Language Skills and Implications

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 2 Aug 2021

Dr. Ravi P. Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Being good at languages, spoken or written, is an asset for most people. In countries except the English speaking ones, they have to learn or acquire at least two languages — their national languages and another international one. For example in countries such as France, Germany or Spain which have a rich repertoire of their own national languages, their citizens need to learn another language — usually the international English. One should also highlight that it is the American English rather than the British English that has spread worldwide in the twentieth century.

In South America, although Spanish is the dominant language, learning of Portuguese or French helps. Brazil is Portuguese speaking, but acquiring Spanish skills is welcomed being surrounded by Spanish speakers.

In Russia the dominant language is of course their national one, but earlier French, and now English needs to be learnt by people who are in international affairs or tourism. In Asia, English learning has become almost mandatory. Iran which has a rich language of its own used to learn Arabic or French earlier, but again English has largely replaced French for international affairs.

The eastern countries of Africa are largely English speaking but several countries in the northwestern part — Tunisia, Morocco, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, are French speaking. The traditional African languages such as Swahili have all but disappeared at the onslaught of the two dominant ones.

France had colonies in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and even in two small regions in India, but today one will hardly find any young person knowing this language. Nearby countries — Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, have their separate national languages but are dominated by English. Of course one knows the status of languages in Australia and New Zealand: Indigenous languages have all disappeared except one that survives in New Zealand — the Maori language.

India is an interesting country with 22 languages recognised by the Indian Constitution. However, Hindi is the most useful one and spoken or understood by more than half the population. Bengali is a rich language and is spoken not only in India but also in Bangladesh, which was earlier called East Bengal. One well known part of the western coast of India, Goa, had been colonised by Portugal. Even after 1947 when India became free of the British yoke, Portugal did not leave this region. Several years later India decided to send an armed battalion to free the region of Portuguese rule whereupon the occupation forces quickly left Goa in their ships. The place is a popular tourist attraction now. There are now some Portuguese words in Hindi language.

The Hindi and Urdu spoken languages are very similar to each other although their written scripts differ. They also differ in the sense that Urdu is written from right to left as does Arabic, whereas Hindi is written from left to right as most languages do.  Urdu also has a lot of Arabic words. Hindi has also borrowed many words from several Indian and foreign languages.

Intermingling of languages is quite common. For example Hindi has hundreds of words from Persian because the Mogul rulers of India had made Persian as their official language. Interestingly, Persian language itself has some French vocabulary.

Similarly, several French words adorn English, although the pronunciation is different. For example: province, premier, minister, hospital, university, journal, feminine are of French origin. This is true in the Russian language also. Interestingly, the well known novel War and Peace, a Magnus Opus published in 1869 by Leo Tolstoy, had included a lot of French sentences in it.

It is not surprising that the Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to many French novelists such as Gide, Sartre although Sartre refused to accept the award. The first winner in 1901 was a French poet named Sully Prudhomme.

The status of language is usually determined by the socio political elite. For example, most educated and elite persons in India know and speak English proudly. Foreigners to India generally meet this section of society and think that every person in India speaks English. This is erroneous since several sections of society in villages and small towns speak their own languages or dialects. Some Indians pretend that they don’t speak Hindi only to show off — to pretend that they belong to the elite class.

An interesting fact about the British monarchy can be related here. Many of them knew French. Once when the French President Charles de Gaulle went to London to meet Queen Elizabeth, she proudly mentioned that she knew French language. de Gaulle kept momentarily silent, after which he said, ‘So do I’. As we know Canada is a bilingual country with the French language largely present in the eastern part of the country — Quebec. In 1967 President de Gaulle came to this part and raised the slogan: Vive the Quebec libre! meaning that Quebec should become an independent country. However, this slogan was not accepted.

The position of language in China is unique among Asian countries. Chinese language — Mandarin is spoken throughout the country except for small pockets.  In China, English was not very prevalent. However for purposes of technology, trade and tourism, China has largely promoted its use and today this has resulted in creation of many Chinese gadgets and portals. A few words of Chinese origin such as cha (chai in Hindi meaning tea) are common today. Although I personally did not get a chance to visit China, I learnt a few phrases such as Nee how ma (How are you?) which I have used while speaking to some Chinese visitors.

Languages are not just used in communications but also are vehicles of promoting philosophy and spirituality. Sanskrit has played this role earlier and one can see its influence in some countries including China, Japan and Indonesia which is home to the largest number of Muslims in the world. By translating some great Sanskrit epics, its influence spread to some European nations. The translation into Persian language was done by Dara Shikoh the elder brother of the last great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. From Persian these texts subsequently were rendered into German and French.

I need not further emphasise the importance of language, not only in ordinary communication but also in learning about science, technology, philosophy and other areas of learning. I should also highlight the importance of TMS in spreading these ideas to thousands of people. Keep going Antonio C S Rosa.

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Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. ravipbhatia@gmail.com


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Aug 2021.

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