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Off topic: A century of recorded bilingualism in India
Thread poster: Ravi Kumar

Ravi Kumar  Identity Verified
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Nov 10, 2006

For more than one hundred years, the Census of India reports have been taking notice of the bilingual situation in India. Bilingualism is often taken as a given fact. Bilingualism is also used as a denominator of the movement of various populations from one region or province to another. Bilingualism figures are often used to make political claims and seek privileges in administration, education, mass communication, and other departments of public life in general. Educational policies of the states are guided by these figures. However, the quality of bilingualism or the level of bilingualism often remains unspecified in linguistic terms in these claims.

The way the details of bilingualism and tri-lingualism are arrived at, in surveys such as the Census enumerations, is also noteworthy.

In the Census, names of two other languages known to the respondents in the order of proficiency are recorded. Here, the names of languages, other than the one recorded as the mother tongue, is elicited by asking the respondent about the other languages known to him or her. These may be Indian or foreign languages. If the respondent knows only one language, the name of that particular language only is recorded. If the respondent has knowledge of more than one language, the names of two languages in the order of proficiency, self-assessed by the respondent, are recorded. These two languages are recorded one after the other. Between these two languages, that language in which the respondent can, according to his claim, comprehend, speak and communicate is recorded first, and the other language as the second item. The individual need not know reading and writing in these languages. It is enough if he speaks and communicates in these two languages. However, the number of languages thus recorded will not exceed two.

I wonder if these yardsticks are also followed in other world ?

Ravi Kumar

[Edited at 2006-11-10 16:07]

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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
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Sounds rather crude to me Nov 11, 2006

In the EU we have established a system, where you can take a test and your level of proficiency in a specific language is assigned from 1 to 9 (or 1 to 7). The highest meaning native academic level and 1 what you described, basic knowledge somehow aquired. I remember having taken once such a test at my former workplace. The test consists of a written part and a conversation with a real native person. So what you describe in India, persons who cannot write or read could not take such a test at all, though a person without ability to read or write could perhaps be a good interpreter.

In Europe we rather thing it granted, that people can read and write, but if one looks at it more closely there is a certain percentage of pupils who slip through the system. Or the system has no instruments to access these pupils with reading-writing handicaps after a certain age.


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Ravi Kumar  Identity Verified
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Language Proficiency test in India Nov 11, 2006

Dear Heinrich

The procedure followed in Europe to test the level of proficiency of an Individual via written as well oral test seems logical to me. If one is to declare his/ her languages he / she must have a valid degree as per the norms of European Union.

I lived in Europe (Spain) for some time, and as per my understanding In Europe there has been tradition of maintaining written records. But you shall be surprised to note that in India, the tradition of maintenance of record has not been that strong as in Europe. However, In Modern India the common mass is now working towards developing written record management.. etc. which will take its own course.

Keeping above lines of thought you will notice that Modern India, as per the 1961 count, has more than 1652 mother tongues, genetically belonging to five different language families. Apart from them 527 mother tongues were considered unclassifiable at that time.
The 1991 Census had 10,400 raw returns and they were rationalized into 1576 mother tongues. They are further rationalized into 216 mother tongues, and grouped under 114 languages: Austro-Asiatic (14 languages, with a total population of 1.13%), Dravidian (17 languages, with a total population of 22.53%), Indo-European (Indo-Aryan, 19 languages, with a total population of 75.28%, and Germanic, 1 language, with a total population of 0.02%), Semito-Harmitic (1 language, with a total population of 0.01%), and Tibeto-Burman (62 languages with a total population of 0.97%).

It may be noted that mother tongues having a population of less than 10000 on all India basis or not possible to identify on the basis of available linguistic information have gone under 'others'. So, good number of "languages" recorded in the Indian Census could not be classified as to their genetic relation, and so are treated as Unclassified Languages.

The Indo-Aryan languages are spoken by the maximum number of speakers, followed in the descending order by the Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) languages.

Eighteen Indian languages, namely, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu are spoken by 96.29% of the population of the country and the remaining 3.71% of the population speak rest of the languages.

Not only India as a whole is multilingual but also each State and Union Territory within India is equally multilingual. Linguistically India is made of many mini-Indias.

The number of multilingual population is also remarkable. They constitute 19.44% of the total population in India. The traditionally strong constituent of multilingual groups is further strengthened in modern times from one decade to another, as mobility within the country as well as the introduction of formal education in all parts of the country that insists on learning at least two languages until the end of high or higher secondary education. Although Kerala appears to be the most cohesive linguistic state with a single language, Malayalam, claiming the mother tongue status for nearly 96 percent of its population, bilingualism among this mother tongue group is equally good.

Thanks and regards

Ravi Kumar

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