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On Learning “Minor” Languages






Closed in during the pandemic, my partner and I play those trivial games that couples planning a family sometimes indulge in. Debating hypothetical scenarios about bringing up our (as yet) imaginary children. Today’s debate is about which languages we would bring them up speaking. 

Between us, we share five and a half languages: English, French, Kreol Morisien (Mauritian Creole), Hindi, Bhojpuri, and half of Urdu. I count Urdu as half because, while I am fairly conversant with the more Persianized and Arabicized vocabulary of Urdu—and recognize the syncretic association of Hindi and Urdu in nineteenth and twentieth-century Indian literary and cultural traditions, before the constructions of the Hindu-Hindi and Muslim-Urdu divides—I am also more than conscious of the barrier represented by my lack of ability to read and write Urdu in its current standardized Nastaliq script.   

But our debate right now was just about two of these: French or Hindi. We both know that we want to bring up any children that we have bilingually (at least!)—emboldened by the successful experiences of several of our friends in the Bay Area, and all the reading we had been doing about the benefits of raising bilingual children. On English, we both agreed. Living, as we were, in the USA, we would find it hard to avoid English anyway. It was the second language that was proving to be more contentious. Vik suggested French, I wanted Hindi. And yet, the more we argued, the more I realized that we were both picking languages based on their strategic “usefulness” and practicality: languages that, we felt, would open doors for our children due to their popularity as common and rising international languages, with an assured audience and a given level of prestige. (French has consistently been the second most commonly-studied foreign language in the USA—after Spanish—while Hindi flagship programs are catching up not just in primary and secondary schools, but also at tertiary level, with an increasing push from the substantial American Indian diaspora to increase its public visibility). 

Why were we neglecting Kreol and Bhojpuri?  We both grew up speaking these two locally-created languages with colonial genealogies—languages that were introduced in the Mauritian linguistic ecosystem through the interaction of the indigenous languages of slaves and indentured laborers with the languages of their colonial masters (in this case, mostly French, and to a smaller extent, English).  But both these languages have also gradually lost their popularity, following middle-class aspirations of the post-independence local population who have gravitated towards world languages such as English and French, while attempting to steer clear of languages that bear the stigma of class and history attached to it. 

In this, the history of Kreol and Bhojpuri have followed the trajectory of other “minor” languages, which Mina Shah describes as languages which are “those of different historic and cultural traditions or structures, such as those from Africa or South Asia.” The “difference” has put these languages at a distinct disadvantage, as they do not follow into the steps of languages with powerful—often imperial and violent—histories. But if, as suggested by Frantz Fanon, “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture,” there is real value in making sure that languages—however minor—do not follow into the path of oblivion. The loss of a language would also connote the loss of those struggles, those stories and wisdoms associated with the nation and its people. And in an age where single, dominant narratives threaten to overshadow and overpower less visible ones, ensuring the survival of linguistic diversities would be one step towards promoting awareness and acceptance of difference, regardless of a community’s hegemonic or non-hegemonic status. 

After debating this for hours, Vik and I both agree that a third language will need to be retained. But which one will it be? Bhojpuri? Kreol? Will we ever find a way of making our children—who will be growing up in a world where an additional language is more likely to connote a programming language, than a language with a non-standardized register from a tiny country—interested and enthusiastic about a language that they may not get much usage out of? Watch this space for more! 

By the way, you can learn more about AJ Tutoring’s foreign language department here. If you’d like to discuss in more detail, please reach out to us.

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