Why we need Hindi

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The founder and head of the IABBV Hindi School, MALA MEHTA continues her crusade for Hindi language learning

Twenty eight years after I began my journey with Hindi in Australian schools, we are finally very close to having a fully developed K-10 Curriculum.

This has been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) after the Australian Government released the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper (Henry 2012), which identifies areas of long-term strategic, economic and social interests for Australia and includes the continued study of the languages of the region. Hindi is one of the languages identified.

Hindi learning

The passion for maintaining the Hindi language lies predominantly in the generation of Indians who migrated here. Hindi will only transfer to the next generation of Australians if we teach them. A knowledge of Hindi is necessary to ensure that children are able to communicate with their grandparents easily, and maintain links with family back home.

As well, with India evolving as a major economic power, many young families of Indian origin are considering returning to India, and they will need Hindi to make the transition smoother for their children.

For parents of non-Indian backgrounds, the motivation to study Hindi arises out of their interest in Indian culture, or as a result of business or personal relationships in the Indian community.

Many students find motivation in the desire to be able to watch and understand the Bollywood movies and music, and participate in increasingly vibrant aspects of Indian youth cultures. Hindi learning is a sociable and ultimately enjoyable experience.

Students who attend Hindi classes on weekends are almost all of Indian origin. However, if Hindi was available during regular school hours, much as several Asian and European languages are, not only would more children of Indian origin choose to study Hindi, but many of their peers, irrespective of their identity, would be happy to join them as well. It is very heartening for me to have had students such as Lulu and Annie join the IABBV Hindi School four years ago. They have been a delight to teach and their engagement and attendance is outstanding. They have made friends easily and have enjoyed sharing their knowledge of the Indian culture with their day school friends.

Now that we are so close to having a fully developed curriculum for Hindi, parents need to raise a demand with principals for the introduction of Hindi in the mainstream school curriculum. This has to commence at the primary school level.

Benefits of Hindi to Australia

The future for young Australians is increasingly linked to Asia. The next generation of Australians will be less effective if they cannot speak the region’s languages and understand the cultures in which they will be working. Given India’s enormous economic potential, it could be advantageous to students of all origins if they are familiar with aspects of Indian language and culture. This will prepare them for a more meaningful, intensive and productive engagement with the country and its people.

Australia and India have longstanding people-to-people links, but they have been rather limited. Therefore, the introduction of Hindi in the Australian education system is a good example of the growing recognition of the importance of India in Australia and in the world generally, given that it is one of the BRIC economies. Hindi, one of the two official languages of India, is the third-most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin). It is a strategically important language and the tenth most widely spoken language in Australia.

Keeping language and culture alive has been important for immigrants in Australia. All communities have a history of schools started by parents and community members to pass on their language and culture to the next generation. For us the journey began with establishing the Indo-Aust Bal Bharathi Vidyalaya (IABBV) Hindi School in June 1987, a non-profit organisation run entirely by volunteers.

It has been operating ever since with support from the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and Communities’ Community Languages Schools Program. Classes are run every Sunday morning at Thornleigh West Public School. In 2015 we started four new centres for Hindi before and after school at John Purchase Public School, Waitara Public School, Parramatta North Public School and Marie Bashir Public School.

The gains with an increased Hindi footprint are threefold. Firstly, it reflects the growing Indian community in Australia, as well as government policies supporting multiculturalism. According to the latest census, the Indian community in Australia numbered around 450,000, making it Australia’s fourth-largest community group. The transition of Hindi from a community language to a legitimate second language choice for all Australian students reflects the changing status of India in Australia’s national consciousness. As Mercurio and Scarino report, the labels attached to languages reflect current attitudes towards the language’s country of origin and “shifts in terminology reflect the dynamic nature of languages policy, as well as prevailing political and language ideologies” (2005, p. 146).

Learning Hindi also provides an opportunity to strengthen literacy skills. By comparing and contrasting the linguistic structures and features, learners can also better understand their native language.

There are also cultural, trade and diplomatic gains, as well as benefits for Australian intelligence and security. In the years to come India will be the primary services provider due to its young population, with an average age of 25 years. For anyone spending time in India, the most basic knowledge of the local language enhances the sense of connection with people and place, including in workplaces. Once outside the major cities, it is invaluable and establishes a great deal of immediate goodwill between people. It will vastly augment the “feel” of India for any executive involved with marketing and advertising, media programming and exchanges, and sports promotion and administration. It will also enable communication with people in India in every walk of life, from the local market place to the global world of Bollywood cinema. Additionally, the cultural knowledge gained will give great insight into the rich heritage of India.

Current Hindi initiatives

In the mainstream we have Hindi offered at West Ryde and Girraween Public Schools in NSW and at Rangebank Public School in Victoria.

In NSW, Vic, SA and ACT besides community language schools like ours, we have Hindi offered through Saturday School of Community Languages (SSCL), Victorian School of Languages (VSL), Adelaide School of Languages (ASL) and Narrabundah College.

It is also offered at the tertiary level at ANU, La Trobe University, Adelaide University and Continued Education Program at Sydney University.

The initial demand for Hindi teaching will most likely come from schools that draw pupils from the Indian diaspora, as we have seen with patterns of take-up for other Asian languages. However, there needs to be a plan to reach out to non-heritage learners. A positive encounter through the VC screen can develop enduring schools partnership through student exchanges, homestays, school visits and sister school agreements.

The inclusion of Hindi in the national curriculum reflects Australia’s acknowledgement of India as part of Asia, and of the 21st century as the ‘Asian Century’. It realises a long-held hope for the Indian community, affirming their sense of identity as Hindi takes its place alongside Mandarin as a language for student at Australian schools. It is also more meaningful for future Australians as they go on to have a more active engagement with India. The Asian Century White Paper commitment to teach Hindi in schools and the support extended to the Hindi language by the Government of India at the annual PBD conference in 2015 should also eventually help drive demand for tertiary-level course content that covers Indian languages, history and culture.

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