Languages of India

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A “mother tongue” is quite literally the language of the speaker’s mother. However, a child is not born with knowledge of this language nor is it something which is genetically transmitted. According to linguists, children can learn easily whichever languages they are exposed to till around the age of twelve. Few children are formally taught the mother tongue. They pick it up mainly through imitation, and it is environmental influence rather than heredity that determines their linguistic performance. For instance, a child of Hindi-speaking parents brought up by a Tamil-speaking family in Chennai is likely to know Tamil far better than its “mother tongue” Hindi (which it may not know at all). But such instances are relatively rare. In the Indian context, for other than an elite (but growing) minority in which mothers choose to speak in English to their children, the overwhelming majority of Indian mothers still communicate with their children in an indigenous language or dialect (Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, Therefore, for the overwhelming majority of Indians brought up in environments congenial to learning our mother tongue, our language is still not only of great cultural importance and sentimental value to us, but it also provides a community identity that protects us from the anomie so characteristic of modern society. The creation of a modern society appears to be our national objective. Our models for a modern society are the so-called advanced societies of the West, especially the UK earlier and the USA now. It is well-established that to achieve modernity, mass literacy is a requisite. It is equally well-established that for the achievement of mass literacy the mother tongue is the appropriate first medium.[1] In India, according to George Grierson’s 1903-1928 linguistic survey and according to the Report of the Official Languages Commission 1956, there are 179 languages and 544 dialects. According to the 1951 Census of India, there are 845 languages or dialects spoken in India. The 1962 Census of India reported 1,652 “mother tongues” including 103 foreign ones. Shashi Tharoor claims 35 languages, each with over a million speakers, and over 22,000 dialects ( In other words, there can be said to be in India at least 723 mother tongues, if not more than 22,000! Conventional wisdom echoes Madame Bhikaiji Cama about the role of language in nation-building as a medium for maintaining the political unity of the country: “India must be free/ India must be a Republic/ India must remain united/ India must have a common language/ And India must have a common script”. The assumption, as reflected in Article 351 of the Constitution, is that only a single language can both politically and culturally hold India together. This view is clearly contrary to historical indigenous reality – the people of our subcontinent as Bhāratis evolved a common civilizational consciousness that was well-established by the time of the Mahabharata, about 5000 years ago. They did this through different ways, including through pilgrimage, and through many languages with scripts connected mainly to one language and its script (Sanskrit – or Prakrit from which Sanskrit is claimed to have evolved – and brahmi). Unfortunately, India’s Founding Fathers, in their well-intentioned zeal to model our polity on Westminster-style democracy (rather than on, say, principles of ramrajya, pitched even today in electioneering), strongly espoused the Western perspective which has been carried forward by our government and its language and education advisors, and by our macaulayan elite.  Differences are mainly over the relative importance to be given to an exoglossic language (English) over endoglossic ones, and of one endoglossic language over the others as the...
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