Saturday, March 31, 2007

Are native languages "unprofessional"?

Early on in Photon, we went to a party and the discussion came around to talking in Tamil at work.
One of the drunk developers felt passionately about this - he said in a meeting we should NEVER talk in Tamil. He said it was unprofessional.
I was surprised by the vehemence of this comment - I said if even one person who spoke in another language is present, this is true. But if a meeting consisted ONLY Tamil speakers, I do not see why it should be unprofessional to speak to each other in that language.
I also argued that if this was true, how far do you take this? Is it okay to speak Tamil in casual corridor meetings or is English mandatory for this? What if two people are talking business by the water cooler - can they talk in Tamil? Or does the English rule apply only when you walk into a conference room?
My point was that this rule was unnatural - and I was not objecting to it because I am a "fanatic" - but because it is contrary to natural behavior.
But, of course, the drunk guy veered completely away into how "even China" was switching to English. And how the whole reason India had succeeded in the IT industry was because of English.
This is a digression here -
China is not "switching" to English - Chinese are learning the English language as a language. They are not learning every subject out there in English - that is, there is no English medium in China; they are learning English as a second language.
This is vastly different from India where the middle and rich classes have lobbied for learning everything in English, taking things to such an extent that kids are actually being punished for talking to each other in their native language during recess. Some schools fine you for talking in the native language.
Whenever somebody raises this, he is branded a cheap fanatic or someone brainwashed by the politicians. I respect Tamil politicians for making this an issue.
Secondly, Indian success in the IT industry also happened because of many, many thousands of studnets who learnt in the native medium but learnt English as an additional language. By claiming English medium as a reason for Indian succcess in IT, I only see the usual attempts of Indian urbanized upper middle classes to corner credit for the IT boom.
Digression ends here
Anyway, that argument was fruitless because the guy ended up blaming Tamils for this "unique" behavior - and I had seen most Indian linguistic communities talk to each other in their language at work. By bringing race into the argument, he lost the argument.
This was an year back - I was thinking about this last week and asked another friend of mine this question - say you went to an interview in a company; the interviewer ascertains your native language; say you are Telugu. The interviewer is also Telugu and proceeds to interview in Telugu.
Would you join that company? Would you consider that unprofessional?
His answer was yes - he would consider it unprofessional and he would reconsider joining that company.
This friend of mine is far more reasonable so I could argue with him. My points were:
1. We use English as a common communication medium. That is the sole purpose. If there exists another common communication medium and if it is your native language, then doesn't it make sense to use that? It will probably relax both of you.
2. What makes English professional and Telugu unprofessional? What causes that judgement? Mind you, I am not talking about an artificiallly constructed "pure" Telugu conversation. If a normal conversation you have with a friend at work can be in Telugu, why can't it happen with a candidate?
I believe the one good reason to not ask the native language of a candidate is because it could result in discrimination. But then HR should not ask for age either (you should not discriminate based on age either). Most candidates will gladly mention even passport numbers in their resumes in India - so why is asking for and conversing in a native language such a bad idea?
I do think my friend is accurate about this - I think most people would react the same way. But I am not able to understand why such an opinion about our native languages exists. I would appreciate if readers can share their views.


subbu said...

Let me put it from the historical perspective.When Britishers left India,India as a nation with multitudes of languages needed a common lingua.Hindi was denied by the politicians of the southern states as a common lingua("ref:the anti-Hindi riots ") which left English as the only language to be a bridge.(The politicians had no riots for English though).The so called "learned men" of that time communicated between themselves in English.And ever since the perception of people is that "learned men" speak in English.

Remember China doesn't have this problem because Most of the china speaks the Mandarin version of the language.SO we shouldn't bring China part of this debate.

anand iyer said...

Hi Ram

The problem is that India is a multi lingual country. Thus people coming from different parts of our country speak different languages which gave arise to english being the official language.

And as subbu said the hard work by the politicians of the south in fighting against hindi(why cant they fight against poverty or unemployment?), they made the only possible language to be learned was english. And parents now a days force their children to call them mummy/daddy instead of amma/appa. They think its not cultural.

People are now a days forced to think in english only compared to their native language.

And schools are also to be blamed for they make the impression like if people speak in their native language are considered to be of lower cadre.

The whole educational system must be changed. But then with our politicians that seems to be a distant dream.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Subbu, Anand,
Appreciate your comments.
I completely accept the need to speak in English if someone speaking another language is present. What I don't buy is a RULE that says it is professional to talk in English than your native language.
Subbu, it is not right to blame the politicians for this - Hindi was sought to be made the SOLE official language of India - AGAINST the Constitution makers' directions. This would have meant that Tamils or Telugu speaking people would have to learn 3 languages - English, Hindi and Tamil(Telugu). None of the politicians have protested Dakshin Hindi Prachar Sabha. That is, it is ok if you study Hindi in private. What politicians (and people) objected to was forcing South Indians to study additional languages.
Again, China (or Japan) is part of the debate only because it is an example of a nation that did fine without English. So, the whole "global English" argument is untrue.

Ramiah Ariya said...

We cannot blame politicians for this - they fought for our state's rights in a federal setup. Politicians fought against Hindi because it violated our federal setup as guaranteed by our constitution.

subbu said...

This is a digression.I am not able to buy the argument that the politicians fought for upholding the constitutional rights of South Indians.The following two things are common in your argument and mine:

1.India needed a common language since it had aplenty of languages.

2.English doesn't necessarily need to be the common language(as you pointed out in the case of China and Japan)

Now one more argument in my part is when we are OK with having to learn English as the common Language(I am using this term more often :) )Why weren't we(the southern politicians or the people ) not OK with having to learn Hindi instead of English?

And concerning the main topic i share the same sentiments as yours.Language is a mere tool to communicate.And that can happen in which ever language one is comfortable with.

Ramiah Ariya said...

You say "Why weren't we not OK with learning Hindi instead of English?"
It is not as simple as "learning". In the case of Hindi, there was a concerted effort from a group of Congress politicians from the North (including Rajendra Prasad)to push through Hindi as a mandatory language in schools. This group was not motivated by the advantages of Hindi, but by ultra-nationalism - mainly an effort to homogenise India. This attempt was resisted by southern politicians, because they considered India heterogenous (pluralistic). The Hindi agitation resulted because the Center tried to violate ITS OWN commitments to preserve that heterogeneity.
Secondly, Hindi schools ARE available in Tamil Nadu - the state government merely stepped away from making it mandatory in its (government run) schools.
It is not as if we adopted French as the medium - we did choose a language that was commonly seen as more of a link language and a window to the world than Hindi.

Shek said...

I guess we should be looking at the problem of a common language at a more global scale which demands English be used as a common language. Germany speaks very little english...and so do many smaller eastern european countries. I guess at some point of time in history, english got popular and the clever people realised that the important thing is to be able to convey your ideas to a multitude of people than to fight over what language should be made common. The key word is to be able to communicate than to fight over superiority of Hindi over English or other languages over Hindi etc.

Therefore, it is silly to let politicians to decide what language we should be studying or to let schools decide which language holds a higher esteem. We(as people) should rather concentrate on learning that language that helps us communicate with the "world" better. The world is only getting smaller with the internet and such and it is time we all grew up to it.

bachcha said...

"I completely accept the need to speak in English if someone speaking another language is present. What I don't buy is a RULE that says it is professional to talk in English than your native language."

you mention this RULE of speaking only in english i believe this is more of a guideline than a rule as no one is monitoring two people speaking in their native language at office. the only problem is by not following this rule people generally get into habbit of speaking in native language even when someone who doesnt understand that is present. i know for sure that this gets into their habbit as i have suffered long because of this, it irritates me to no end when two people while not directly talking to me (still talking something related to the work i am involved in) use thier native language while i am at their hearing distance!

anonymous coward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anonymous coward said...

i feel that our love for english is reaching unhealthy levels.

my take :

sherene said...

Hi, I'm here via Desipundit. This is an interesting topic you've broached. My personal experiences with native languages and associated angsts are aplenty. I went to junior college in Singapore in an extremely Chinese-cultured school. Students there found it natural to converse in Mandarin with each and this irked me even if I was not part of the conversation, neither as a participant nor a topic.

The point to note is that English might not be the best binding language, but it is the common language among large, diverse groups. Switching to native languages in professional environments could create unnecessary feelings of being within or outside a group (in this case, a group based on language), creating identities based on language and place of origin)

It is also a matter of habit; those used to switching back and forth between languages in professional environments would defly, at some point or the other, exclude non-speakers of the language, even if inadvertently.

There's a lot I want to write about this but I better be back to work on my report :)


Ashish Gupta said...

Well put. I have experienced same here in US firm where one of my Brazilian colleague objects, to my dismay, two Chinese carrying on personal conversation in Chinese. I find such behaviour intolerant of diversity and attempt at eavesdropping.

Anonymous said...

This is slightly off the mark, more of a response to what people have said in comments.

Me a full bred northie. I don't blame you guys for not wanting to learn Hindi. My maternal grandfather was brought up in pre independence Allahabad, and he grew up learning Urdu. My paternal grandfather on the other hand, learnt everything in Urdu. Both had excellent command over English. Before independence, Urdu was very popular in some of the northern states and in UP in particular. But look at where it is now ? UP is now a "hindi speaking" state. So yeah, to some extent I do believe people had a political agenda when pushing for Hindi.

Then again if you look, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Konkani, BHojpuri are pretty close to Hindi.

There is more to learning in English I feel. I wonder if the academics of the previous decades presented papers in any language other than English. I am obviously referring to scientific/economic/engineering papers. And of course courts have used english extensively, as have most government offices. And from the beginning there have been English newspaper. I think the largest circulated regional daily is nowhere near the top english dailies. English has become a part of our culture methinks, nor unning away from it.


dazedandconfused said...

I agree with you Ram. There is nothing 'unprofessional' about using our native languages in office as long as its understood and is a preferred language of use by everybody involved in that particular interaction.

Jaya said...

The reason you don't want to be speaking in a native language in a common place though there may be just the 2 native speakers is because there is a huge possibility that somebody who does not know the language might walk in. It always puts them in an uncomfortable situation.

Also, we encourage people to talk in English (in the USA) while talking about work, because people overhearing them might learn from it or may have a solution for a problem they are discussing.

If you love your language (like I do), talk ABOUT IT to people - they are always interested, when you go to India - buy books in your language,write your grocery list in your language, teach your children the language, talk to friends and children in your language. There are several ways to do it, but, sorry, not in a work place.

If you go to Europe, people communicate in their native language at work. If that is what is used in their country, then try to learn that language. So, what?? When in Rome, be a Roman. But, as the economy goes global, everybody has to find a common language to communicate. Right now, looks like English is the only one that is being used in several countries. If we do not agree to it, then we will have to use sign language.

Ramiah Ariya said...

That is a weird reason - the workplace does not own us. I have been in the USA for a long time and I have always seen Russians and Chinese talking to each other in their language at work - whenever I am not obviously a part of their conversation. To claim that someone can overhear a "solution" is to take a workplace too seriously.
Also I do not understand what "talk about it to people" means - you are obviously assuming that I live in the USA; I do not. I do not see any reason why I need to talk ABOUT my language in India?
It is significant that you understand that in Europe they do communicate in their native language. In Rome, be a Roman - sure; why does that not apply when you are in Tamil Nadu? Your argument for globalisation seems to apply for every language other than Indian languages. Apparently, globalisation means forgetting your language for ANY european language.