You can have objections to learning the local language only if you believe that everyone else should speak the same language you do.

Leave the politics aside it just makes a lot of sense to learn the local languageFlickr/Akash Bhattacharya
Voices Blog Monday, May 22, 2017 - 17:04

Stop a random person on the street in Bengaluru, and the chances that they say “Kannada gothilla” are much higher than they were some years ago. Over these years, the question has also taken on some very virulent forms, as anxieties about language have grown into hardened divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in many non-Hindi speaking states.

Extreme incidents like the young man and woman who were abused by a crowd near Chikajala on Airport Road and made to apologise for not knowing Kannada, rightly outrage us and draw our condemnation. No one can be forced to learn the local language through fear and abuse.

Leaving aside such incidents, though, social media abounds with a litany of daily incidents and confrontations, that reinforce the dividing lines. Each of these posts comes with virulent comments, either by south Indian locals abusing Hindi-speakers for their “arrogant refusal” to learn the language, or by the latter abusing locals for their “parochial stubbornness” that everyone learn their language. Some of these even escalate into major rows involving the police and the law.

But it’s also important to note that these demands for the local language come against the backdrop of a larger struggle over language politics in the country, one in which Hindi has consistently received a predominant place. What this larger politics has done is to hide the fact that Hindi-speakers can be just as parochial about their own language.

As any south or north-east Indian can tell you, go to Delhi or any of the other Hindi-dominant states, and it’s accepted as matter of course that you should speak Hindi. In recent times that has even escalated into the utterly spurious claim that ‘Hindi is the national language’ and should be learnt by all Indians. But for the large part, this forceful imposition escapes notice because people from other regions do not enter these states with the entitled feeling that they should be understood in a language that the locals do not speak.

Now, let’s not deny it, there are multiple advantages to learning a local language. Leaving everything else aside, it helps you navigate your way through everyday transactions in a new place. Given how migration works in the country, it’s most likely that autorickshaw and cab drivers, bus conductors, shopkeepers, waiters and others who provide you a service have come from nearby villages and towns where all they have been exposed to is their mother-tongue. To expect all of them to learn Hindi or the language of a different state, rather than one learning the local language is not very reasonable.

Second, although it is in no way justified, the fact remains that one is much more likely to get overcharged or fleeced by these providers if you give off the air of being a stranger to the place. And this is an ugly truth anywhere in the country. Bargaining with the auto driver or the vegetable vendor without knowing the local language is much the same experience in Delhi, Bengaluru or Chennai.

Third, as a woman friend who regularly uses public transport and walks around the city points out, there’s also a safety angle involved. Negotiating one’s way in public, she points out, can be a difficult or frightening experience if everything around you happens in a language you don’t understand. “Sometimes when I feel that people are talking about me, I feel stuck because I don’t know what they’re saying.”

It’s a particularly scary scenario when everyday disagreements flare up. “I am always petrified about having even a minor accident on the road,” says another friend. “I’ve seen it happen so many times that a crowd gathers and if you don’t know the local language, the crowd turns against you.” It’s hard to read the mood of a quarrel and figure out how to react to it, she says, making it much more likely that you’ll say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Try your hand at the local language, however, and you’ll find yourself experiencing a different city altogether, even if all you’ve learnt are a few broken phrases. As a friend who recently moved to Bengaluru from Patna narrates, although he has been shopping at a neighbourhood store for some months, the shopkeeper only warmed up to him when he learnt how to ask for a few things in Kannada. “Suddenly he was really friendly, telling me what was fresh, what was new, and what was nice. ‘It’s so nice when people like you try to learn our language,’ he told me.”

But it’s not just that learning the local language makes the practicalities of life simpler. It’s also that it opens up a whole world of culture, food and social life that was otherwise closed off. And most importantly, it makes a new city start to feel like home. It comes with the confidence that you can speak and always be understood.  

Of course, the standard response for most newcomers to the city is that there’s never the time or the opportunity to learn a new language. And until a few years ago, this was a valid excuse in most cities, as classes in the local language have always been few and hard to find. But thanks to the internet and social media, there are now an endless array of opportunities to learn any language under the sun. You can learn Kannada, for instance, through websites, apps, Whatsapp, and on YouTube to name a few.

 

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