Opinion

The many perils of Hindi imposition

Ritwik Banerjee | Updated on October 24, 2019

The implications of Hindi as a national language are manifold   -  iStockphoto

Home Minister Amit Shah’s casual comment leads to a wider discussion on the impact of declaring Hindi as a national language. While having a common language helps, the risk to social freedom cannot be ignored

The issue of language has generally been important for the subcontinent, and in particular for Indians. The modern history of the subcontinent is replete with instances where major civic unrest has ensued, war has been fought and nations have been fractured, all in the name of language. Linguistic identity is one of the more important ones in the vector of social identities in this part of the world. This, in part, explains the outpouring of emotion that has always accompanied major changes in the language policies initiated by different governments in India.

The Home Minister’s pronouncement that Hindi should be India’s rashtriya bhasa or national language could have passed on as lazy musings of a politician on ‘Hindi Diwas’, but these times are different. At the very least, the alacrity with which major policy changes have been executed by the current and previous government gives the impression that when it comes to the Modi-Shah duo, musings today may well be diktats tomorrow and statutes the day after.

Linguistic distance

The implications of Hindi as a national language are manifold.

What does the declaration of Hindi as a national language mean for the numerous local languages in India? The answer in part lies in the linguistic distance between the local language under question and Hindi. The notion of ‘linguistic distance’ is particularly important in a multilingual country like ours, with numerous languages and dialects. It refers, in part, to the ability of speakers of one language to understand that of the others. For example, Barmeri or Magadhi may be linguistically closer to Hindi than Kannada or Telugu. As a result, the cost of familiarising oneself with a new language may be lower for those whose native language is linguistically closer to Hindi. Consequently, the willingness to accept Hindi may be considerably lower among those whose language is not linguistically close to it.

This does not, of course, preclude non-instrumental reasons for aversion to Hindi. For instance, a person whose native language is Magadhi, may not feel his/her identity threatened by Hindi as much as a person who speaks Telugu does. It is not surprising that the resistance to Hindi imposition is less acute in linguistically proximate languages than otherwise. A natural corollary to this is that Magadhi, as a language, is more susceptible to Hindi imperialism than Telugu.

Thus, by this logic, it is somewhat perverse that closer a language is to Hindi, more is the likelihood that it will be colonised, along with its associated culture, by Hindi.

Educational outcomes

One of the major arenas in which the government will want to intervene is education. Education is part of the concurrent list in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India and consequently, States have substantial say about education policies. What does Hindi as a language of instruction in schools mean for educational outcomes in regions with different local languages? While research in economics has not really investigated the effect of Hindi imposition on educational outcomes, some interesting insights emerge from studies which evaluate the impact of non-local language on educational outcomes in schools. Rajesh Ramachandran and others have examined the effect of a policy change in Cameroon, whereby medium of instruction for students in the primary grades was changed from English to the local language. They found that there was substantial gain in learning outcomes, as measured by standardised test scores, for students who were affected by the policy change. Interestingly, the policy change affected scores in not only maths but also english, and these effects persisted even when the the language of instruction was reverted back to English for the senior classes. The effect on students’ English suggests that understanding the basic syntax of a language itself is conditioned on which language the syntax is explained in. Not only learning outcomes, but even the likelihood of attending school and continued enrolment was to have increased by the policy. These findings were replicated in the context of another such policy change in Ethiopia.

Commonality of language

Closer home, Tarun Jain, an Associate Professor of Economics at IIM-Ahmedabad, examined the effect of mismatch of official language with that of the local language when States were formed during the colonial times. He found evidences of substantially lower literacy and graduation rates for linguistically-mismatched districts. That the learning outcomes are substantially lower is also borne out in numerous other studies, which show immigrants from English-speaking countries who move to the US during their childhood are better off in terms of learning outcomes than those from non-English speaking countries.

In many ways, languages have evolved in human societies to help solve a coordination problem. Suppose my wife and I wish to spend an evening out together. I prefer a play at Rangashankara while my wife really wants to head to Chinnaswamy for the IPL match. At the same time, none of us want to be at two different places. The coordination problem is solved by communication, and a common language does help. Thus, the commonality of language has an important, efficiency-enhancing and instrumental value. Much more than Amit Shah’s idea of Hindi’s role as a unifying force in India, it is this efficiency-enhancing role of a common language which has been vetted by economic research.

However, it is also economics, particularly behavioural economics, which warns us of the perils of control. Any move towards unfreedom inevitably kindles non-cooperation. Freedom to choose, be it language or religion— or even food, for that matter — is an end in itself in liberal societies. But it may also be a means towards attaining the more efficient outcomes in the society. The current political leadership may want to be aware of these subtle trade-offs and unintended consequences of their policy intents.

The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at IIM-Bangalore and currently a Fulbright-Nehru Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley.

Published on October 24, 2019

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