“When we want to be dramatic or romantic, we speak Hindi,” Sangeeta informed me. “When we want to be formal, we speak English. But when we want to respect our family culture, we speak Marathi.”
I nodded, enviously conscious of the fact that for me and many of my fellow Brits, conversation, whether formal or romantic, is mostly restricted to English. Yet, the everyday multilingualism described by Sangeeta, a young graduate from a Mumbai suburb, is familiar to the point of cliché across India. Take my friend Murtaza, an architect based in Lower Parel. I have heard him conduct business calls in Gujarati, then speak to his girlfriend in Hindi before Skyping his family in Mewari, all the while maintaining an English conversation with me.
As a linguistic anthropologist, my instinct is to try to understand society through the lens of language. Recently, I have found myself drawing comparisons between the linguistic life of my home city, London, and the city that forms the basis of my academic research, Mumbai.
London is frequently claimed to be one of the world’s most multilingual cities, with 300 or more languages in regular use. Even on a short stroll through the city, I would not be surprised to hear snippets of conversation in English, French, Urdu, Polish and Somali alongside numerous languages I cannot identify. For some, this is a sign of cosmopolitanism to be celebrated, while for others, like comedian John Cleese, it makes for a London that is “no longer English”. A similar phenomenon was described by one Captain Hall, who roamed the bazars of Bombay (as Mumbai then was) in 1812 and heard “the sounds of every language” he had ever heard elsewhere. A century later, Joseph Gerson da Cunha described the city as a “real Babel of tongues”.
Clearly, there are some similarities between the two cities, but I cannot help but wonder whether the sheer number of languages spoken is an appropriate yardstick to measure a place’s multilingualism. In London, according to the 2011 UK Census, nearly four-fifths of the city’s residents speak English as their main language, while the next five most widely spoken languages (Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu and Punjabi) only account for 1%-2% each of the population. In Mumbai, by contrast, no one language is the mother tongue of more than half the city’s population. The frontrunner, at around 45%, is Marathi, while slightly under 20% each speak Gujarati and Hindi as a first language. Other languages that are spoken include Tamil, Sindhi, Kannada and Konkani.
Furthermore, the British, unlike Indians, are hardly noted for their polyglot tendencies, and nearly two-thirds of the country speak only English. Of course, in multicultural London, there is a higher prevalence of bilingualism, but even so, the dominance of English in public life is overwhelming. With a few exceptions, such as the use of French at St Pancras International Station and Bengali street signs around Brick Lane, public signs and announcements tend to be in English only. Likewise, the vast majority of London’s schools teach in English medium.
In Mumbai, conversely, the trappings of official polyglossia are everywhere. Street signs are bilingual in English and Marathi at the very least, while trilingual station signs and railway announcements include Hindi. Schools, meanwhile, operate in each of these language media, or others such as Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil. Does this make Mumbai the more multilingual of the two cities? My own feeling is that treating multilingualism as a scale is meaningless in this context, and that it makes more sense to think of the two cities as multilingual in very different ways.
English versus regional
In London, you can get by your entire life speaking only English, and would live a rather restricted life without it. Indeed, despite the populist perception that the British metropolis is overrun with foreigners who do not speak a word of English, Census data indicates that only around 3% of Londoners cannot speak English even to a basic level. In Mumbai, too, many regard English as the passport to commercial success, and the furious uptake of English-medium education has been likened to an “English storm”. I have met several Mumbaikars who went to Marathi medium schools themselves but are determined that their children be schooled in English.
Simultaneously, however, a regionalist orientation in local government has pushed the Marathi agenda into prominence in recent decades. Directives have been issued for all state schools to teach Marathi, for buildings to display nameplates in Marathi and even for multiplex cinemas to allocate a certain number of screenings each year to Marathi films. This also appears to extend to law enforcement. “All the cops here speak Marathi,” Murtaza once told me. “So, if you get into trouble, it pays to know some of the language.” Others have gone further, hinting at darker consequences for failure to speak Marathi.
Despite these moves, the language most commonly heard in public in much of the city is actually Hindi. While the city has a sizeable population with roots in Hindi-speaking North India, the use of Hindi extends well beyond this community. Indeed, Mumbai is famous for its Bambaiya variety that has been celebrated as a “mongrel language” by historian Gyan Prakash and functions as a lingua franca across the city. More than one North Indian acquaintance has admitted to me that mastering the nuances of Bambaiya felt more of a priority than learning Marathi when they settled in Mumbai.
Again, speaking as a monolingually-raised Brit, the idea of London or any other British city functioning in a language other than English is hard to imagine. Equally hard to imagine is London as the epicentre of a world-famous French or German film industry. I, therefore, forgive my 18-year-old self, arriving in Mumbai for the first time in 2003, for assuming that Bollywood produced Marathi films. Actually, the most accurate label for the language of Bollywood films is a matter of ongoing debate. Hindi? Hindustani? Some even suggest Urdu, and, arguably, the fact that Bollywood gets dragged into cross-border politics with Pakistan is an indirect consequence of the linguistic (if not cultural) unity of Hindi and Urdu.
Meanwhile, the more explicitly linguistic brand of identity politics that Mumbai continues to experience has faint parallels in London. Ethnolinguistic identity is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the wake of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. Successive British governments have demonised those immigrants not yet able to speak English, while Prime Minister Theresa May recently damned cosmopolitanism everywhere by proclaiming that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”.
So far, neither city seems to be losing linguistic richness as a result. London probably retains the edge in terms of number and diversity of languages spoken, although in practical terms it is dominated by English. In Mumbai, linguistic capital is more evenly distributed. English may be essential for getting ahead, but the importance of Marathi in greasing the wheels of bureaucracy seems to be growing. And as for Hindi, Sangeeta puts it better than I ever could, “In times of crisis and riots, Bollywood binds Mumbai together. Everybody speaks Hindi. Everybody understands Hindi songs.”
Perhaps not entirely accurate, but nevertheless profoundly sincere.