India Has Never Been A Monolingual Society: Chamu Krishna Shastry
An exclusive interview with Chamu Krishna Shastry; Padma Shri awardee and chairman of high-powered committee for promotion of Indian languages.
Chamu Krishna Shastry is an Indian educationist who has been working for the revival of the Sanskrit language for the last four decades, particularly spearheading the movement to teach Sanskrit through Sanskrit. He is the trustee and Secretary of Sanskrit Promotion Foundation. He is also the co-founder of Sanskrit Bharati. In 2017, Government of India awarded him with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award, for his contribution towards Literature and education.
Last month, the Centre appointed him Chairman of high-powered committee for promotion of Indian languages. We sat down with him to talk about various measures that can be taken up by various stakeholders to achieve this goal.
Below are the edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. The Union government has appointed you as head of the high-powered committee for promotion of Indian languages. How do you see this development?
A: Education, language and culture cannot be separated. They are intimately connected. Language is in fact the foundation of any nation’s or civilisation’s development. It becomes the basis of a people’s ideas, philosophy, their sense of belongingness and intellectual progress. It’s the language which helps shape a man’s or a nation’s chitta or manas. A person’s character or nature is influenced by the language he/she speaks.
Language is essentially a carrier of cultural aspects from one generation to the next. When you bring language into your day to day usage, you are basically bringing the culture into usage as well.
Q. It’s fashionable to say that a language is secular but clearly that’s not the case, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely. Such new concepts, ideas or narratives like ‘language is secular so it doesn’t matter which one you use’ keep getting furthered by divisive elements with an aim to disrupt and disintegrate the society. Our teachers have always taught us ‘unity in diversity’ but these divisive elements, foreign or domestic, only emphasize diversity but never talk of unity. Diversity without unity and harmony is a recipe for disaster.
Q. You have four decades of experience of promoting Sanskrit for which the State has awarded you with a Padma Shri. How do you intend to use that vast experience in your new responsibility to promote all Indian languages?
A: One way of preserving endangered languages is to record them and conserve them with digital archives so even if they die out, there is a chance for future generations to revive them. While this recording has to be done for all languages, this is not enough. Any language needs speakers and users for it to not only survive but remain lively and vibrant. We need both those who know how to express themselves in a language as well as those who can read and write the script. Now, the challenge is we have a large population that is growing up with English as their medium of instruction. This is the language they use for work and for studies. They may know how to converse in other languages but many can’t read the script let alone have the ability to write in it.
This is happening because in schools, English is fast replacing local languages or mother tongue as primary language or medium of instruction. As one grows older, his proficiency and command grows stronger in English while it declines in his own language which also shapes his thinking accordingly. So, to promote Indian languages, it’s also important that the medium of instruction is also the mother tongue or regional language. Only then can the Indian languages be preserved and developed fully.
Q. Now, one visible consequence of the generation of Indians, especially in cities, growing up in English and losing touch with their own language is that the mother tongue for their children will be English as we see so many parents talk to their toddlers in English. This would mean total extinction of Indian languages in a few years.
A: Parents speak to their kids in English these days to better prepare them for the school system where that language is the medium of instruction. They don’t want their kids to be left behind. But it's a wrong assumption on their part to think that conversing with them in Indian languages will somehow affect their ability to be good in English. In our family, we don’t talk in any language but Sanskrit. My son has grown up like that. Today, he is well versed in Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Sanskrit, English and Hindi.
India has never been a monolingual society. Before the introduction of English, our people used to be conversant in more than one language. When people from one region used to travel to another region in caravans for either business or tirtha yatras, they didn't have translators. There was an urge to learn other languages. Moreover, foundation of Indian languages is more or less the same be it grammar or sentence structure or inspiration. It’s not like learning a completely new language.
We never used the grammar translation method to learn a new language. This came into wide usage only after the Britishers came as they were most comfortable with it to learn Indian languages. This became the norm when their system of education was put in place. This needs to change. We have to start teaching our languages directly, using the same language. Every Indian should aspire to learn more languages from other parts of the country. This has to become a norm again.
It can’t be done by the Central government alone. The state governments also have a critical role to play. Society at large also needs to wake up to the challenge. Teachers have a big responsibility too. We will need a collective effort.
Q. National Education Policy is now out and under implementation. How conducive would that prove to be in promoting Indian languages?
A: It will be very helpful. In 10-20 years, we can expect a big change. NEP has recommended that regional languages become the medium of instruction. It talks about hiring regional language teachers. Even in higher education, attempts are being made to give technical education in Indian languages. So, a lot is happening on that front. But a huge exercise needs to be carried out as far as translating resource material is concerned. State governments also need to play a big part. As I said, it won’t happen only if one entity is interested in this project. Everyone from governments to society to translators to teachers need to come together to realise this dream of promoting Indian languages.
Q: So, what can ‘we the people’ do to promote Indian languages?
A: See there are seven pillars that are necessary and important for preservation and promotion of any language.
First, we need more and more speakers and those who employ the language. We not only need to conserve it but also promote it.
Second, we need multiple media through which the language is used whether it is via education, entertainment, communication, business, administration, media, broadcasting, etc.
Third, we need that contemporary literature is being written in that language in small or large numbers. Imagine if a scientist who is writing in English makes the effort to translate that material into his regional language, even if it’s a page a day. We will have a book by the end of the year. If 10,000 people do this in their respective fields, in a decade, we would’ve such a vast literature. It’s not difficult. But we need to make the attempt.
Fourth, it’s important that new words get invented frequently to denote contemporary concepts and ideas. Just as new cells are generated continuously in our bodies, it’s critical for the liveliness of a language that new words keep getting added to the vocabulary.
Fifth is adaptation of technology to further the interests of language. We talk about digital divide but the fact is if we don’t employ technology then it would result in language divide - those languages that don’t utilize the technology will go into extinction.
Sixth, the society will need to take responsibility which includes common people, parents, businessmen and every stakeholder.
Seventh, a language also needs state patronage and here not only the central government but also the state governments because it’s their primary responsibility to promote languages of their region.
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