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Language dreams in India: case of Hindi and English in Varanasi (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Chaise LaDousa. 2016.
Hindi Is Our Ground, English Is Our Sky: Education, Language, And Social Class In Contemporary India
New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books
ISBN 9781785332111

Complexity of goals and dreams: Hindi and English in India
The book in question represents a much needed study of situation in the field at root level, taking into consideration not only the official language policy acts, but also their application in the education system as well as the understanding of language politics and language power by lay people for whose benefit and use the acts were, supposedly, been written in the first place.

In five chapters, Chaise LaDousa’s study is concentrated on language issues in educational institutions in Varanasi, a city placed in the center of Hindi belt states of northern Indian plains. As he explains in the introduction, the goal of his several years’ long research is the study of relations between chosen language medium in school, social class, and economic advancement. To accomplish that author had spent time in several educational institutions in Varanasi, conducted interviews with teachers, students and parents of various backgrounds and studied advertising strategies of schools in Varanasi. Thus the book allows the reader to grasp complexity of the language question that applies to the entire country by the author’s focus on the complexity in one of India’s urban centers.

Language in education market
LaDousa’s study points out that the political ideology and language ideology intertwine in a number of ways. Thus the descriptions of language attitudes and language behavior in schools lead one to the conclusion that schools help disseminate social divisions between classes rather than social cohesion. As shown in several chapters, Hindi and English are perceived in a very different manner by inhabitants of Varanasi. The government’s intention of providing means for economic and geographic mobility with trilingual formula in primary and secondary education is shown as failed as many of the actors in the book are not even familiar with its definition and implementation plan. One also cannot but wander whether similar results would have been obtained in other regions and cities in India, all of which leads to the question of the meaning of education as a process and its role in the society such as India. The current state of affairs shows that people’s perception of language in educational institutions is related to social class, social mobility, and economic success once the education is finished. Hence, English medium schools are more popular as English-language education results in higher social position and better paying jobs. Such equation explains why different social classes are equally interested in English language and therefor in English medium education – everyone is interested in securing their future by securing the success of their children at least one step higher on the ladder then their own. In the light of LaDousa’s data, it then also becomes questionable whether Anvita Abbi’s (Vanishing diversities and submerging identities: An Indian case, in Asha Sarangi (ed.) Language and Politics in India, 2009) proposal for four-language formula would be more successful than the present trilingual formula. Would the addition of one more language to institutional learning utterly change the results of language markets in India? In the context of language markets in India it is also understandable why the talk of center and periphery results in one center, Delhi, whereas Varanasi is in that case equaled with periphery, even though India as a nation is imagined as a union of states, ergo a country with numerous centers. The outsider’s point of view would have enabled LaDousa to ask what happens to state centers and why, but the author does not venture in that direction. Instead, his research is focused on proving English’s presence and dominance in various aspects of life that many members of middle class and lower class would find important.

Language attitudes and alienation
The disturbing part of the research data reveals the attitude of some members of Indian society who identify language medium with the worth of students and people in general. Such observations next to those on generational gap in Hindi used in textbooks, where the Hindi of more recent textbooks is described as more difficult and unintelligible by teachers, make one wonder at the size of possible language gap between Hindi and English medium students and their communicative proficiency in Hindi. It is easy to imagine that at some point in future in Varanasi, if the trend continues, there will be, on one side, English educated speakers of Hindi with limited knowledge of spoken Hindi and on the other side, Hindi educated speakers of Hindi with a very different version of both spoken and written variety of Hindi. If the language boundary continues to be mark of social and work divisions, the result will be two foreign nations living next to each other and needing translators in everyday life. That is where the questions such as why the language policy in education is not more regulated and who benefits and how from irregularities in implementation of trilingual formula arises. Or should the difference in de facto and de iure politics be just scrapped away as the will of people or the will of market?

Sanskritic civilization: English and Hindi
Reading the book, it becomes clear once more, that the economic changes brought around by multinational companies have thoroughly influenced the employment landscape as well as language landscape. Such change is perceivable in the alternative reception of Indian English as such. Whereas in the 80s it was ridiculed by many as a language Indians ‘believed it was English’. After 2000 it has become a variety which wishes to have a status similar to American or British English. With such course of change one cannot but contemplate the proposal by Zdravka Matišić (Indijski standardni jezici s posebnim obzirom na hindski (Indian standard languages with special focus on Hindi), PhD diss., unpublished, 1982; Sanskrt i indijska civilizacija (Sanskrit and Indian civilization), 1984) and Sheldon Pollock (The language of the gods in the world of men: Sanskrit, culture, and power in premodern India, 2006) of Sanskritic civilization and Sanskrit culture, respectively and its relation with language situation in India today. If Sanskrit and its position in earlier centuries were signs of the dominance ensured by its propagators, a dominance that stretched also to the perception of other languages in the society, then English and its position and perception today are surely a sign of the dominance by a particular class in the contemporary Indian society. If Hindi is indeed the language that doesn’t offer more possibilities than English to India, and LaDousa’s study, seems to say just that, Matišić (1984) is probably right to claim English as the heir of Sanskritic civilization and not Hindi. Studies in other areas, such as Peter Friedlander’s (The Hindi Newspaper Revolution: Teaching Reading of Print and Online News Media, 2009) or Sevanti Ninan’s (Headlines from the Heartland. Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere, 2007) on the language in newspapers, or Rashmi Sadana’s (English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India, 2012) in the literature sphere, complement and confirm the results of LaDousa’s study. One is then not surprised to hear people speak of English as India’s national language although the Indian Constitution refrains from such definition for any language spoken in India. Francesca Orsini (The Hindi public sphere 1920-1940. Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism, 2002) had hinted at Hindi’s lower position in comparison to English in her analysis of language issues in the public sphere in the first half of 20th century, but her idea of Hindi being a path toward higher social position in the blue-collar market for people of lower social status and income, is threatened by the uneducated interviewees in LaDousa’s study who know the importance of English and who are, moreover, interested in procuring English for their children. Now the question is who and where are those who perceive Hindi as an important vehicle for economic and social progress. 

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