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The case against Konkani?

Frederick Noronha

There’s a point of view which keeps repeatedly doing the rounds indiscussions over language in Goa. That is, the view that Goans look down upon Konkani, and are even ashamed to speak their language.

The elites look down upon the language. The commonfolk are embarrassed to use it. Even just a generation ago, singers like Alfred Rose were egging Goa to give Konkani its due respect.

My case is that this might have been true in the past. It was possibly applicable to a section who saw an opportunity in switching to a bigger language. In our school days, in the 1970s, English-medium schools fined ten naya paise to those children “caught” speaking Konkani at the campus. Of course, the goal was to ensure that students picked up some form of passable English.

But this mostly isn’t the case now. By the early 1990s, it turned costly for students wanting to do their primary education in English.

So, are we misunderstanding the reality, blaming the wrong set of people, and only covering up our real problem areas?

We get hints of Konkani being referred to as the “língua de criados” (the language of the servants), or the “kitchen language”, in the not-so-distant past. This holds true of Goa in its pre-1961 era, and maybe thereafter too.

Without denying this reality, let’s not forget the changes that have taken place since. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church allowed the use of local languages at Mass, thus giving a boost to Konkani too. Growing campaigns in favour of regional languages in different parts of India resulted in a similar boost for Konkani as well.

Yet, it has been a global trend to value what comes from the outside. English is the official language of some 74 countries worldwide. Where has that language come from? Why has its use become so widespread (even in Goa, which never was a British colony)? Can we understand this without looking at the language’s history, economic power, politics and geography?

There was a time, centuries ago, when French was widely spoken even by the elites in England, while only the common folk spoke English. This happens due to all kinds of reasons.

In tiny Goa, languages like Portuguese, Marathi or English were seen – maybe rightly – as the tongue of upward mobility and which offered more opportunity. Today, more languages have been added to that mix. Hindi opens doors. In our global village, extremely outmigration-oriented Goa, I have a couple of fellow villagers who’ve lived in China for long. Both know varying levels of Mandarin. And the British are today discussing whether French, Spanish or Mandarin would be a more valuable foreign language for their young ones to learn.

But do Goans choose to avoid speaking Konkani purely out of contempt for the language? The subject is more complex than that.

Over the 20th century, Goa has seen repeated shifts in the power-balance among locally-used languages. Today, it is actually advantageous to know and speak Konkani. It’s essential to even apply for the few government jobs that are left, you can get a better deal in the marketplace, and you can feel left out less.

So, why doesn’t everyone use the language?

Outside of Goa, many Goan ex-pats rue the fact that they are unable – not unwilling – to speak fluent Konkani.

‘Language loss’ is a global reality. More so, among those Goans whose families have been migrating for two or more generations. Goans have suffered language loss early on, but others face it too. I’ve had Kerala friends who know to speak Malayalam but can’t read or write it as they’ve grown up in Maharashtra. Another example is the case of diasporic Indians, like those living in Fiji, who use the Roman script to write Hindi.

Migration is undoubtedly one of the reasons why a section of Goans can’t speak Konkani, even if they want to. As a five-year-old resettling in Goa in the 1960s, I was stumped because it was so hard to communicate with most people then. We grew up without grandparents on hand, and my parents too had grown up largely outside Goa.

One incident I sharply remember till date was how my late mother tutored me to communicate with our neighbour, the village cobbler. “Just remember to tell him 1-2-3,” she suggested to me in exasperation. I carried with me a broken chappal and told the man just that. Good old Novso took a few seconds to realise what I was actually trying to say in barely comprehendible “Konkani”: “Vaan toot-li.” (My slipper needs repairs.)

Another reason is the attitude we take towards ‘our’ language itself. Different language groups take on diverse attitudes to their language. My limited experience tells me the Germans appreciate if a stranger can say a few sentences in Deutsch. On the other hand, the French are very particular about how you pronounce their tongue. Portuguese speakers from Europe (though not necessarily in Goa) appreciate any effort to learn even a few words in the ‘language of Camoes’.

Konkani is one of those languages whose speakers tend to be rather proprietorial about its use. It’s hard to understand why learners are made to feel inadequate for their pronunciation or grammar. The same is true for those who use a different dialect or vocabulary – which very much exists in different parts of Goa.

Our arrogance also sees us assigning a hierarchy to different registers and dialects of spoken and written Konkani. This indeed only weakens the language.

The third stumbling block is our poor promotion of Konkani, despite official funds allocated supposedly for its growth. Outside formal schools, or the occasional governmental training for its staff, it can be very difficult to attend a course to learn Konkani. Of course, many among the poorer migrants into today’s Goa do pick up the lingo in the market place, out of a sheer lack of choice. You might ask why the others can’t manage this too, but that is another debate.

Being a small language, divided by diverse scripts and geography, Konkani is also understandably lacking in sufficient and easy guides, dictionaries, and the like, to teach the language. Some content is available online, through slow attempts to build a Konkani Wikipedia.

During the lockdown, the TSKK-affiliated Jose Silveira SJ shared online some interesting Konkani puzzles and games which could help learn the language. Other initiatives like ‘Learn Konkani with Saurabh Kaisare’ on YouTube also teach the language. But such initiatives are few and far between. It’s far easier to learn a number of foreign languages in today’s Goa.

Konkani needs more initiatives on this front. We can learn from others.In my collection of books, one prized possession is a modest 32-page booklet. This is a Missionary Language Board attempt to teach Hindustani language skills. It does so by simply listing some thousand “required words” of the Hindi vocabulary, with no translations or anything else!

There are problems in spreading and promoting a small language. So, the next time we say people are “ashamed” to speak Konkani, let’s keep in mind that we may be partly true. But it’s also quite possible that the real answer lies elsewhere.

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