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date: 18 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

How can one sustain a conversation, let alone maintain effective communication, in a country whose residents speak numerous languages? India defies the conventional wisdom of the monolithic model of communication—one language, one nation—which views linguistic pluralism as problematic and counterintuitive. The monolingual mindset equates multingualism with linguistic, societal, and political fragmentation and, consequently, a serious threat to national unity and economic prosperity. Based on an in-depth study of language and communication in India, it is argued that such a narrow and unnatural mindset is outmoded. In particular, a reconceptualization of multilingual realities in India provides ample evidence in support of communication accommodation theory.

The approach adopted to capture the dynamics of Indian multilingualism centers on the tools and mechanism of natural pluralism, which hold a key to intergroup and intercultural communication. Four linguistic networks of communication are described, following both the top-down and bottom-up approaches to multilingual communication. Additionally, it is revealed that three giant languages, the linguistic pillars of India—Sanskrit, Persian, and English—played, and continue to play, a central role in determining the salient feature of Indian multilingualism—its vitality and sustainability is achieved through diffusion of diverse languages and sociocultural contexts of communication. Additionally, literature and other forces, such as globalization (precolonial and postcolonial trade), powerful media and entertainment (e.g., Bollywood films and regional film media), internal migration, and education policies, among other factors, further strengthened the foundation of multilingualism and language accommodation. Various manifestations of multiple identities are described in the context of language naming and language reporting in the census.

Finally, the salient linguistic and social contexts of Indian multilingualism are identified, while focusing on speakers’ language choices and language use grounded in individual/family, social, and political multilingualism, which ensured an uninterrupted tradition of plurilingualism. The complex interplay between bilingual verbal behavior—including language shifting and language mixing—with language attitudes and language rivalry is instructive in gaining insights into both language maintenance and language death. In that process, it is revealed that one of the salient features of Indian multilingualism is its natural and sustainable character, rather than a transient trend leading to language death. What is even more remarkable is that it is not imposed by language ideology and rigorous language planning by the government. To best characterize the multifaceted dimensions of multilingual communication in India, this chapter focuses on the contemporary and historical study of Indian languages and their spread in diasporic contexts, both intranational (e.g., from North to South India) and international. An attempt has also been made to uncover dimensions of multilingualism that have been neglected in the communication landscape of India (e.g., empowering of rural varieties of speech). For comparison and contrast purposes, other countries are also referred to.

Keywords: multilingualism, India, language attitudes, language identity, code-mixing and code-switching, regional languages, language diffusion, social and linguistic networks, rural and urban communication, media, subtractive and additive multilingualism, Bollywood, language maintenance, language death, communication accommodation theory, intergroup communication

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