Seven-year-old Araddhya’s joy knew no bounds when she got an opportunity to interact with her favourite actor Achintya Bose (Asif) of Sooni Taraporevala’s Yeh Ballet, on his birthday on January 1, 2021. She had seen Asif converse only Hindi in the movie, but he was speaking English with her. Inquisitively, she first asked Bose, “What are the languages that you can speak?” He said, “English, Hindi and Bangla.” Then came the next one, “Who is a Muslim?” as she was keen to know about it after seeing Asif’s uncle reminding him of his religion after Dahi Handi, and again when the goons beat him up after Asha’s brother saw the duo dancing in the film.
Bose tried to explain and, to make it easier, told her, “I don’t know if you are Hindu but if you are, you would have a favourite God.” Offended, she quickly responded, “No, I am not Hindu. I am Englishu.” Innocently, she still believes that Hindi speaking people are Hindus while those of English are Englishus. In her world, the language that one speaks is also the religion that one practises. On the other hand, Bose was and, still is, amused at how his fan had settled all the brouhaha over religion with her linguistic identity. Rightly so.
State of affairs
Today, many like her are growing up in a household where English has become the first language, partly by default and partly by choice. “The current generation of school-goers identify more with English than Hindi, zealously adopting it as their first language. It is a collective doing of the parents who communicate with their children in English, schools that emphasise only on speaking in English and a society that looks down upon non-English speakers,” says Sonali Kumar, educator and mother of a teenager.
According to the last census, English is the language of 10-11% of the population, while Hindi is spoken by 53%, followed by other vernaculars. Septuagenarian Champa Singh, who has spent her lifetime teaching Hindi and Sanskrit to children in Bihar and Jharkhand, says, “It is an irony that we have to earmark a day to celebrate Hindi." She agrees that Hindi is losing its popularity and significance for the younger ones. “Teachers play a major role in developing interest in the language, and if they fail, children miss out too.”
Kumar was once a judge for an extempore competition in Hindi for school children. "It was an unpleasant surprise. Participants spoke sans the quintessential flavour, essence and ease. They came up with Google-copied writeups. Their content lacked originality and clarity. The pronunciation of the common Hindi terms and idioms was too Anglicised,” she recounts with disdain.
Hindi is undoubtedly one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. There are around half a billion native speakers of the language spread across the globe. “In our globalised world, English has replaced the poor mother tongue, be it Hindi or any other language. If Hindi and others are left to languish like this, soon they would become a mere dialect,” rues Jameel Gulrays, founder of Katha Kathan, a read-aloud storytelling project.
Gulrays adds how the fascination with English or other foreign languages is taking a toll on Hindi and others. “Those who think English is the lingua franca must look at China. It never felt the need to adopt English and has become a superpower using Mandarin. The same is the case with Japan, Korea, Germany, France, among many others. Then why can’t we take pride in speaking Hindi or our mother tongue?” he asks.
In the 1920s, experts thought bilingual children would suffer cognitive impairments later in life. Today, research suggests the opposite. Yet bilingualism is not always valued.
Ankur Mishra, founder, Kavishala, adds how people are often misjudged for speaking Hindi. “Children or adults from the Hindi medium have their tasks cut out to prove their worth to the English-speaking gentry. Those who are native Hindi speakers have to jostle often to fit in the language-conscious society that looks down upon Hindi and appropriates English with superiority and modernity.”
He started many a verticle for children and college students at Kavishala, focusing on Hindi and Hindi literature in written, audio and video formats. “Kavishala Campus Ambassadors is one of our key programs for students where we’re trying to build college communities for Hindi and other languages. Currently, Kavishala has onboarded more than 50 colleges for this program. Ambassadors are doing monthly events on poetry and literature and trying to fill the gap for the native Hindi speakers and writers among the young adults.”
Septuagenarian Gulrays blames the lack of interest among children on the falling teaching standards, which is in stark contrast to what he had seen among his teachers. Singh couldn't agree more with him. “Teaching was not just a vocation for us, but our passion. We were building a generation, and we took our job of imparting education seriously. No wonder my students are well versed in both languages,” says Singh, beaming with pride.
Achintya's mother and film producer, Anupama Bose, too, believes that a lot of times, picking up English has nothing to do with society as much as it is about people around oneself. If those people are communicating in that language, one tends to make a choice accordingly, much like her son's little fan.
Recounting her experience, she says, “I grew up feeling like an outsider in the north where if you spoke anything other than Hindi or Punjabi, you were a Madrasi! No amount of reminders out of their geography classes in school would make them change their pre-set. In such a vicious, alienating atmosphere, English was safe. Even faulty English could give homogeneity and, therefore, acceptance. Eventually, one learnt to speak it better!”
On the other hand, Sanjiv Saraf, founder of Rekhta Foundation, believes otherwise too. “While there are no set demarcations for measuring the popularity of Hindi, this is in effect quite an old school perception that it is on the decline, and one can hardly agree with it. With the rise in social media exposure, Hindi’s popularity seems to rise as well, wherein content in Hindi is increasingly becoming omnipresent among different groups of people, be it in the form of YouTube vlogs, stand-up comedy, or Twitter trends and memes. In a way then, the new Anglicised Hindi speaking generation is only ‘cool’ in its treatment of Hindi, and doesn’t harbour any sense of inferiority with it.” He attributes the popularity to a growing number of Hindi speakers, their practice, experiments, experiences, media, and the entertainment industry to a large extent.
Talking about Hindwi, an initiative of Rekhta Foundation to preserve and promote Hindi language, literature and culture, Saraf says, “We are creating an enormous digital world for Hindi language and literature for the readers. We keep a keen eye over language, spelling, and pronunciation, which comfortably endorses learning. Our presentations of literal material have been receiving genuine responses, which reaffirms our faith that the relevance and popularity of quality content stay unhindered in these times of viral content manufacturing.”
Together we can
There has been a steady decline in Hindi readers because English has invaded all the possible visible spaces. “From the households that subscribe to only English newspapers, magazines, to children who read only comics and popular literature in English, from hoardings and billboards, and signages, to cartoon shows, there are few touchpoints in Hindi for a child nowadays,” says Kumar.
The poor exposure leaves children tongue-tied when asked to express themselves in Hindi. “Children find it difficult to express themselves in Hindi because they aren’t reading enough, and that's imperative for writing. We are trying to do our bit by introducing them to literary gems through our platform,” says Mishra.
The onus then shifts to parents and teachers to mould the next generation. "If they stay connected to their roots through language, the next generation will never lose its identity and shine brighter, emerge much more confident, and make India proud,” adds Singh.
Gulrays believes course correction is more important now than ever before, and parents and teachers must make children read, write and speak Hindi alongside other languages. “If it is not done now, the treasure trove of knowledge ensconced in our literature would be of no good use. We would also risk losing our rich literary heritage because these children would stay ignorant of it. The language has cultural and historical roots in India. We would also end up losing our culture and rituals. Our language is our identity; we must arduously preserve it.”
Indeed, it could bode well for Hindi because, as Saraf rightly points out, “Once people are exposed to Hindi’s capabilities as a language, it could mean a more intimate relationship with the language, followed by conscious and unconscious contributions for its upkeep.”
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