Multilingualism and Cultural Diversity: Exemplified by Europe and India

    Sanskrit script, India 1849 At first glance Europe and India would appear to be strikingly different, but the process of European unification is making it increasingly apparent just how much they have in common. This is particularly true with regard to languages.

    Multilingualism has always been a feature of life in India – a situation that renders the term ‘mother tongue’ problematic. Yet the idea that monolingualism is normal and natural still prevails in Europe.

    Europe’s current evolution can be seen as a process whereby nation states with a relatively high level of cultural coherence are developing into a more complex multicultural and multilingual organisational structure. This process of evolution is accompanied by intellectual reflections about the European ‘idea’, reflections that are part of a long tradition of contemplation on this subject that can be traced to the ongoing discourse about Europe that began during the Age of Romanticism. For their part, the developments in Europe are part of a worldwide process of transformation that is characterised by problems of migration, religious and ethnic positioning, strategies of inclusion and exclusion, and the handling of diversity. In the international context, the diversification process being gone through by Europe’s relatively monolingual, monocultural states is being accompanied by tensions that are characteristic of already existing multilingual, multireligious, multicultural states like India. In India, these tensions are leading to a pressure to homogenise in the religious/cultural sector and to the shrinkage of the secular sphere. In both cases, it is a matter of the dialectic relationship between the dismantling of borders and the promotion of diversity.

    Multicultural states have always been endangered states. In Europe, historical entities that could have been compared with India, namely the Hapsburg Empire or Yugoslavia, lost out to the ‘Romantic’ vision of the most congruent possible relationship between language, people, and state – an idea that was influenced by the works of Herder. The basic problem here is the way democracy deals with diversity and its durability. As illustrated by the history of language conflicts, the same can be said for language problems (King 1998; Rahman 2003; Shukla 1993). The ideology of homogeneity also led to the devaluation of Europe’s past traditions of diversity and multilingualism, such as those that existed during the Renaissance and Baroque eras; traditions that are only now being reappraised.

    What form will a multilingual Europe take? Will the Europe of the future be no more than an extended version of Switzerland, a union where true multilingualism does not exist? Will the Europe of the future be a collection of linguistic monads, each of which will be in direct competition with the rest of the world and will enter into bilateral negotiations with it? Or is it conceivable that the Europe of the future will be truly multilingual, characterised by a pervading multilingualism that is really practised in each individual’s life-world and is comparable with the multilingualism in India’s life-world?

    From the perspective of people who have themselves been brought up as monolinguals, the multilingualism that is so firmly anchored in the Indian life-world can sometimes be difficult to comprehend. When India became an independent nation in 1947, sixteen Indian languages were officially recognised by the constitution. This number has since risen to twenty-two. Hindi is considered the country’s official national language and English the auxiliary official language. There are also numerous scripts. What exactly constitutes a language or a dialect is a hotly debated issue in the academic world. How a language gets to be recognised by the constitution, on the other hand, is a political matter, and the listing of languages in the Indian constitution is still rather conservative. The Anthropological Survey of India lists twenty-five scripts and 325 languages in India. To a certain extent, all of them could be officially recognised by the state. For our purposes, the most important result yielded by the survey is the fact that over 65% of India’s communities are bilingual and many even trilingual. Multilingualism in India is not an isolated phenomenon, but must be understood to be nothing out of the ordinary. It is the norm.

    In monolingual traditions, monolingualism is frequently postulated as a fundamental anthropological constant, as it were. Everything else is considered an isolated case or a deviation from the monolingual norm. Naturally, the ability to declare something the norm depends on the prevailing power structure. I recall that in days gone by, multilingualism was viewed with a certain degree of scepticism by academics in the field of German Studies in Germany. Until the 1960s, multilingualism was considered an indication of a lack of depth. Multilingual people were considered clever and versatile, but not ‘deep’. Their skills were sometimes even considered suspicious. Gregor von Rezzori, who was sent to school in eastern Styria in Austria from his native home in the Bukovina region on the border between Romania and Ukraine, once wrote about his classmates’ attitude towards him: ‘For them I was a foreign immigrant, a “Tschusche” from the Balkans. They were suspicious of my language skills; I could speak not only Romanian and Ukrainian, but also English and French, which they were trying hard to learn’ (Rezzori 1999).

    Attitudes such as these are a reflection of influential schools of thought. The linguist Leo Weisgerber held that ‘people are basically monolingual by nature (…), that just as one would not expect someone to live according to two religions, the unity of one mother tongue is necessary in order to become one with the world, and that the co-existence of the conditions required for fulfilled bilingualism should never be expected to occur with any high frequency’. Bilingualism and multilingualism were, he felt, exceptions to the rule. He considered them from a purist perspective that is opposed to cultural syncretism. Weisgerber emphasises the dangers of bilingualism and, by way of a warning, cites a Swiss study dominated by the fear that ‘the co-existence of several languages will lead to confusion’. This study notes in a mixture of French and German that ‘corruption du langage und corruption des moeurs Hand in Hand gehen’, i.e. that a corruption of language and corruption of morals go hand in hand.

    Positions that contradict the monolingual ideology (many of which originate in Switzerland and Austria, where multilingualism has always been an issue) are now appearing more frequently in the public consciousness. As Mario Wandruszka reminds us: ‘The languages we speak today are the result of many centuries of ever new multilingualisms and linguistic blends. One only needs to consider English, this Anglo-Saxon-Scandinavian-Norman-Greek-Latin conglomerate.’ The Swiss author Hugo Loetscher reminds us that the experience of switching languages helps ‘one renounce the blood-and-earth aspect of what is real and true. What is real and true is not the language that one uses, but what one makes of this language and achieves with it’. In this case, the playful and ironic element is welcome. Heimito von Doderer described the flexible linguistic disposition of the people in Vienna at the turn of the century with more than a touch of irony and perhaps even ambiguously as the ‘polyglottal willingness of the city’. That said, it is an accurate description of linguistic behaviour in the multicultural situation found in major urban centres in the post-colonial world. An amusing example of this can be found in the satirical story Das ewige Österreich [The Eternal Austria] by the Tyrolean Carl Techet (1877–1920). In this story, Schneider, a civil servant in the employ of the Hapsburg Empire, is required to indicate his ‘colloquial language’ on a census form. ‘Aghast’ at the prospect, Schneider writes: ‘Neutral! Never the same, changes’ (Stachel 2001).

    In Loetscher’s work, the act of addressing the issue of multilingualism is associated with a democratic gesture because multilingualism helps dispel the myths associated with the term ‘mother tongue’. Maybe the replacement of the ‘metaphorically and ideologically loaded “mother tongue” by the more matter-of-fact “main language” is too sober for some’ (Loetscher 1999). Nevertheless, it reminds us that the primacy of the mother tongue is a power-related ‘displacement process’.

    Mrinal Pande, an Indian author and journalist, sees things from a similar perspective: ‘Actually, the conversational Hindi that millions use has never been a monoglot’s country with sealed borders. It has always been a delightful melting pot. A vast number of languages and dialects have flown into it and have fermented and released their aromas in Hindi for centuries. In fact, ceaseless language acquisition has been one of the greatest adventures of the last century of Hindi (…). Speaking more than two languages not only constantly extends the boundaries of one’s vocabulary, but it also sharpens the mind and unlocks children’s latent creativity in no small measure.’

    Mrinal Pande’s experience also has implications for a person’s relationship with his/her mother tongue: ‘(…) just as children don’t see the lines between themselves and the world, Hindi speakers (and writers) do not distinguish between different languages or harbour hostility towards other vernaculars. They are all mother tongues and worthy of our utmost love and respect.’

    The writer U. R. Ananthamurthy, who hails from the Kannada-speaking region of Karnataka in India, goes one step further, stating unambiguously: ‘I do not use the term “mother tongue” as it is understood by Europeans. For instance, some of the best Kannada writers speak Tamil or Marathi at home (…). In India, however, many writers do not speak the same language in which they may be writing.’

    Ilija Trojanow, a writer who knows India well, once said in an interview that ‘everyone must be bilingual. Bilingualism is a gift. Children don’t have a problem with it. Even four-year-olds have a perfect command of both languages. This must be our goal. In African countries or in parts of India, it is quite normal for people to speak five or six languages.’

    His decision to write in German was, as he puts it himself, ‘a conscious decision. For me, German is more flexible than English. It is rich, sensual, mystical, and at the same time it is dry and accurate.’ (Tagesspiegel Online, 18th January 2007)

    Purists always have difficulties with the creative potential of multicultural situations, and this is why linguistic and cultural boundaries are drawn. The Swiss writer Iso Camartin uses an apt image to distance himself from the fixing of boundaries in this field: ‘One can even say of a language that it knows no boundaries. This is true not only of English, but also of a minor language like Rhaeto-Romanic, which completely ignores borders. Territories have borders; languages have horizons. Borders are fixed and given; horizons move. Languages that are alive are in motion. They expand and decrease; win and lose; make references to past languages, form alliances with new neighbours, and swap, steal, and invent as required and in accordance with the imagination and desires of those that use the language.’

    The point being made here is that many writers of both genders in India, and now increasingly in Europe too, see multilingualism as an enrichment and not as a threat to identity. However, Europe’s dominant ideology of monolingualism has always tried to suggest that the active, creative use of urban multilingualism constitutes a loss of substance.

    In this regard, Goethe’s view of this situation remains strangely topical to this day. In Epochen geselliger Bildung [Periods of Social Formation], he writes of four stages of educational development. It is only in the first that one gives ‘preference to the mother tongue’. Afterwards one no longer ‘rejects the influence’ of ‘foreign languages’ and arrives at the ‘conviction of the necessity of acquainting oneself with the current actual and theoretical ways of the world. All foreign literatures align themselves with the native literature, and we do not fall behind in the ways of the world.’

    It will come as a surprise to no one that it is difficult to define India’s functioning multilingualism. European observers are sometimes confused by the simultaneous presence of several languages in a single discourse. They do not immediately comprehend the structure of this flexibility (and the role played by the English language in it).

    India’s functioning multilingualism must be considered a creative phenomenon. It is as if an ability to speak multiple languages creates a reference level that allows for adequate communication. I stress the word ‘adequate’ here because successful multilingual constellations do not aim for linguistic perfection. Behavioural ‘code-switching’ models that simplify things are not enough to explain multilingual dispositions. Perhaps multilingualism is better defined using performative terms such as ‘linguistic habitus’ and ‘linguistic repertoire’. Multilingual people grow up in a multilingual world with the sound of numerous languages in their ears. The differences between the languages are not foreign to them. They learn to play with languages at an early age. Multilingualism can be described using a musical metaphor: the ability to deal with musical material (musical skill) allows the musician to play freely, so to speak. The musician can vary, change styles, and express him- or herself in a variety of keys. This is comparable to multilingualism. One uses a linguistic repertoire like one uses a musical repertoire, in a social environment where it is considered acceptable and not an offence against purity requirements (the pure mother tongue). The relationship between the languages in a multilingual repertoire is not the same as the relationship between the mother tongue and a foreign language. Any attempts to sabotage natural multilingual situations (e.g. purism, language purification programmes) seek to use homogenisation processes to create a state of affairs that centres on bilateral negotiations between one’s ‘own’ life-world and a ‘foreign’ life-world. However, the relationship between Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Punjabi etc. in a polyglot city such as New Delhi cannot be characterised in the same way as a relationship between a mother tongue and a foreign language. They are only other languages, and the relationship between them can at best be described as that of the relationship between the colours of a rainbow. For many, German is likely to be their fourth, if not even their fifth language.

    Multilingual, culturally diverse societies cannot be explained using cultural theories, which prefer the most compact linguistic, ethnic, and religious communities of people possible. An antithesis to such ideas is the loose, informal, multilingual, multicultural society whose idea of culture can be aptly described using the image of the palimpsest. When viewed in this light, cultures resemble palimpsests – which are repeatedly scraped clean so that they can be written or painted on again and again – insofar as they are the result of a succession of new layers. These layers are themselves the products of historical change. The image of the palimpsest negates both the authenticity discourse and the homogenisation theory. Interestingly, both Victor Hugo and Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) used this image to describe Europe and India respectively. Hugo understood the great European civilisation, the Greco-Roman civilisation, as a context in which Etruscans, Iberians, Slavs, and Celts were all to be found. For Nehru, India is the result of contributions from the Aryan, Dravidian, Mongolian, Turkish, and Arab civilisations. However, the cultural significance of the palimpsest lies in the fact that only the entire layering process is valid. No single layer, which may be revealed by an act of cleansing or erasure, can usurp the claim to authenticity. The significant aspect of the layering processes is its plurality. It signifies wealth and abundance in the historical process. The exact opposite is the case when this progressive layering is perceived as an increasing loss of authenticity. On the contrary, the so-called ‘real India’, if you like, is not to be found in a primordial layer or in any kind of root, but in the whole and simultaneity of the multi-layer process; and this is a thought that is certainly comparable with Ernst Bloch’s philosophical theory of the ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’ in Europe. Attempts at homogenisation seek to negate such entireties in order to accept only one particular layer as authentic. However, strictly speaking, the primordial layer of such a palimpsest would be an empty page. Metaphorically speaking, the journey back to the roots and authenticity of a multicultural society is a journey into oblivion.

    The problem of purism was discussed in detail at an early stage of the Indian independence movement (Nehru 1989). In the context of the problem of selection and the consciously planned development of a language of communication in a multilingual subcontinent like India, Rabindranath Tagore, whose poetic medium was Bengali, wrote the following lines to Mahatma Gandhi in 1918: ‘Of course Hindi is the only possible national language for inter-provincial intercourse in India.’ However, he knew that this could lead to tension in other parts of the country and he placed his trust in a new generation that would be willing to accept Hindi voluntarily across India. He described this as ‘a voluntary acceptance of a national obligation’.

    Like Nehru at a later date, Tagore felt that once India had been freed from colonialism, Hindi should be established as the widespread language of communication. He felt it would be a continuation of India’s multicultural tradition. Tagore also hoped that the development of language would progress without any religious narrow-mindedness. To ensure that this would be the case, Tagore felt that Hindi would have to preserve the twin currents of Sanskrit and Persian in India and ‘boldly enfranchise all the words that have been naturalised by long use’. Tagore’s call for a fundamental ‘naturalisation’ of such foreign words must seem logical to all those who consider multilingualism to be an enrichment. In India, Sanskrit is a symbol of Hindu tradition while Persian is associated with the Islamic tradition. The secular heritage of a free, utopian India would have had to consider both its Hindu and Islamic traditions as a creatively formed ‘unity in the diversity’. It is a well-known fact that the political history of India went down a different route. The division of the subcontinent also had an influence on the development of language. The broad linguistic, multicultural sphere of communication that is northern India was divided up along political/religious lines. Long before today’s fundamentalism reared its head, Indian and Pakistani language planners gave their respective official written languages (Hindi and Urdu) a Sanskrit or Persian orientation.

    It is important to emphasise that such multilingual and multicultural areas were not necessarily pacified utopias. However, they were alternatives to our contemporary models of parallel societies or melting pots. Hugo von Hofmannsthal came up with a lovely expression for the Austrian vernacular in Vienna: ‘Of all German languages, it was undoubtedly the most blended, because it was the language of the most culturally rich and intermingled of all worlds.’ Such worlds existed in other parts of the world and are now emerging once again in Europe.

    The uncontrolled, self-organising objective of a multicultural society would be a process of continuous interaction that leads to ever-new varieties of mixed cultures, in which we would become multilingual inhabitants of polyglot metropolises in multicultural states.

    In discussions about the development of a multilingual Europe, one is frequently distracted by debates about the role of English. The problem is not the presence of English, but the contraction of the broad diversity that exists in Europe to a reductive bilingualism. However, English is inadequate if we wish fully to comprehend large parts of the world in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is also inadequate if one wishes to make Europe’s diversity one’s own. As an Anglophone, I am very much aware of this fact.

    A creative education policy would have to give way to the active, reciprocal promotion of Europe’s linguistic diversity and support for multilingual constellations. For Germany, it would be important to promote neighbouring languages and to make efforts to promote the learning of the German language in its neighbouring countries. At the same time, the incentives for migrants to speak German should be increased. In this regard, it would be important to invest in German language policy and German as a foreign language. Learning foreign languages should be considered a way of broadening one’s personal horizons. Gradually, multilingual life-worlds that are comparable to the situation in India’s megacities are emerging in the major cities of Europe. All we have to do is liberate the teaching of languages from the ideology of the necessity of having a perfect command of a language. As already mentioned above, what is needed in multilingual situations are adequate language skills. Everything that goes beyond this is at the discretion of the individual.

    Globalisation and waves of migration mean that Germany, like all other states in Europe, has to deal with multiculturalism; Europe is tending towards becoming a multilingual and multicultural entity. Because of the predominance of the substantial privilege afforded to monolingualism, as is the case in Germany, some very special public relations efforts are required in order to ensure that the historic privilege of monolingual and monocultural nationality and the fact of belonging to a state are not increasingly confronted at international level with competing alternative models of plurality and diversity. This is a process of normalisation. If Europe were to make a conscious decision to make the most of the potential inherent in multilingualism, every linguistic tradition in the European community would benefit, including the German tradition. As a European language in the repertoire of languages that are available abroad, this would give German a distinctive role, not least because of the ‘symbolic capital’ of its humanities tradition. I intentionally say this in the sense meant by Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose words remain relevant to this day: ‘The more widespread the simultaneous use of a variety of languages becomes, the more lively the community among many, the greater the profit for the languages themselves, and the more fruitful their influence on thought and language skills.’
    Anil Bhatti
    is a professor of German Studies at the Nehru University of New Delhi and president of the Indian Goethe Society. This paper was written as part of the Goethe Institute project ‘The Power of Language’ and was published in German by Jutta Limbach and Katharina von Ruck-teschell in the eponymous book The Power of Language (Die Macht der Sprache, Ber-lin, Langenscheidt 2008). © Goethe-Institut 2008.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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