The first language I learnt to speak was Hindi, though I grew up understanding most of Punjabi. Only later by the age of 4 and 5 I started picking up English more easily.
I never perceived it anything more than a source of communication. But I remember walking into my primary convent school where English was the sole language of communication, and it was enforced rather strictly. Not being fluent seemed like an issue, and being bullied for it came with a sense of entitlement from those who did so. Looking back I understand how knowing English has been, and yet is, a sign of great supremacy in many parts of India, and the world.
However, I am glad to have been reminded that the aim was to learn every language as long as you can continue respecting your own languages. Things changed when I changed schools in middle of 4th grade. I was then in a school where I was called out for not speaking enough Hindi. Even then I continued to speak only in English because it was what helped me learn my school material best. Over the years my Hindi got worse, and reached a point of non-fluency.
There is a contentious relationship between Hindi and English in modern India, and what it means to be fluent in either. The colonial hangover is real. Some take pride in not knowing Hindi, and speak only in English. Whereas some insist on speaking in Hindi equating it to a myopic identity of India, as though India was ever a land where only one language was spoken.
English and Hindi are both co-official languages of India (Article 343, and Official Languages Act of India 1963). The imposition of Hindi would categorically exclude non-Hindi speakers in the North East and Southern parts of the country. India’s acceptability in having 2 national languages, and 22 official languages, allows it to respect the multitude of diversities that encompasses its length and breadth. The world and Indian subcontinent has already seen enough conflict due to the imposition of one language that created structural barriers for everyone else.
For many, English is perceived to be a road to better jobs and education in India, which is something I experienced as well. The medium of communication and education in the many schools and colleges I attended was always English, and that was no different when I came to Washington DC. But here I noticed a greater need to preserve Hindi, since it does fall upon Indian American ears as often.
Due to that need of preservation and practise, I started learning to read Urdu and my Urdu professor nominated me to debate at the Yale Hindi debate, and I was significantly surprised to win best speaker in a language, that I learnt, departed from, and then re-embraced. I was also fortunate to accompany Chloe, my friend and fellow SAIS-er who is (non-native, non-heritage) a speaker and student of Urdu and Hindi, with a passion that inspires me.
I am not writing these words to reflect on my journey of Hindi and English, but really to acknowledge the importance of sticking to the languages you love, and not imposing them on anyone.