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The language cauldron and the English creep

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This is a longish four part essay/discussion on English and our native languages.

Part 1: The status of our native/ mother tongues (they are dying, by the way)

Part 2: From a nationalist perspective, does it help to save them ?

Part 3: From an individual perspective, does it make sense to retain your mother tongue ?

Part 4: What can we do to protect and let them grow.


Part 1


I do not know if you see it or not, but Indian languages are hurtling towards extinction at an exponential rate. Its not Kannada vs Tamil, or Hindi vs Marathi any more, all without exception are dying, it’s just a question of sooner or later. Some may last another 50yrs, some maybe 100, but die they will, if we don’t work hard to keep them alive. And when I say dying I am saying as a living vibrant language, used in day to day life, as a culture, as a binding force in a community. That’s where they are disappearing. As an academic language on the bookshelves and in libraries and in a few isolated homes, they may last for a long long time – but I am not referring to that. Am I exaggerating?

Recently my daughter turned 1.5 yrs. Like all parents, was seeking a pre-school. (This pre-school is another silly craze, where they want their kids to get ahead, ie get stressed and become zombies early in life – but like many other parents, you end up sending your kid just so that she gets company of her age). I wanted her to go to one in her mother tongue, which is Kannada. In my locality, there are around 2045 preschools out of the 9000 or so housing sites. I was stunned that they were stunned when I asked if the pre-school runs in Kannada.

There was one which was more lower middle class, with most of the kids speaking kannada – looked promising. The principal said she understood us perfectly, and they are not fanatical about english, it was probably she saw our car which made her say that. So we walked around and happened to meet a primary school teacher, (who was not aware what we were looking for) proudly told us, if the kid speaks us to in Kannada, we dont respond ! How is that for self-respect of our culture.

There was one with at least a very Indian name, and talked about culture and stuff. Looked promising – it turned out that all they did was start with a Sanksrit shloka and the rest of it was exactly like any other. So I went into a discussion on language with the matron saying mother tongue you will learn at home in any case, so they focus on English here. That’s not true any more. Because the kid will speak English from age of 1, and will speak only in English in schools, and with its friends and will speak in English outside the home in the shops and malls and the parents will speak in English in office and with their friends and outside of their home, and will read in English, the native tongue will just not hold. And I see it happening even in traditional households, it just too much effort to sustain, so they switch over to English while speaking to their children. The native mother tongue for practical purposes is dead with their generation.

And this is defacto understood across all strata of society. When we take our kid out, every dude we meet, like you know, will speak in English. Like they look at us as if we are from outer space, you know, when we translate the customary “what’s your name” into Kannada for the kid. And like this is not just the typical ‘I have been to USA, look at my accent’ IT guy in the car or the wannababe smartie salesguy in the Mall. Everybody from the gardener to the maid to the carpenter to the temple priest will converse with us in Kannada and will turn over to the kid and start speaking in English. It’s becoming impossible to shield the poor little kid anywhere.

And if you think this is an urban phenomenon, and this is because Bengaluru is cosmopolitan, it’s not. I have been to a remote interior village in Karnataka, and I don’t know for sure if it is typical, but the trend is equally strong, though they may lag Bengaluru by a few years.

This is about generation next – what about now. I keep my ears open when I am going around. Just listen to a few sample conversations (~transcripts

  • Phone cover scratch agide. Change madbeku – Rural Kannada college going kids conversing in Kannada

  • Sensible agi, Simple agi irbeku – Two friends talking standing at a shop corner

  • Prashnegalu irritate agathe – An 82 yrs wise old man who has lived in remote hamlet in interior Karnataka all his life

I won’t get into more, what with these 2G phone tapping and all being in supreme court – lets await that decision before I release more of these scandalous conversations.

It’s a struggle to be speaking in Kannada without really speaking in English. Within my family its typically 70% English, just like the above. It’s not complex words or technology related words, even common everyday words which have been around in Kannada for ages have got bulldozed out – like colours, days of the week, fruits and vegetables, words like change, clean .. all become part of everyday Kannada speaking. I am not being fanatical, it’s OK to use English words once in a while, its just that we end up using Kannada words once in a while when we speak Kannada, and of course pure, perfect Queens English when we speak English. To our growing list of where we are moving to superpower status, political corruption, beuracractic corruption, media corruption, moral corruption we can add language corruption (or should it be language pollution?).

We tried to be conscious and speak in Kannada proper. Its only then we realize how far down the road we have travelled and how hard it is to come back. It becomes really irritating and stressful to remind ourselves and the other person, hey you are using English. Yes yes, sorry and a few sentences later it slips out again. Because my family members are so very nice, they have not clubbed me yet, but you never know, I can’t test their patience too far. And if you are feeling all smug that you speak only 20% corrupted, well all I can say I am ahead of the curve.

Who cares? Why bother – waste of time ? Isn’t it better for national integration if we have one language, no language clashes? Isn’t English our ticket to be an economic superpower, the earlier the better? Why trouble ourselves having an additional language – isn’t it better to speak one and speak it well? What is language, but a means of communication, why the fuss on which one. What value does it add to me to speak in the native language? Isn’t the birth, growth and death of languages a natural process, why interfere? And what does it buy me, personally – I will speak what I like – just buzz off. Isn’t my kid better off speaking English, so that he does not get left behind? So many questions, so many questions, so many questions, its going to take one long essay to answer these. More in the coming parts ….


kbsyed61's picture

Good observation!

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Nice observation and every good narration of an important aspect of our lives - Communication. Really do not have any idea as to how you preserve your mother tongue and still be able to communicate to the world in the language that is prevalent.

But one thing shook me off again is the little one of 1.5 yrs going to school

Recently my daughter turned 1.5 yrs. Like all parents, was seeking a pre-school. (This pre-school is another silly craze, where they want their kids to get ahead, ie get stressed and become zombies early in life – but like many other parents, you end up sending your kid just so that she gets company of her age).

This phenomenon is common to every household. I am still not comfortable with the idea that 1.5 yr old needs school for staying ahead in the rat race. Even for company it is too much for that little infant who can hardly understand that is around her. I am sure this will be a topic for another discussion.

I can 100% concur with the observation that English has made inroads into out daily lives so much that even when we speak our mother tongue we have become used to using more English words than using Kannada/Tamil/Marathi/Urdu words. My own experience is that until my eldest one started school, we spoke Urdu all the time at home here in US. Her admission to school change all of that. Later when younger siblings joined her the situation has become worse. Now these guys speak only in English with each other. What can these poor souls will do when, English has become the De Facto communication media - Everybody speaks in English at School, Mosque, community centers, in our social gatherings and even the Hindi news is 50% English. My only hope is my plan this year to teach them Urdu this summer. I have failed twice in past years. Wish me good luck :)

psaram42's picture

The language issue

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This issue is a much debated one. Why this Kolaveri language issue? On Sundays we don’t miss SP Balsubramyam’s Karnataka music programme. When compared to English music this one is extremely scientific, melodious and exhilarating.

Second point is, why is English creep? Positive view is probably one could see it as the “lingua franca” of the world. Languages and races can and should co exist. Importance of mother tongue of course can not be denigrated.  

murali772's picture

cheer, not tear

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@ Kulhalli saahibare'  -  I expect the Shakesperean pundits in Stratford-upon-Avon would also be lamenting the corruption of the "Queen's English", by none other than the Oxford English dictionary, by the assimilation of hundreds of new words into it on a regular basis, the word 'pundit' itself being one such. Apart from that, you now have the American English, Spanish English, aur apna "Hinglish", mathu namma "Kinglish". So, while the Shakesperean theatre may continue to stage its plays in the "Queen's English", the rest of England, as well as the US, Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Madras, Calcutta, etc, will be using their own everyday versions of English. And, simultaneously, there will always be enough proponents of Shakespearean English to keep it alive and kicking too.

Likewise, there will always be enough proponents of all major Indian languages to keep the respective languages and cultures alive and kicking, with their numbers being sufficiently large, and now spread all across the world. Why else would Google facilitate usage of these languages? Also, that's how you are now finding "Yakshgana", "Thayambaka (from Kerala)", etc being staged/ performed across the world. In fact, if you ask me, there is a noticeable revival of many folk-art forms, post globalisation.

As such, there will always be enough scope for purists who want to preserve/ pursue their language and culture. I would even say they have become stronger today. But yes, more and more, it will get confined to fine arts, culture, etc, and perhaps lesser and lesser to fields like medicine (Alopathic), engineering, etc.

So, rather than shed a tear, I am cheering on.

However, for medium of primary education, I would agree with Mr S A Aiyar's view expressed here

Muralidhar Rao
blrpraj's picture

my 2 cents on the language thing

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Language and culture continuously evelove over time and is not written in concrete, having said that here are some

1) I question the concept and the term "mother tongue". Let's look at it from a different perspective in an increasingly
   cosmopolitan and globalized city & world. Let's look at it from this perspective; a person has - a) a primary language (in which he or she is
   proficient in reading, writing, speaking AND uses most(50% to 70%) of the time). Quite often nowadays we find ourselves
   in a situation where mother and father are from different lingual and cultural backgrounds thus raising questions about
   blindly following the "mother tongue" concept. b) secondary language(s) - less proficient and used less c) tertiary language(s)

2) Market forces/natural forces/survival of the fittest -  Leave it up to the language. The language itself will do well if there it is strong and there
   is a need for the language. Do we have Sanskrit around? No it isn't. Was it a popular defacto language in it's heydey? I guess so. So, what happened to    it? Over hundreds of years things evolved and i guess it finally fell out of favour; and, no matter how much you force people it won't be spoken now, but that does not prevent people from learning it and speaking it even today if they want to and love sanskrit.
   And, for heavens sake government and people should stay away from making policies and forcing languages down peoples throats. Give all the avenues for
   people (especially kids) to pick and choose languages in terms of a) having cultural centers;b) plays/skits & dramas;c) schools in various mediums of languages, so that multiple languages have an equal footing and kids pick up languages based on the environment they are growing up and interacting in.

3) Last but not the least, we underestimate kids and their intelligence. Leave it to the kids to figure out what language they want to converse in.
   Conversing in english at home with the parents or with other folks outside of school? That is perfectly ok. What matters is that kids become better all rounded human beings with emphasis on sports, education, extra curricular activities, better civic sense, better drivers ...and the list continues with language figuring much lower in the priority list when compared to these items that people forget about.

psaram42's picture

Status of English in India

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  • English is the primary language adopted in our country. Hardly any parent will choose local language schools for their children, and justifiably so.
  • English language has the least number of alphabets only 26 in number. [1] This goes a long way towards an elegant computer key board. While making type setting easier, phonetic spelling becomes harder. However in this computer age it is a non issue.
  • You can write kannada on any other in English alphabets. Knaadathally baria bahudu.
  • Doctoral students in institutions like IISc need to know at least one other foreign language like German French etc The reason is the paucity of scientific content in our reginal laguages.
  • English is a vibrant developing language with scores of new words being added to the official list.


SJ's picture

Very interesting!

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Just writing to say that I found your article extremely interesting.

I'm a PhD student, studying the impact of the English language on people's lives in Bangalore. I'd like very much to further discuss some of the points you made in this article. Do let me know if I could email you!



murali772's picture

@ Sazana - Firstly,  welcome

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@ Sazana - Firstly,  welcome to PRAJA.

If you log in, you'll see a mail from me giving contact particulars - will be happy to duscuss the subject with you.

Muralidhar Rao
murali772's picture

English - Vinglish

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Since time immemorial, countries have valiantly defended their mother tongue, thwarting all attempts by the English language to invade their senses. But as a signal of surrender, universities around the world are yielding to English, forsaking local-speak even in parts of Europe traditionally hostile to the language. They are now offering courses in English to lure the internationally mobile student.

It is, of course, not just academic expediency but economic acuity: after all, the number of youths who want to be high on the learning ladder - as long as the medium is English - is only multiplying. These universities are now more than happy to open their arms and doors to feed that need for their own survival.

It is not a coincidence that the US, UK, Australia, and Canada - all Anglophone countries - have always been the most attractive destinations for international students. Now other countries have realized that English is the lure if they wish to aim for a slice of this international student market. Many have devised game plans to achieve this aim.

For the full text of the report in the ToI, click here.

If the new HRD minister of state, Mr Shashi Taroor has his way (going by his pronouncements), perhaps India should figure as a major player in the market soon too.

Whatever, art and culture, based on non-English languages (including many Indian languages), will only flourish in a globalised world, as brought out in my post of 12th June (see above).

Muralidhar Rao
psaram42's picture

The Language issue

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We were waiting for the sequel to the first part of the promised four Suhas Kullahalli Avare!   

It is a well established fact that better job opportunities are possible only with English language. Rightly so. Why crib? One can still observe / enjoy ones own regional language and the associated culture. No body is "Defending mother tongue" !  

murali772's picture

howdu - prof sahibare'

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Kannada language faces no threat, noted lexicographer Prof G Venkatasubbaiah said on Friday. - - - There is no threat from English as far as Kannada is concerned,” he said. The professor was speaking at a function organized by Sapna Book House which also honoured 57 writers. “When we got independence, only 100 books were being published in a year. Now we have nearly 4,000 books every year. It implies the hunger for books is growing,” he added.
For the full report in the ToI, click here.

Sari haelidaree.

Muralidhar Rao
srkulhalli's picture


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Nobody is against English, least of all me. Question is while we need to know English, can we keep our native tongues.

You have no clue about the amount of ground we have lost. With my "Kannada speaking relatives", our conversation is between 70 to 90% English. My children and their children talk only in English, if you are lucky, some of them may know 3 to 5 words in Kannada. What else do you expect if speaking in your native tongue is discouraged from the age of 1 (it would have been earlier, if babies could babble coherently). This is pretty much true of all Indian languages.

The reason more books are published today is because of technology and economic reasons. If you really want to compare, then you should compare Kannada books vs number of English books published in Karnataka in the last 100 yrs.

In musuems and archeological departments (like Sanskrit), it will last forever becuase publishing is going to be around for some time. As a living, vibrant culture, it is going to die. Which may be OK, languages like people are born, grow and die. But lets be grounded in reality, and not debate the point that it is in terminal decline. If you dont want to accept this reality, its very hard to take the discussion forward. Because only if you can accept the facts then can you move forward and do something about it, if you want to.

And lets not even talk of Europe. They have done a fantastic job of preserving their language. Any Indian who goes to France or Germany or wherever invariably learns the language and is proud to show it off. But make him a non-resident in another state and he will avoid learning that language. Even that is going too far ... a freind of mine went for Spanish lessons, then French .... but he will not speak in Kannada because he says he is not a fundamentalist. And now I see posters that help you learn Chinese .... how many posters have you seen that say "learn Kannada" in the capital of Karnataka ?

ps - sorry, got a little lazy, sequel will come within a year or two:)


blrpraj's picture

@srkulhalli re: NOPE

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With my "Kannada speaking relatives", our conversation is between 70 to 90% English. My children and their children talk only in English, if you are lucky, some of them may know 3 to 5 words in Kannada.

Answer : What is wrong with that? Let the individuals choose whatever language they want to converse in. And, BTW, i am willing to bet that most of them would have gone to English medium schools especially if they are living in Bangalore. The chance of running into a NON English medium educated middle class person in Bangalore is as remote as a dinosaur walking the streets of Bangalore.

What else do you expect if speaking in your native tongue is discouraged from the age of 1 (it would have been earlier, if babies could babble coherently).

Answer : Nobody is discouraging anything. Bangalore like any other place in India is after all democratic and people can choose to speak whatever language they want. Language like anything is governed by market forces. A lot of us made the concious choice of sending our kids to English medium schools and the parents did the same for us. We reap what we sow, why complain? I think we need to move on and worry about other priorities. Language is the least of those priorities and will be completely okay without the govt, me, you or anybody meddling with it. If people want to speak a particular language then they will; if people don't find the need for a particular language, it will die like Sanskrit. The fact that we are conversing about Kannda on this forum in written English itself tells a lot. And BTW, i am a kannadiga who is Kannada illiterate as far as reading and writing goes :-).

. But lets be grounded in reality, and not debate the point that it is in terminal decline. If you dont want to accept this reality, its very hard to take the discussion forward. 

Asnwer : Even before accepting the fact of whether Kannda is in terminal decline; we need to understand what is terminal decline. If Kannada were in terminal decline then we wouldn't be hearing Kannada spoken by vegetable vendors, farmers, bus drivers & conductors or would not have Kannada TV news etc. Is Kannada Literature in terminal decline? Well, English literature is in decline too :-). Has there been another Shakespeare? No. Does anybody read (or write) any english peoms, literary books etc. nowadays in the age of iPad, iPhone etc.? No. Forget about poems & literature; my son does not know how to write a letter to his grandma and it has been about 15 to 20 years since i hand wrote a letter to a relative or friend thanks to the telephone, internet and a busy life. So, i could argue that Kannada literature is probably in better shape than English because people are making an effort to keep it alive.

And lets not even talk of Europe. They have done a fantastic job of preserving their language.

Answer : Sir, EU was formed only in 1993. Until then they were a bunch of countries with restricted movement of people accross borders. With intra country borders disappearing and easy migration of people they are subject to the same dynamics that India has. Demographics of Bangalore has changed for example in the last 20 years with the economic boom in Bangalore. So, i would like to see how Europe is 40 or 50 years from now :-). That would be interesting to see since they will also have the same problem of "national language"; english and the "native" language that we are talking about now. In that case 40 or 50 years from now the same "market forces" will govern and i won't be surprise to hear a bunch of cosmopolitan folks from different ethnic backgrounds be conversing in English when i visit Berlin or Paris. 

h .... but he will not speak in Kannada because he says he is not a fundamentalist. 

Answer : Why won't a person speak a language he knows in the right context & setting? I can't comment on your friend since i don't know him; but a North Indian speaking chaste hindi and refusing to speak kannada even if he knows it and has learnt it when visiting Hassan or Davangere can be called fundamentalist. But, a Kannadiga (who knows chaste kannada) inisisting on speaking only in Kannada and not speaking in English/Hindi (if he knows either language) with a cosmopolitan crowd from different parts of the country is also a fundamentalist :-). Depends on how you look at it and which side of the spectrum you are on. I think we need to move past these silly language issues. You can't; i repeat; you CAN'T get a bunch of Indians to agree upon one single landuage to read, write or speak in and use that as a medium of education. If folks are so worried about Kannada and that people are not speaking it then convert all schools in Karnataka to Kannda medium; period, end of story, end of discussion :-) [Note that i am not advocating this though. The economy will tank and Bangalore as technology hub will be history].

And now I see posters that help you learn Chinese .... how many posters have you seen that say "learn Kannada" in the capital of Karnataka ?

Answer : We actually need "learn english" posters for the UP,Bihar belt and much of the rural/semi urban belt in every indian state. We also need those posters in China. That will really force those folks to learn a language other than what they know & speak; at the same time it will be really beneficial to them in terms of livelihood. Point being, I think it is important for more and more people to know good english than it is for people to know good Kannada. Those who haven't caught up will be left behind and won't be able to land good jobs & play a role in the globalized world of today.

Last but not the least..language is a very touchy topic; these are the usual sterotypes and comments i have faced and every one would have come accross

-  Madrasis (usual stereotype back then applied to anybody South of Bombay/Mumbai) don't speak Hindi even if they know it. Little do those folks know that we don't use it in our daily lives and there is no need to learn or opportunity to speak it.

- Anybody who has lived for a few years in Bangalore or other parts of Karnataka is assumed to know kannada and is considered "style" if he does not speak it. What is stylish about speaking a particular language or not speaking it? Yes, he would have picked up enough to converse with auto drivers, restaurant waiters, shop keepers in broken kannada but would switch to his primary language subconciously when carrying out an intense conversation (like how i switch to English subconciously even with my siblings in a very intense conversation where i have to communicate since i am 100% English educated).

People need to be mature, accept the language cauldron and move on. You cannot force language on anybody. For anybody giving Europe as an example then take the bold step and send your kids to a school with medium of education in the native language. Write to the MPs and MLAs to make Kannada medium education as mandatory for all schools :-) in Karnataka. My  honest 2 cents -  make all schools in India to have mandatory English medium education; tear down the language based division in our country, mix it up and just create states like the US. Leave it to the people what language they want to converse between themselves, at their homes etc. All of us can move on to other priorities like fixing the infrastructure, improving safety of women, safety of railways - ya i am going off topic here but since i broached the topic of railways did you folks know that Japan has run bullet trains for 48 years and there are ZERO fatalities due to an accident? Compare that to the death count of indian railways in 48 years, i think we will need a LAAAAAAARGE spreadsheet to tabulate the fatalities :-).....but I think you get the message about the priorities staring at us. comment guidelines

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