The Decline of Gujarati? (Part II)

English is everywhere in Gujarat. English-medium education, English-language movies, English loanwords peppering newspaper articles and everyday speech. The penetration of the language into everyday life in Gujarat is nothing new. What might be new is the magnitude of that penetration, and the implications for Gujarati as a language.

In my last post, I talked about the rise of Hindi as the default initial language for public interactions. Here, I wish to expand upon something that I briefly alluded to there—namely my feelings as a speaker of “time capsule Gujarati”.

My parents taught me the Gujarati that they had grown up speaking. As a so-called heritage speaker, I gained fluency in the language from my parents but lacked any exposure to other socializing influences—school, mass media, non-domestic everyday life. I acquired a fossilized version of Gujarati, one that preserved all of the peculiarities of the language’s development up to the 1970s. As a consequence, having missed out on what some consider the “corrupting” influences of the past three decades, I speak a Gujarati that strikes most of my acquaintances in India as slightly quaint and wonderfully “pure”.

The world has been globalized for centuries now, as evidenced by India’s colonial legacy, but growing up in a time capsule in the U.S. shielded my speech from the most intensive period of globalization the world has ever seen. By virtue of having been born in U.S. and acquiring English as a second native language, I have also escaped the related trend that many of my parents’ friends now lament: the explicit reorientation of children away from Gujarati with the hope of better preparing them to compete in a global marketplace.

When I visited one of my father’s old friends a few weeks ago, his wife expressed surprise that I was scanning the headlines of a Gujarati newspaper. She said, “Our son, at the age of twenty-five, can barely read Gujarati. He reads like a first grader would.” She sighed and went on, “It’s our fault. We did this, but we recognized our mistake too late. We put him in English-medium schooling and then didn’t take the trouble to teach him at home. So what’s the kid going to be left with?”

It was a trend that I have now seen repeated over and over again: parents expressing remorse at having failed to teach their children Gujarati in a perceived overzealousness to solidify the command of English. Numerous parents lamented that their children could speak both Hindi and English better than they could speak Gujarati, their presumed “mother-tongue”.

Moreover, the Gujarati language itself is shifting very rapidly toward a more Hindicized, Anglicized vocabulary. With a greater influence from the mass media and English-medium education, more Hindi and English words have become synonyms or even replacements for Gujarati terms. “Judu” has become “alag”. “Books” has nearly displaced the three or four equivalent words in Gujarati. People often begin conditional sentences with “agar” and use hybrid verbs such as “choose karvu” and “prefer karvu”.

The importation of words into Gujarati is, of course, nothing new. Over the centuries, the language has incorporated a tremendous number of loanwords from English, Portuguese, Arabic, and Persian. I have even heard it said that a full thirty percent of the “proper” Gujarati vocabulary as Gandhi codified it derives from Persian alone. Gujarati has survived and thrived through periods of influence from many other languages.

Nonetheless, what seems different now, with Hindi and English, is the rate of change. In the most extreme examples from this summer, I read articles (from some of Gujarat’s most highly respected newspapers) in which thirty to forty percent of the words were Hindi or English replacements for words that had nearly complete currency thirty years ago. To put it another way, a third of the article would have been completely different—one might even say largely unintelligible to a monolingual Gujarati speaker—if someone had written it thirty years ago.

Now, a high rate of change is to be expected in light of the high rate of global technological change. Words like “computer”, “pendrive”, and “internet” are probably best imported wholesale. Gujarati novelist Jivram Joshi once wrote a brilliant book, Bhadram Bhadra, in which he poked fun at the obsession for creating Sanskrit-derived neologisms for new innovations: “necktie” became “neck-loincloth”, and “train station” became “fire-chariot coming-going rest-place”. We could safely label the Gujarati language as having jumped the shark if its speakers persisted in coining such awkward terms in the computer age.

My concern does not lie in obvious loanwords for innovations, but in loanwords that are rapidly crowding out previous vocabulary. English words are becoming commonplace for describing not only digital information, but also age-old things such as friendship, kinship, preference, love, and hatred.

If many of my friends in Gujarat are to be believed, English-medium education lies at the core of the problem. As they describe it, children educated in English do not learn to express themselves properly in Gujarati, such that they must lean on their school-acquired vocabulary to express their thoughts. I suspect that there’s more to it, in that at a certain point, certain linguistic turns become habits; even if a child knows the words “pustak” and “chopadi”, he’s likely to say “books” if that is what he hears all day. But it is a troubling idea.

And even more troubling is a trend, described to me by several schoolteachers, of children failing to possess even a single solid native language to think in. According to most, this is intimately intertwined with the mushroom-like proliferation of English-language schools in the past few years. One teacher explained, “At the time a child goes to school, he has a vocabulary of a few thousand words in Gujarati. Now if that child studies in Gujarati through sixth grade or so, he develops an adequate vocabulary to at least think as an adult in the language, and then he can switch over to English-medium. But what happens now is that the craze is to send your kids to English-medium from KG. So you do. And the number of English-medium schools has grown so rapidly that there can’t possibly be enough qualified teachers. So the children learn a second-rate version of something that might be called broken English.”

Listening to this teacher, I kept thinking of a friend who worked as a schoolteacher among the Navajo for two years. She often brought up how her students’ lack of full fluency in any one language—their English more broken than a native speaker’s, their Navajo more broken than their parents’—profoundly affected their ability to formulate and express certain sorts of thoughts. While the trend in the American Southwest is almost certainly more profound than that in Gujarat (due to class and a host of other factors), the comparison may be worth considering.

I do not claim to know where the Gujarati language will end up twenty years from now. Perhaps it will gamely absorb a host of new words and continue forward unfazed. Perhaps it will exhibit a certain amount of convergence with Anglicized Hindi. Or perhaps it will cease to seem important at all, at least to a class of people. I am curious to see. Thoughts?

– Utpal Sandesara

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