New Delhi: There’s a new language surfing airwaves across India—and in a fashion completely different from how the 6,000-odd languages that humans speak have evolved.
While languages traditionally developed through the gradual accretion of words and syntax and spread through the brain and the tongue, “Romanagri”, as this portmanteau of English and Hindi is termed, mutates and proliferates via cellphones and not speech.
This bastard stepchild of English is as befuddling and appalling to English language purists as it is natural to and ubiquitous among young Indians.
Romanagri could simply be a regional language written in English as a phone message or Tweet, say—such as “Mera naam Jacob hain” (my name is Jacob). It could involve using a regional language in part of a message—such as “Time for daaru” (effectively, let’s get a drink). Or it could involve more complex combinations—such as “Picture main feel nahin thee” (The film lacked pizzazz).
Neuroscientist Nandini Chatterjee Singh, by circumstances of birth, education and marriage, is at ease with Bengali, English and Hindi, but concedes being gauche at Romanagri, the script and language that is at the focus of her research. “My school-going children and many of my students are more fluent at it than I am,” said Singh, who has co-authored a research paper on the subject that will be published in a forthcoming issue of the peer-reviewed journal Brain and Language.
While Romanagri’s use of transliterated script isn’t novel—just as the Latin script is used to write English, French and Italian—it poses a unique and complex problem in India, where a vast majority are more fluent in their native language than English, often are taught to read English before they speak it, and yet are disadvantaged economically and professionally because English is the preeminent language of business and governance, higher education, and prospects for a white collar job.
This disconnect has remained a barrier for those who’ve been unable to tap into India’s multi-layered consumer market despite the ubiquity of cellphones, and ingenious inventors who’ve tried Indian language keyboards, text translators, and voice-to-text conversion technologies to surmount the constraints of English.
“In the short, Romanized languages will continue to be the range for getting film music or movies,” said Peeyush Bajpai, director of Raftaar, a Hindi search engine, “but I don’t see much potential for it as, say, a news website or anything that involves more than a couple of sentences. It’s too cumbersome.”
And it’s exactly this cumbersomeness that belies the apparent fluidity of Romanagri and Singh sought to capture using brain-mapping technology.
At her lab at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, she quizzed participants who’d studied both Hindi and English and routinely conversed in text messages that interspersed both languages. For the study, those being tested had to read sets of words that were interlingual homophones, or words that sound the same but have different meanings in both Hindi or English, such as “shore” and “shor” (noise in Hindi).
Based on what they read, participants had to ferret concrete nouns from the words that were written in Hindi, English and Romanagri. Based on how quickly and correctly they sorted these words—their responses were timed by a scanner that also highlighted parts of the brain that were activated during the test—it emerged that decoding Romanagri took more time and was prone to more errors, even if the words involved were comparably familiar.
While the so-called “language regions” in the brain such as the bilateral inferior and mid occipital, left inferior temporal/fusiform, left inferior frontal and precentral gyri, left inferior parietal lobule, and cerebellum, were quite active in participants, Romanagri additionally evoked responses from the bilateral inferior frontal, left precentral and inferior parietal regions, and bilateral mid cingulum, or brain regions that are a key part of the so-called “attention network”’ of the brain.
The attention network of the brain is what helps us simultaneously talk on the phone and drive, add numbers in our heads, and prioritize between tasks that are parallely competing for our attention.
Thus, while it might superficially seem that “C U L8r”, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” and “Don’t darofy simply karofy” (don’t be afraid, just do it) reflect varying degrees of linguistic perversion, Singh contends that reading passages in such a script, where there is conflict between the alphabets, sounds and meanings of the word they represent, actually takes far more effort than reading either English or Hindi.
This extra effort has led researchers around the world, including Singh herself, to ask broader questions of whether bilinguals extract information from language differently from mono-linguals and whether there are costs associated with having to juggle multiple languages.
In a 2004 study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism—measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language—showed a slower progress into early symptoms of Alzheimer’s than monolinguals.
However, Singh thinks that there’s a natural suppression, or “inhibition” as the neuroscience jargon refers to it, when bilinguals must shift between languages.
“Proficiency or excellence, I believe, comes at a cost because using one language means temporarily suppressing the other, “ said Singh, “but we don’t yet know how severe or harmless this cost is.”
Those such as actor Amitabh Bachchan, she added, who effortlessly segue from English to Hindi and back, are also suppressing one language over the other but don’t seem hobbled because they constantly practice and speak both languages. “It’s fascinating how they do it, but I don’t think a brain map would show something uniquely different in their verbal processing.”
Narayanan Srinivasan, a professor at the Centre for Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences in Allahabad, argues that the natural condition of most Indians of knowing two or three languages and having varying degrees of proficiency in communicating them is in general beneficial.
“The studies that I’m familiar with don’t show that monolinguals are better users of language, or have more focused and precise expression,” he said, “but it does point to better skills at multi-tasking (among bilinguals) and that is as useful, as say physical exercise is to the body.”
Apart from multi-tasking, Singh holds that the results from the study point to possible lines of investigation in understanding dyslexia among children not trained in English and reworking the pedagogy of English learning in India.
Getting a child fluent in a non-English native language to associate the alphabets with sounds is misconstrued, according to her, because associating a sound with an alphabet—rather than relating alphabets to sound—is how languages are naturally learnt. “Languages are caught, not taught,” Singh emphasized.