Monday, 29 October 2012

Should Australians Learn Hindi?

The Gillard government's recently released white paper on "Australia in the Asian Century" is making lots of news. Weighing in at 320 pages, it can be quite a cure for insomnia (like all good white papers). But some of its policy implications have jolted people awake.

Let's look at just the impact on education policy. Some experts have estimated the cost of these policy changes to run into billions of dollars. Let me focus on one particular aspect of the education policy, under which "every schoolchild will be able to learn one of four "priority" languages: Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Japanese and Indonesian".

Knowing a second language is always useful in a myriad of ways, especially learning a language that is very different in nature to English. The benefits include staving off Alzheimer's, and so no one can argue with the proposal in concept. Engaging with emerging Asian countries where the locals speak no other language but their own obviously requires proficiency in those languages. China, Japan, Korea, Thailand - one cannot survive in these countries without knowing the local language. But India?

It's symptomatic of superficial thinking that Hindi has been clubbed together with Mandarin, Japanese and Indonesian. I call it superficial because of India's unique linguistic make-up. The penetration and role of Hindi in India are very different from those of these three other languages in their respective countries.

First, who is the target population in India with whom the next generation of Australians is meant to engage? If, as is most likely, these are going to be educated Indians from urban areas, for purposes of commerce or scientific collaboration, then English is already more than adequate. The lingua franca of the professionally-educated middle and upper classes in India is English. These people usually speak in English even to each other, and an Australian is unlikely to gain any special advantage through a knowledge of Hindi when dealing with these people.

Second, if the objective is to build rapport with common people rather than to communicate with just the elite, then wouldn't it be much more effective to communicate with people in their mothertongue? Only 40% of Indians have Hindi as their mothertongue, although about 70% can speak it. Quite apart from major cities like Chennai and Bangalore where Hindi is not widely spoken, one would be better served speaking Bengali in Kolkata, Marathi in Pune and Gujarati in Ahmedabad, even though Hindi is well-understood in all of these cities. But it would be asking too much to teach Indian regional languages in Australian schools. The benefits would be even more narrow and unjustified.

The most economically vibrant and growing regions of India are the West and the South, not the Hindi heartland, so the relative importance of Hindi may not even be as high as the demographics suggest

Third, from a purely practical standpoint, the kind of Hindi that is most likely to be useful in India is the mongrel variant popularly spoken in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and not the chaste, literary form that the Delhi elite tend to favour. For non-native speakers, it's far more important to be able to get the meaning across, grammar be damned. But it seems depressingly certain which version will be taught in Australian schools, especially since any Australian Hindi language curriculum will be determined in collaboration with New Delhi's officialdom. [It would indeed be ironic if Australians turned out to be incomprehensible to Indians because their Hindi sounded like the news on the government-owned TV channel!]

Rangebank Primary School in Melbourne is the only school in Australia that teaches Hindi to all its students. But will Hindi be useful or just nice to know?

For all these reasons, I believe Australia's Hindi policy is probably utopian and will not serve its intended purpose. Indeed, I don't believe Australian policymakers have thought deeply about the intended purpose of teaching Australian schoolchildren Hindi in the first place. Australia's approach to India should be arrived at by a body of people who have a sufficiently high number of flying hours under their belt (i.e., people who have travelled and lived extensively in India), not by armchair strategists who just see colour-coded countries on a world map.

It's important to engage and to understand another nationality, but language is not always part of this (It's even less true of India than of monolingual countries that have very little English). It's cultural understanding that is required, and I'm not sure if that is being addressed by the policy. For a start, Australians could learn to pronounce Asian names, including Indian ones (Rajeev is not pronounced Razheev, any more than John is pronounced Zhohn.)

On a personal note, I remember my stint at IIT Kanpur in India's Hindi heartland, where a fellow South Indian and I overheard a conversation on the hostel lawns. A card-carrying member of the RSS (the Hindu right-wing organisation that also believes Hindi is the unifying language for the country) was trying to convince a couple of South Indians of the benefits of learning Hindi.

"If you know Hindi, you can speak to 70% of all Indians", he argued, "you can speak to Punjabi[s], you can speak to Gujarati[s], you can speak to Bengali[s]..."

As we left the place, my fellow-South Indian friend said in contemptuous disgust, "If you know English, you can speak to 100% of the Indians who matter".

A snobbish opinion to be sure, but painfully true.

As the white paper makes clear, Australia definitely needs to understand Asia better.

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