Hindi the tip of the subcontinental iceberg

Dr Mridula Chakraborty, UWS Writing and Society Research Centre, in response to the Federal Government's Asian Century White Paper, which lists Hindi as one of four priority languages for Australian students

Even though India has the highest number of English-speakers in the world, with varying degrees of fluency in the language, this does not begin to touch the complexity of linguistic diversity in the subcontinent. Indian English has absorbed the idiomatic depth and versatility of the 22 other state languages and some 300 dialects, some of which are spoken by more than a million people each. Hindi, which is spoken by almost 250 million people from all parts of India increasingly operates as a pan-Indian language of communication. The highly inventive, influential, vocal and alive Indian media uses a combination of Hindi and English in all its outlets, so much so that British diplomats posted to India have now been instructed to learn Hinglish before they can be dispatched on their diplomatic missions. Needless to say, Hinglish cannot be 'learnt' unless one has acquired at least the rudiments of the Hindi language. 

However, the Australian government cannot afford to stop at Hindi. Another subcontinental language, Bengali, spoken by almost 300 million people from India and Bangladesh, and the sixth most spoken language in the world, is of vital importance too, given the increasing migration from both those nations into Australia. At an International Collaborations Workshop titled Being Bengali: at home and in the world, funded by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, convened by me in 2010, scholars from seven nations discussed the intimate connection between the language and identity. This has market implications too. This year, in what is being seen as the clash of the titans, the Times Group, one of the most prominent English media organisations and the owner of The Times of India (the largest English broadsheet daily in the country), is entering the Bengali language market. It is planning to launch a Bengali newspaper to target the 2 million readership that has been erstwhile dominated by the Bengali Anandabazar Patrika Group. So international media can no longer afford to rely only on English in India either.

One major issue about language acquisition needs to be addressed here. Both Hindi and Bengali, and many other subcontinental languages, belong to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. So they might be seen as grammatically structured like German, for example, and can be learnt quite easily. However, the issue at stake here is not mere linguistic competence but a grasp of idiomatic usage and cultural literacy. These needs can be met only by paying serious attention to the great literary traditions and the epic poetic imagination that exists in the Indian subcontinent. The two great Indian epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, infuse the life and language of the subcontinent and surface everywhere, whether it is in political debate, advertisements, Bollywood cinema or sport. Even Indian English literature, which has a spectacular global presence, relies on these epic tropes and the linguistic play and literrary nuances cannot be grasped without some kind of familiarity with Indian literatures. Indian English writing represents but a tiny fraction of the booming literary scene in the various other Indian languages, which are read by populations that exceed English readership by millions. 

So unless there is a serious commitment to language-through-literature in Australian research and scholarship, this nation will lag behind in the creation of the knowledge economies required to keep pace with the emergent Asian century. Australia is in a prime position to take advantage of its proximity to the Indian subcontinent and attract world-class scholarship in South Asian Studies and research in the Indian subcontinental region. Language learning at the primary and secondary level needs to be matched with a commitment to literary studies at the higher degree research level in order to acknowledge the influence it wields, pay due respect  to it and acquire depth in Australia's view of India. Australia has much to learn from India's deep commitment to diversity, multiculturalism and democracy  and language literacy is one of the key modes of achieving this goal.