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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Multilingualism can be magical if it’s error-free
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Multilingualism can be magical if it’s error-free

New Delhi signboards with distorted street names may get a few laughs but they also signal a petty negligence of India’s multilingual heritage—an asset that should not be trifled with

A news report this week gave us the low-down on wanton distortions of street names displayed in Gurmukhi, a Punjabi script, on boards installed by the New Delhi Municipal Council. (Hindustan Times)Premium
A news report this week gave us the low-down on wanton distortions of street names displayed in Gurmukhi, a Punjabi script, on boards installed by the New Delhi Municipal Council. (Hindustan Times)

Google Maps is our navigator-in-chief today. Buckle up, key in the destination, and off you go on the fastest route. It errs now and then, of course, so it helps to keep an eye out for signposts of street names. For those of us who must brave the traffic of New Delhi, the error rate of these seems no better. Soon after a foreign diplomat pointed out a misspelt ‘Singapore’ on a signboard, a Hindustan Times report this week gave us the low-down on wanton distortions of street names displayed in Gurmukhi, a Punjabi script, on boards installed by the New Delhi Municipal Council. ‘Akbah Hoad’ for Akbar Road might get a laugh or two, but mis-spelling ‘Singh’ in Gurmukhi for Jai Singh Road is about as glaring as it can get. That our capital city has a four-script norm—English, Devanagri, Gurmukhi and Urdu—to mark out its streets, of course, is just how it should be. It’s a practical matter, above all, given its diverse readers. In this, it has always scored well over its suburb Gurugram, for example, where the Haryana Urban Development Authority had an English-only board on Sunset Boulevard for years with the tagline “For a batter future" before it was taken down.

In India, especially, with over 19,500 spoken languages, there should be no doubt that being multilingual is superior to the alternative. No matter which part of the country one grows up in, it’s hard to escape aural or visual exposure to a language other than the one—or two or three—used at home. Sometimes, all it takes is a little travel to get a sense of the rich linguistic diversity we’re endowed with. And it’s not just dialects that tend to shift from one district to the next. In places such as Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, dozens of tongues are spoken with so little in common that they are all mutually incomprehensible. This could be bewildering, of course, but it is also magical. In fact, linguistic heterogeneity is what gives us our greatest unacknowledged asset: multilingualism. Those whose minds operate in more than a single articulatory mode have been found to have an edge over monolingual thinkers. Studies have found it to favour the development of key skills like problem-solving and multi-tasking. A 2012 study by Ellen Bialystok et al, for example, showed that bilingual children adapt and process information better. Among the aged, it can delay the onset of cognitive decline. In her book on bilingualism, Anatoliy Kharkhurin explains that the improved cognitive control it requires fosters creativity because it makes our mind diverge and converge as we encode and decode stuff as we shift languages. For those well versed in both (or more), this happens subconsciously. Such research findings may not be definitive, since human minds are so mysterious, but some of the benefits are intuitive. Kharkhurin, for example, writes that an “open-mindedness to different sociocultural constructs" also plays a vital role in making us more creative.

With a pile of evidence favouring the idea of being as multilingual as we can, it’s odd how proposals to go the opposite way tend to pop up here and there, particularly when it comes to the country’s name. The Constitution that we adopted after freedom referred to the nation as “India, that is, Bharat," setting out a formal choice that we have liberally used all along. Dropping either of the two would achieve little, betraying instead a rejectionist approach that wouldn’t suit a country which has good reason to keep its ears and minds open to everyone. For posterity’s sake, let’s not err on this.

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Published: 26 Oct 2023, 10:03 PM IST
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