Linguistic pluralism: A lesson learnt from a cab driver

Though I am proud of them, I envy them too. They are the epitome of linguistic pluralism, they switch from one language to another just as they change the gear, the first gear to the second, the second to the third, and again from the third to the second depending on the speed of their cabs. Yes, I am referring to the Bengaluru cab drivers. Majority of these cab drivers who hail from various parts of Karnataka have a working knowledge of Kannada, Telegu, Tamil, Hindi and English which a linguist like me could not acquire in spite of my love for these languages. I may know how to analyze a language from the point of view of Generative phonology, I can tell you what are the allophonic variations of a phoneme or I can give a talk on how a language like Mullukurumba spoken in the Nilgiris has the character of a ‘mixed language’ sharing various phonological, morphological and lexical features of Kananda, Tamil and Malayalam, but I don’t have the linguistic prowess that a poor cab driver of Bengaluru possesses. Have I not the reason to envy them?
Linguistic pluralism is a condition in which languages spoken in a context are multiple and are understood by many. It thrives when speakers do not hesitate to speak in a language he or she desires and the language spoken is accepted even if it is not fully understood by the person to whom it is spoken.
Just two days back, I was in a hurry to leave the university soon after my lunch. I booked a cab and it reached the pickup point as shown by the App. The moment I got into the cab, the driver asked me, “Oota aitha, Sir?”(Had your lunch, Sir?). “Aithu”, I replied hoping that he would pay his attention to driving rather than to his oota’ (lunch). But the cab driver of a highly cheerful disposition continued, “ spostobagini borolla? (Can’t speak fluently?”). I was silent knowing my limitation, but he went on. “No problem, Sir. I know Kannnada, Telegu, Tamil, English, Hindi. “That’s nice,” I spoke in English, the language of my livelihood. “Nimda Hindi?” (Are you a Hindi speaking person?), the cab driver enquired.
Linguistic pluralism is not encouraged by the votaries of linguistic chauvinism. All of us love our languages. We think in our mother tongue, we look at the world through our mother tongue, we are always ready to fight and die for our mother tongue. This is quite natural as we owe our existence to our mother, motherland and the mother tongue. But carrying pride in one’s language “too far” is called linguistic chauvinism. My mother tongue is the best, why should I speak your tongue? This kind of linguistic intolerance is anachronistic in the modern period of globalization. The more the merrier.
My musing on linguistic pluralism this morning is triggered by a news item published in the Times of India a few days back. It is reported that the Delhi Government is launching a ‘Spoken English’ course for students studying in Government schools from June onwards and the Directorate of Education, NCR, Delhi will organize the programme in collaboration with the British Council, India-McMillan Education, Academy for Computers Training and Trinity College London. Expressing his happiness, the Delhi Chief Minister has tweeted “Government school students mostly come from economically poor backgrounds. When I meet them, this was their biggest demand – Sir, ‘hame English bolna sikhwa dijiye.’ (Sir, help us to learn spoken English). I am so happy this course is now starting for government school students.”
Will this initiative remove the great English divide plaguing the language teaching scenario of the country? It is unfortunate that the benefits of learning English have not percolated through the various strata of our society. The vernacular medium students coming from the disadvantaged sections of the Indian society are desperate to have the English card to get an access to the protected citadel of the English knowing elites. The following remark by David Graddol, the author of the book, ‘English Next India’ is quite relevant in this context: “As part of that up skilling programme, India now aspires to make English universal, after a couple centuries of it being the preserve of an elite. But that must remain no more than an aspiration for longer than most people imagine. It will take another two or three generations to come near realising it. And is it necessary? Is it desirable? And if English is not democratised in this way, can India find a way of exploiting its English potential in a manner which leads to inclusive development, improving the lives of the masses?”
What are our strategies to democratize English? “No one should be left out”, as sang by Tagore: “The West has opened its doors, and everyone brings its gifts (home),/to exchange and to assimilate, and no one left out—/on the shores of this mighty ocean of humanity.” (Sanchaita, Kolkata). How long should an English-starved child of a Govt school cry “Sir, ‘hame English bolna sikhwa dijiye.” ?

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