in standard literacy and numeracy tests not because they are taught in the mother tongue but because their country has invested in both the infrastructural and human resources required to keep the system afloat. Just to cite one example of Finland’s commitment to quality education: only the top ranked candidates are allowed to venture into the teaching profession. Others are gently redirected to fields other than teaching. Most of their students are also encouraged to become competent multilinguals.

We need this kind of approach in Mauritius. We need high-calibre personnel. We need the right people in the right place to genuinely steer the education system to safer shores. We need to remain linguistically relevant to the rest of the world. So, English is a necessity.

* On a different note, I guess that linguists would be concerned about how language and propaganda are used in present times (as much as it was earlier) to influence the people for ideological and political purposes. We know how catch-phrases, like for instance “Vire Mam”, proved effective for the winning team in Dec 2014, but ultimately delivered a governance marked by blunders and all manner of abuses – this is not what the people bargained for. How can the people protect themselves?

I would prefer not to comment on the shenanigans of our political elite. Instead, I will focus on the linguistic dimension of the question.

Can we protect ourselves against propaganda? To be very honest, it is quite difficult to do so. Language has, from time immemorial, been used for rhetorical purposes. It is the job of each individual to sift the wheat from the chaff so to speak and to use logic and common sense to draw their own conclusion. We can create as many watchdogs as we want but these can always be rendered powerless by the powers-that-be.

Orwell, very famously stated that, very often, speech and writing, especially political speech and writing are, I quote, “largely the defence of the indefensible.” The fact that we believe in that defence is what allows propaganda to win. So, being able to see through the glossy veneer of rhetoric is crucial.

* Published in print edition on 17 August 2018

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