Why Aren’t More Malayalis Learning Hindi?

“Where are you from in India?”

“Kerala,” I replied as I stirred the stew.

“Oh,” my roommate reacted, eyes going a little wide. “You speak Hindi really well man!”

That’s what he said. What he meant was, “Oh, I thought you weren’t from Kerala. Because almost all the guys from Kerala I’ve met so far don’t speak Hindi at all!”

At that moment, I thought of Amit Shah’s controversial statements. I wondered….does he have a point?

Now, to be clear, without going into my political beliefs, it’s easy to state that I understand why the current Home Minister’s statements are controversial. India has a long and proud history of multilingualism, one that’s periodically been under threat and therefore required strident protection through regional political parties and societies at large.

But when my roommate expressed his pleasant surprise at my ability to converse with him in decent Hindi, it got me thinking.

Why do Malayalis not know Hindi?

I’m reminded of my Malayalam teacher in high school when I ask myself this question. She used to watch us with disdain as we talked to each other in English at the end of her class. Almost as if she was jealous of all the space the English words had occupied in our brains, leaving next to no room for the paryayams and vipareethams.

That was a theme with her and many other Malayali parents when they got together at oil or gas funded parties in the desert. Some Gulf parents wondered if the barrage of English words at school was affecting their children’s capacity for Malayalam. They took pains to talk to their kids only in Malayalam and nip any English in the bud.

Sure, there was ample reason for such fears. Many kids would turn up in Kerala for the vacations and cry out, to the embarrassment of their fathers and mothers, “Mummy, look a cow! So cool, right? It’s eating grass! Wow!”

Perhaps it was that fear that made my Malayalam teacher conspire with my parents during the end of term “Parent Teacher Meeting”. They talked about my writing and reading skills like I wasn’t sitting three feet away, faces creased with worry like engineers wondering if the multi-year project could be salvaged. My mother put it best when she pinched me as motivation when I struggled to read Vallathol’s poems at home. “How will you read the signs on the buses in Kerala?”

Because KSRTC only uses Vallathol and Kumaranashan’s poems to tell you how to get to Guruvayoor or Kozhikode.

Ultimately all their fears proved unfounded. A generation of my NRI born Comrades returned to Kerala for Entrance Exam or College or Job After Consistent Unemployment Elsewhere….and we could speak, read and write Malayalam pretty well.

And it turns out, the bus boards had not just Malayalam, but Hindi as well.

We could read both. Could others born in Kerala do the same?

Now, before I go any further, I will both admit and acknowledge that I don’t know how many Malayalis born and raised in Kerala know Hindi, and that there must be many who do. But this is about those who don’t.

Why weren’t they taught?

I know why I learnt Hindi. Because it was the only reasonable option I had for CBSE’s Third Language Subject. That’s the only reason I learnt how to read and write Hindi. And with the basic tools I acquired till 8th Grade, I was able to watch movies and polish my language skills until ten years later I’m able to surprise my Mumbai born roommate.

Malayalis in my situation did not learn Hindi in order to better our career prospects or to sharpen our cognitive skills or (and this is important) out of a misguided sense of nationalistic pride, the kind that’s perhaps alluded to in the Home Minister’s comments.

But 14 years after successfully clearing my 8th Grade 3rd-Language exam (It was tough! I had to write six lines about a cow. I’d only learnt five!), I’ve come to realise what a blessing it was to have learnt Hindi.

Which brings me back to the earlier question. Why aren’t more people taught Hindi in Kerala? I genuinely don’t know the reason, and part of the fun of being an opinion writer rather than an accredited investigative journalist is that I don’t really have to research the topic. In all seriousness though, why?

Is it because, like my Malayalam teacher, there’s an opinion amongst the educational institutions of our state that teaching Hindi would diminish the quality and quantity of our youngsters’ Malayalam language education?

But if so, isn’t it time for educators in particular and society at large to realise that language is not a zero-sum game? You don’t lose one language when you learn the other. Millions of people around the world can speak three or four or even five languages without loss of fluency. So that can’t possibly be it, can it?

Then there’s another reason that I think can be simply termed as Defiance. India has a troubled history with languages, be they regional, “official” or “national”. Amit Shah’s comments elicited an outcry from various parts of the country because it was an ugly reminder of what’s happened in the past.

So are we Malayalis collectively preventing our students from learning Hindi so as to thwart it from being an imposition?

Surely there has to be a different strain of thought? One that I and countless other Malayalis have benefited from? Instead of saying all of India should learn to speak Hindi because it’s the only language that can unite the country, and retorting Malayalam/Tamil/Telugu/Kannada is enough for us and we don’t need Hindi, isn’t there a middle ground?

One that’s not driven by appeasing a Central Government directive or currying favour with northern states and business establishments, but rather for purely self-empowering reasons?

Remove the context of Hindi as a language imposed on us Malayalis by a Central Government and consider it as just a language. Why do we learn languages? To communicate. Why wouldn’t we want our sons and daughters to be able to enter a cab in Dubai or a train station in Punjab and ask how long it’ll take to get to a particular destination?

Knowing Hindi allows you to speak not just to Indians from many states in the country, but also countless people of different nationalities. I’ve seen a Malayali friend instruct a group of Nepali labourers regarding what needs to be done at his construction site. He could never get them to understand exactly what he wants as quickly as possible if he’d spoken in English alone. As a result, he ended up more qualified at his job.

You can navigate most countries in the Gulf far quicker if you switch to Hindi with the Bangladeshi/Pakistani/Indian taxi driver who’s taking you around. Why sometimes you end up paying a cheaper fare for it!

Then there’s the whole scientific reason for learning a language. It’s one of the best ways to sharpen your mind. There are emotions and thoughts that can only be properly conveyed if you know a particular language. A lot gets lost in translation. (If you need a reminder, try watching Gangs of Wasseypur with subtitles like I did recently).

And lastly, jobs. This alone is enough of a reason. We’ve all long-established and seemingly come to terms with the fact that most Keralites aim to go outside in order to earn a living and establish financial security. Then why on earth would we deprive ourselves of an edge over other job applicants in 40% of the country? Why are we spending 14 years in school speaking Malayalam and getting by with English, only to then dash off to Mumbai or Bangalore and flounder with Hindi when trying to explain to the auto driver where we need to get to in order to attend the job interview?

Yes, I know. Auto drivers might understand English. Just like Nepali construction workers and Pathan cab drivers and college roommates will understand English. But are we seriously living in a world where we expect others to match our needs without taking efforts to develop an edge ourselves?

Of course, I think the official language of India should be English rather than Hindi. But that doesn’t mean I won’t educate my daughter in Hindi so that, if needed, she can convince the government bureaucrat to sign a particular paper she requires. I’m all for Kerala’s politicians and the public to agitate against Hindi imposition. But once the agitation is over and our children return to school, why can’t they learn Hindi as well?

I hope we as a society are not stopping ourselves from learning Hindi out of spite. Because if that’s the case, the only people losing out are our future breadwinners.

Now, there’s perhaps another issue at play here. I once asked an IELTS student why she hadn’t studied in English Medium school (Despite how it sounds, I assure you I asked it in an appropriate manner at that time). She frankly replied that the English medium school was too far away and too expensive for her parents to afford. Which is why ten years later her career was stalled and dependent on two months of intensive IELTS training.

I’m reminded of that answer right now. Is Hindi not being taught as a priority, not for cultural or political reasons, but simply because of lack of funding? Is it a vicious cycle where parents don’t feel it’s a priority to choose schools that offer Hindi classes, schools don’t make it compulsory to learn Hindi and ultimately teachers aren’t paid enough to teach Hindi?

If I appear woefully uninformed about this, here’s an additional question to ask. Are you? If so, then that’s the whole point of the article. It’s a question that’s been brewing in my mind for several years now.

Why isn’t Hindi taught more widely in schools in Kerala? Why aren’t we Malayalis making it a priority to ensure Malayalam, English, and Hindi are all languages our children master by the time they leave school? Why is this not considered crucial for the improvement of our social, professional and financial lives?

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