Home Minister Amit Shah raised hackles the other day by emphasising the need for a common national language, with Hindi being the most obvious candidate for that status. The expected pushback against his views came from the non-Hindi-speaking states, even though it was obvious that few of them had any clue on how to make their own languages more understood around India.
The truth is that Shah’s purpose is already halfway to being fulfilled. Even though he did not say anything that was not said before, the controversy was needless.
Hindi is already the mother tongue of 44 per cent of Indians (with 530 million speakers as of 2011). Hindi-state demographics (higher birth rates than the rest of the country) and outward migrations to non-Hindi-speaking states making them the most dominant group all over India. Bollywood and technology will do the rest. By 2050, some form of non-chaste Hindi will indeed be our de facto national language.
With Hindi speakers now providing the muscle power for most southern states, politicians in these states are actually trying hard to woo them as voters, by creating posters in Hindi. This writer saw some such efforts in pockets of Chennai before the last assembly elections – something most Tamil chauvinists would find abhorrent (ie, wooing voters in Hindi in their own backyards).
In Bengaluru, most auto- and taxi-drivers have learnt to deal with Hindi speakers, given the huge influx of software professionals from outside the state. No question, Hindi is gradually becoming India’s everyday lingua franca without the Centre fretting about it. Add some incentives for learning the language, and Hindi will be right where Shah wants it to be in a couple of decades.
In fact, our worry should be about whether big changes in technology will make it unnecessary for anyone to learn a second language at all – except for the love of it. Google translations are already pretty good for everyday purposes, and over the next 10-15 years, new technologies will make it easier for anyone to talk to anyone in a language she understands even if one does not know that language at all.
Speech recognition and natural language processing technologies will make quantum leaps over the next decade or so. So why would any job-seeker or migrant even need to learn a second language, except for transactional and functional reasons, and that too with the help of technology?
The advent of technology in the business of understanding and translating spoken and written languages will have two broad consequences, as seen in every other area impacted by technology. It will polarise language skills in the population. At the top end, there will be huge demand for multi-lingual talent; and at the bottom end of the pile, poor language speakers will get lots of low-quality, low-skill jobs aided by technology. They will manage with poor language as the demand is only for transactional usage of language.
The big winners will be a small group of highly-skilled multi-lingualists, who will be sought by the Googles of the world to get machines, artificial intelligence and other programmers to make their translation algos work better and better.
Two examples help to illustrate this skill polarisation. In the era before Google maps, the London cabbie needed not only driving skills, but also an extensive knowledge of the city’s roads and geography. Now, he can navigate anywhere with Google maps, and driving is anyway not the expert job it once was, given advances in drive automation. Jobs have multiplied at the bottom end (Uber, Ola) of the cabs business, and at the top – for those who can write the software for ride-hailing services or making the maps even better.
Or take the furniture business. Once upon a time you needed carpentry skills to work with wood. Today, furniture is designed in factories and assembled in homes – for which no particular carpentry skill is required. Anyone who knows which bolt to fasten in which place can do so with a manual. Or get someone to do so for very low fees. The high-value jobs are in the design of new furniture, and the low-value ones in furniture assembly. The mid-skill, mid-level jobs are going.
A similar thing is likely to happen in the software and algorithms that will drive the natural language processing business and translations. At the top end, apart from those doing the programming, there will be a huge requirement for those who understand at least two languages very well – how they are spoken, and how a sentence in one language can be translated meaningfully into another.
At the bottom end, the ability to understand anyone in everyday situations will allow millions of Indians to work and earn a living anywhere – even if they do not know a single word in the language of the state they are migrating to.
Language warriors are on the wrong side of history, thanks to technology. They may be making a political point by vandalising Hindi signboards in metro stations, when technology – a simple scrolling board in multiple languages – can make the same station name appear in multiple languages so that anyone can read it.
Technology may, in fact, make even the name plates irrelevant, for your mobile phone can figure out where you are standing and tell you – through an audio or a text message – where you have arrived. Shops and restaurants already use your mobile phone location information – assuming you give permissions – to entice you to eat or buy stuff from them.
On the plus side, technology can also enable easier learning of new languages, and this is where states must focus their best efforts. They should be employing multi-lingual experts to enable people from elsewhere in India (or abroad) to learn their languages – through technology-enabled courses.
They must develop multi-lingual experts when they are still available at cheap prices before the Googles and Facebooks snap them up. Multi-lingualism is needed not only for English-Tamil or Hindi-English translations, but for translations between one Indian language and another (Odiya to Tamil, Assamese to Malayalam, etc).
The business of language learning is going to get a huge fillip from technology in the near future. The language warriors should know who their real enemy is: technology. They must learn to use technology to push learning their own languages. Or else see their own languages suffer irrelevance.
If Indian languages, and this includes Hindi, do not get on top of technology, technology will reduce all languages to algorithmic triviality.
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