Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Prioritizing a language in a multilingual India

We are born without a language that others can understand. However, we learn and adapt, and within a year, we understand, and sometimes speak, one language. Often, it is our mother’s language—hence mother tongue—and if we are lucky enough to have parents speaking different languages, then our father’s too.

Schools teach us more languages formally, to empower us and make us participate meaningfully in society and the economy. Each language is rich with culture, literature and nuance. Sadly, we can’t learn all languages and so we prioritize. How should such priorities be set and who sets them?

In multilingual urban India, there is little excuse for not knowing more than two languages if you are from elsewhere—your own and the dominant language of the city in which you live (assuming those are different). To that, add English, not because it is a colonial hangover but because it is a global language, useful in business and much else. It equips us to compete for better jobs and seize opportunities. You can learn mathematics and science, and indeed social sciences, in other languages (I did), but it will be harder to communicate with others who don’t know your language without fluency in English.

It is wonderful to know more languages. It widens our knowledge and perspective and adds to our currency. Being a polyglot is a virtue, a gift and it is not hard. I grew up in a Gujarati home. The medium of instruction at the school where I studied in Bombay, as the city was then known, was Gujarati. We were introduced to all subjects in Gujarati at first. English was introduced as a language in grade 2. In grade 3, we were taught Hindi, and the school encouraged those students who were willing to take the competitive Hindi exams run by the Rashtrabhasha Prachar Samiti, or the committee to promote the national language, a misnomer as Hindi is an official language and not the national language—but let that pass. Disclosure: I barely passed Prathmik (primary) and Prarambhik (beginning), the first two exams, and opted out of the ones that followed—Pravesh (entrance), Parichay (familiarity), Kovid (academic) and Ratna (jewel), if I recall correctly.

From grade 5 to 7, we were taught Marathi. Gujarati, English and Hindi were taught till grade 10. All subjects were taught in Gujarati till grade 7. So I studied vigyaan, not science, bhumiti, not geometry, bijganit, not algebra, itihaas, not history, and bhugol, not geography. The foundations in English were sound. Once we reached grade 8, mathematics and sciences were taught in English. History, civics and geography were taught in English in grade 9. By grade 10, our final year, we were bilingual (Gujarati and English), with easy familiarity of Marathi and Hindi.

My school was nationalist with a small n, inspired by the ideals of Gandhi and Tagore, and so we had the option of learning another language, by taking classes on Sundays. The languages varied, but at different times Sanskrit, Malayalam and Bengali were offered. I chose to learn Bengali. I did so for two years, a choice I have never regretted—I have a deeper appreciation of the Indian aesthetic as a result.

Choice was the crucial aspect. Languages that were essential were introduced early. Life is hard in Maharashtra’s premier city without Marathi. English is essential for a professional career globally and it is useful to know Hindi in a country where a large number of people speak it. If you wish, there are other rich languages to learn, but none is imposed.

The problem arises when there is imposition, because imposition is about power. Recently, the government announced its draft education policy which placed greater emphasis on Hindi. Several states baulked. In the 1960s, Tamil Nadu had threatened to secede over Hindi chauvinism. The imposition of Hindi is a red rag for many regions for two reasons. One, it implies that other Indian languages are not important. Two, it significantly advantages Hindi-speakers, or a bit more than two-fifth of Indians, to the detriment of the majority.

True, Hindi is regarded as India’s most widely spoken language, but to call all languages spoken in northern India as “Hindi" is unfair to the diversity of that region. The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich once quoted a friend who had told him, “A sprakh a dialect mit en army un flot," or a language is often a dialect with an army and a navy. A language gets called a “language" because those who speak it have power. Others speak dialects, vernacular or “regional" languages. That insults those languages.

Hindi is not unpopular. Hindi cinema, with its Bambaiyya vocabulary of faaltu, khitpit, khadoos and kanda-batata (not aalu-pyaaz), and Urdu words like ghulaami and azaadi, has ensured that Indians are comfortable with the Hindi that’s spoken on the streets. Forcing Sanskritized Hindi on others provokes opposition, and rightly so. My friend, the late Marathi writer Gauri Deshpande, once told me, if India must choose one language for all, let it be Khasi or Garo. Relatively small minorities speak either, so that would place most Indians at the same starting point, and nobody would be privileged.

Always wise, Gauri had a point, as usual.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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