The beginning of a new year is often seen as a time for making resolutions. These personal commitments, most of which are invariably doomed to fail and to pass into oblivion by the middle of January, appear to be a means of assuaging the accumulated guilt in respect of things left undone, or even those done which are now best forgotten. Apparently the most common of these annual false aspirations relate to losing weight (presumably a direct response to Christmas over indulgence), or getting more exercise. Whatever the selected form of self-improvement, it is variously reported in the popular media that more that ninety percent of new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside within weeks; though many are likely to be resurrected on an annual basis. It is in part, through an awareness of this dismal failure rate, that a number of years ago I made a new year’s resolution not to make new year’s resolutions. Unlike most, this is one to which I am happy to report I have adhered with minimal difficulty.
Those who may have been searching for resolutions at the end of 2015 might just have noticed a suggestion being made by the British Council, an august body that supports international collaboration and fosters cultural events in many parts of the world. Representatives of the British Council suggested that in 2016 we should all consider making greater efforts to learn a foreign language. Language learning, it was suggested, encourages greater cultural understanding, can contribute to international co-operation and may also be a sociable and an enjoyable experience. In a world where inter-cultural exchange has increased, our experiences of meeting, socialising and working with people from other countries could be greatly enhanced by extending our linguistic competence.
I had given little further thought to this suggestion by the British Council until yesterday when I read an article from the Deccan Herald titled, “Mother Tongue for Educational Success”. In this article Dr Aradhana Mudambi argues that in India, increased mobility through the late twentieth and early twenty first century, means that many families now have a multi-lingual base which can be seen as either a challenge or an opportunity. She presents scenarios in which a man from Gujarat marries a woman from Kerala and they find themselves living in Bangalore. Here is a possible opportunity she suggests, for children to be brought up in a family where Gujarati, Malayalam and Kannada are spoken, probably alongside English, and even a little Hindi. Dr Mudambi proposes that children brought up in this way would have many advantages, not only in respect of their linguistic skills, but also through maintaining their family’s cultural heritage.
Sadly, for many families in this situation, the easy choice is to become dependent upon English. After all, English is widely spoken amongst educated people in India, and is the preferred medium through which many parents wish to see their children educated in schools. Here Dr Mudambi sees a problem. In some homes, she suggests, it has become increasingly difficult for children to communicate with their grandparents and others of that generation. They have become proficient English speakers, but have lost anything more than a rudimentary understanding of their mother tongue. This denies all of the family an opportunity to share stories and heritage that we know to be so important in enabling the development of a secure identity. More effort is needed to protect mother tongue not only for the preservation of Indian languages, but also to promote effective learning and cultural identity. As Dr Mudambi states:-
“By building their native language abilities while not neglecting their English development, students will have the best of all worlds”.
I wonder to what extent the English language has become a problem. Competence in English is most certainly an advantage. It has become the preferred language of business, academia and social media in many parts of the world, and it is increasingly noticeable that those who have little English language are restricted in their employment, education and social opportunities, even in those countries where it was not introduced until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. This situation clearly places those of us who are native English speakers at an advantage. But does it also make us complacent and lazy? What incentive is there for me to learn another language if I am one of those fortunate individuals for whom English happens to be my mother tongue?
It is true to say that I speak some French, and gain particular pleasure even from the limited opportunities I have to practice this most beautiful language. I also have what can best be described as “pigeon German” (should that be Deutsch taube?) but in all honesty even the most educated of Germany’s pigeons despair at my grammar! Being proficient in English enables me to enjoy the original words of Shakespeare and Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens who were influential in shaping the art and culture of my native land. Whilst I am aware that these authors have been ably translated into many languages, it does seem a privilege to be able to engage with the original language as presented by these giants of the written word. Am I missing something when I read the works of Kenzaburo Oe, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka or Naguib Mahfouz in translation? Possibly not, though to be able to appreciate the lyricism of their original form must be wonderful.
I feel this as an Englishman who enjoys reading the works of authors from around the globe, albeit in translation. I can’t help wondering how it might feel to have been the son of a Gujarati father but unable to read the works of Narayan Hemchandra in the language of that state, or to have been born in Karnataka and not to be able to see the plays of Thanjavur Paramasiva Kailasam produced in the original Kannada.
Language is an important means through which we maintain the heritage of our countries and states. In a world that is becoming increasingly Anglicised there may be a danger that some of our most precious history and art could be lost. It does seem to me that Dr Mudambi makes some important points about the need to encourage a greater understanding of the languages of our home nations. I also have sympathy with the argument put forward by the British Council in suggesting that we should all make a little more effort to appreciate the richness of the many languages that surround us.