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Is our language divide the biggest divide of all?

January 9, 2008

All of us in India talk and write about the different Indias that we live in. We see the people of India separated by regional, religious, caste, and economic walls. Nowadays there is talk of the huge urban rural divide too…and even a vegetarian non-vegetarian divide! Another deep divide is the linguistic divide. Those who prefer to converse in English are on one side of it and those who prefer to speak regional languages on the other. While this linguistic divide (as all other divides) over-laps, and there are many who do not fall into either bracket, one can, if speaking in very broad terms, classify people as falling into one or the other side of the linguistic divide.

The linguistic divide
This linguistic divide is not spoken about much, not in the mainstream media at least, but there is no doubt that this divide, which in a way unites those from different religions and different castes, is creating a wedge between people. There is resentment and at times deep anger.

It’s the social divide that I am talking about mind you…this isn’t about the advantages of learning English and it’s economic benefits. I am talking about a divide that prevents people from mingling with each other.

People who speak the same mother tongue fall on two sides of the divide
I could understand it if people cannot bond if they cannot even speak the same language, but here we have people who can understand each other perfectly well because they share a common language (their mother tongue) but they still feel alienated from each other…and the reason is that one of the people is from an English medium background and the other not. It makes me wonder…could it be a lifestyle divide?

A cultural divide
Once you embrace a language (there are many Indians who think in English today) you embrace culture too. Many fluent English speakers are westernized. On the other hand, those from a ‘vernacular’ background can be more traditional (please note that this is not a hard and fast classification as many fluent English speakers can be traditional and many regional language speaking people can be westernized.) This makes me wonder whether this is a cultural divide. Is it India vs the west? Indian vs Foreign?
If it is indeed so, it’s sad. Because even those who sport English on their sleeve have far more in common with their fellow Indians than they have with native English speakers. I am talking of those Indians born and brought up here…but mainly I am speaking about myself. I love the English language, I tend to think in English, and I read English, but I feel a bond with my fellow countrymen and women. I have heard that those live outside India feel this bond too, more so than in India. Or is there a linguistic divide there as well? Do those of Indian origin who are fluent in English feel uncomfortable with those who are not, and vice versa?

Are English speaking people snobs?
I don’t think so, but is that because I am not one? I have been told that generally people from English medium schools are disdainful of those who don’t or can’t speak English. I received an interesting email from one of my readers and he said:

They (the vernacular medium people) probably do (feel resentment) if they have been made to feel small or inferior by the English-medium types, or the latter are felt to have gained unfair advantage by being what they are. I have myself been witness to the former, and squirmed at what was going on. Of the latter, I am probably myself seen as being guilty.

Hostility is from both sides
I see disdain towards English medium ‘types’ too, from those from a vernacular background. They can be made to feel small because they are not steeped in their own mother tongue and culture and often can be made to look like fools by those who are. Also I have seen that an English medium ‘type’ is at times seen as an ‘outsider’ or someone unpatriotic or foreign in some way. Almost as if he/she is not wholly Indian! I can understand it if a person from a small town, struggling with English, feels resentment when he sees someone from an English medium education and with the same capability (or perhaps less) get ahead of him/her in a job or career, but this is not always the reason for the hostility.

It’s our hearts that should bind us together and our identity as Indians
I read a column in a newspaper in which the writer questioned as to why two Indians, say on a train, or an airplane, start to speak to each other in English and not in a regional language. This I thought was rather fallacious as not everyone is fluent in each other’s regional language and no, not even in Hindi, even if they can speak and understand it. And the language of business does happen to be English. But it’s not just for business meetings that English is used…but often socially too. I find this natural, as India is a hotbed of many regional languages. In any case, I mix around with a cosmopolitan crowd. I often lunch with a bunch of school friends. One is a Christian from Goa, another a Maharashtrian from Pune, another a Jain whose mother tongue is Gujarati, one a Parsi, another a Kannadiga with a British mother, and the seventh a Punjabi. There is no question of conversing in one’s regional language.
This makes me wonder if people who are comfortable only in their regional language lose out on the opportunity to make close friendships with those from other regions?

If this sounds as if I am an advocate for English, no that is not what I am trying to say. I am saying that this linguistic divide should be broken, we should reach out to each other no matter the language. I personally do not feel at all uncomfortable with a Marathi medium person, and gladly enjoy the opportunity to chatter in Marathi, but I find the other person does not feel equally comfortable. I wonder why. Is it because at times I burst into English? Is it because I enjoy English movies, read English books and see English news? But so what? There can be so much else that I can have in common with the other person…it could be womanly issues, it could be cooking, it could be current affairs…what does it matter if one person is from an English medium background and the other is not? And does the fact that I do not know our ‘culture’ as well as the other make me somehow an object of disdain? Surely there are other things I know that can compensate? One learns and absorbs according to one’s environment and upbringing and I am proud of my cosmopolitan army upbringing. I am not ashamed of what I am.

Is English a foreign language?
I wonder if I am saying something totally unacceptable but I cannot help saying it. I don’t think that English should be treated as a foreign language in India. It’s not like French or German. The British colonized us many years ago, and as a result English has spread it’s tentacles everywhere. We have adopted English and nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that our regional languages have absorbed English words.

Related Reading: What did British Rule give us besides English?
India is home to many languages, religions and cultures
Is Hindi destroying our regional languages?
Mumbai changing its official language to Marathi has upset the British and the Americans

111 Comments leave one →
  1. ves21 permalink
    February 10, 2009 10:41 pm

    Oh, forgot to add this: No I don’t think the language devide is the biggest one there are others

  2. neil permalink
    August 29, 2009 3:45 am

    Desis keep associating English with economic progress. Japan, China, Thailand & Israel have developed economically & socially with very little to no knowledge of English.
    Why can’t we progress using a lingua franca who’s roots are indegenious (Hindi) as opposed to English ?

    • vasudev permalink
      August 29, 2009 9:17 am

      i do not know what is the ‘hate intensity’ of the natives of the countires you mention for each other.

  3. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 29, 2009 10:47 am


    //Why can’t we progress using a lingua franca who’s roots are indegenious (Hindi) as opposed to English?/

    Why not indigenous languages such as Tulu, Sindhi, Bodo, Manipuri? It would prevent an unfair advantage to an arrogant brute majority that believes in throwing its weight around.

  4. Vinod permalink
    August 29, 2009 11:43 pm

    Vivek, your advocasy on this blog for the Hindi domination has made me seen things differrently. Thanks for that. A couple of days back, at work, a Chinese colleague of mine was talking to another Indian colleague – a guy called Pramod, a Marati guy. She was asking about the language that he and I conversed in – Hindi. He said it was the national language. I rebutted that. Guess what? He didn’t like that and expressed his clear irritation. Hindi imperialism has caught a lot of Indians unawares. They have come to believe that Hindi is the mark of being an Indian!! Having recently come to appreciate the need for diversity (after hearing a talk by an anthropologist about south american tribes), I did not realize that I have been subjected to cultural cleansing myself when I grew up in India. I now do my bit to educate Indians about the North Indian domination.

  5. Vinod permalink
    August 29, 2009 11:45 pm

    Vivek, your advocasy on this blog for the Hindi domination has made me seen things differrently.

    Bad phrasing there – your advocacy on this blog about Hindi imperialism in India has made me seen things differently.

    • Vivek Khadpekar permalink
      August 30, 2009 7:19 am


      Still bad phrasing 🙂 . My advocacy is clearly and unequivocally “against” Hindi imperialism. Not merely “about”, and most certainly not “for”.

      Your anecdote about your Marathi colleague does not surprise me one bit. Together with the Gujaratis, we are the non-North Indian language group most sold out to Hindi. So much so that even if the Hindi imperialist scum come and trample over us in our own homelands, we are delighted and meekly submit.

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