On Mother and Other Tongues: Sociolinguistics, Schools, and Language Ideology in Northern India

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Language Sciences

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This is an expanded version of a paper given at a conference held in Cape Town, South Africa from December 11–13, 2008 entitled “The Native Speaker and the Mother Tongue.” In keeping with the conference’s themes of exploring and interrogating the notions of “mother tongue” and “native speaker,” I consider constructions of languages emergent from the school system in Banaras, a city of approximately 2,000,000 in northern India. I do so, in part, because they offer the opportunity to critique sociolinguistic work on northern India for the different ways scholars have used the notion of “mother tongue” to ignore the institutional milieu – schooling – through which they emerge in everyday life. It is true that “mother tongue” is an incredibly salient notion in northern India, and that what language variety can be said to constitute the “mother tongue” exhibits great variety in a single locale. But the rich body of scholarly research on language difference in India has largely ignored ethnographic approaches such as the one I offer wherein schools emerge as a key site for people to imagine the significance of language in social life. In order to indicate what an ethnographic approach to the intersection of language difference and school difference might illuminate, I reflect on audio-taped conversations in Banaras, Uttar Pradesh between people from various class and school backgrounds and myself to show that one language variety, Hindi, emerges as the only “mother tongue” authorized for school use. More importantly, I show that such ideological work underpins a specific kind of narrative about what it means to be able to succeed in school but remain faithful to one’s “mother tongue.” In doing so, I hope to contribute to one of the conference’s goals: demonstrating the sociopolitical underpinnings of the notion of “mother tongue.”

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