Debate: The Case for Intellectual Colonialism

We may be losing out by not encouraging our students to learn or conduct their research in their mother tongues. However, there are reasons displacing English as our preferred language would be disastrous.

Credit: dfid/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: dfid/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In a recent article, K. VijayRaghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India, wrote about why we must shed intellectual colonialism to rise in the fields of science and technology. VijayRaghavan speaks about India’s higher education and research, where the lingua franca is now English. There are multiple points in his piece that need to be addressed in more detail. In many of the issues raised, a middle ground could be achieved after some years in India, but with several others, an appropriate historical context is lacking.

It is true that colonialism has paralysed the Indian scientific, mathematical and medicinal traditions. But it would be wrong to assume that these traditions can be rekindled if we shed English as the principal language of communication. VijayRaghavan does not want to shed English completely but wants to make science and technology discourse in India bilingual, with the local language as the second tongue. But when he says how countries like Germany have thrived by conducting their best work in their native language, he misses a subtle historical point.

There were major advancements in mathematics and physics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Germany and the surrounding European nations. At that point, English was not a common language like it is today. So it is a given that the output of the scholars that worked in this period would be in a language that they spoke – German, French, Dutch, Italian, etc. All the major books in mathematics and physics that people read in order to further these fields were also written in these language. As a result, their traditions have survived to this day; there are in fact several outstanding books describing technical work that are available in the German.

Contrast this to any Indian language, where – to the best of my knowledge – there are no equivalent books or journals of science and technology that conform to international standards. Imagine a student of quantum physics trying to understand particle physics results published by CERN in her mother tongue. She will likely struggle to translate many of the terms because her language will likely not have the right words, or even a corresponding grammar, to parse them. She will also have been faced with a paucity of material explaining the basics of quantum physics, field theories or special relativity in her tongue.

So, without the primary resources, it will take nothing short of genius to achieve significant intellectual command to make new inroads in a particular field. Unless this issue is resolved, shedding the colonialism of the English language will be impossible, not to mention disruptive. This would also be a tall task to achieve without great planning and implementation – the details of which VijayRaghavan’s piece does not discuss.

During the golden age of European science, technology and mathematics, there were multiple centres of eminence, such as the Göttingen school of mathematics and similar ones in Paris and Berlin. There was also the German physics school and the Freudian school of psychoanalysis in Vienna. The famous 20th century intellectual circuit called the Vienna Circle conducted its discourses in German. A similar and contemporary intellectual setting was missing in India then and is missing in India now. Unless such a simulating environment for discussions is created, it would be impossible to replicate a bilingual system of discussion and debate in the country’s educational institutions in India.

There is also the issue of nomenclature missing from Indian languages. For example, I would not know how to write ‘conformal minors of a subgraph’ (a phrase used in the sub-discipline of structural graph theory in mathematics) in Assamese, my mother tongue. A need for such an environment, to supplement the education system in any language, is mostly twofold.

First, without peers and their criticism, it has been becoming increasingly difficult to be a good scientist or mathematician today. This was not always the case. However, we no longer work on a specialty; most of us work on a sub-sub-specialty of a particular discipline, and it is always helpful to converse with like-minded individuals. This might not always be the case with a language like Manipuri, for instance.

Second, if a free flow of ideas is not possible, no human intellectual activity can sustain itself. An individual seeking to branch out in a field of her choice must be complemented with an overall environment where ideas are analysed and good ones rewarded.

Another important point that VijayRaghavan had raised in the above stated opinion piece was that, if we continued to use English as the sole means of communication, then we risked remaining a follower and never a leader. Though this has some basis (such as described here), it can’t be the sole justification for a system of the kind VijayRaghavan describes.

The issue is not simply changing our language but also the strengthening of extant infrastructure, and how we can make room for the free flow of ideas – not just inside classrooms but in as many public spaces as possible. We do not view our intellectual heroes the way we regard our political or sporting heroes. This might not be altogether desirable but a general public consciousness of what Indian science is doing might go a long way towards instilling faith, maybe even coercing the government to do better.

A classic example of this would be what the European Union does: by selecting a European city of science every year and highlighting its achievements and facilities to people at large. Such a thing could be implemented in a smaller scale in India, by selecting an institute of higher education or research through which outreach activities could be conducted for the general populace. This is certainly not the only thing that could be done – but it could be a start, to take science from inside classrooms and labs to the world outside.

There have also been traditions of great Indian schools, particularly in physics, medicine and mathematics, that have lost their sheen now. The need of the hour is to learn from the past and rectify the present – a present when the highest forms of intellectual achievement often don’t come from traditional universities but from specialised institutes. Such institutes are a product of the present; they didn’t exist in the past – neither in India nor abroad. A study should put into perspective India’s capabilities in resource generation and human resources, and its conclusions towards India’s march towards being a “science superpower” should be implemented with long-term gains in mind.

Without such commitment, there can never be any hope of leaving behind our colonial legacy – of communicating in English. Perhaps then, both this and VijayRaghavan’s pieces will be written in our respective mother tongues.

Manjil P. Saikia works at the faculty of mathematics, University of Vienna.