Which is the biggest problem that you face when traveling to a different city? A problem that you mostly take for granted, but are confronted with as soon as you set your foot on that land? It is language. You don’t have to go that far as China or Russia to appreciate the enormity of this problem. In fact, even within our own country, we face this problem on a routine basis.
Strangely, we give more importance to food and wonder ‘what would we eat there?’ And we pack sattu, khakhara, Maggi, even hot plate for emergency survival purpose. On the other hand, not for a moment do we pay any attention to the language barrier that is eagerly waiting for us. We brush aside all concerns with a ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’d manage’. We trust English to such a degree that we assume that every person who does not understand our mother tongue knows English for sure. But the fact is quite the opposite. Availability of food is actually a matter of preference, and survival is seldom an issue. The question ultimately boils down to one’s being a vegetarian or otherwise.
On the other hand, whether it be Chennai or Chandigarh, Kolkata or Kottayam, the biggest problem is posed by unfamiliarity with the local language — how to find places, how to ask someone, how to understand the answer they give you? Once I told a visiting American engineer that in India we have 22 scheduled languages and more than 120 major languages. He was stunned and asked innocently, ‘Do you understand all of them?’ I replied plainly, ‘No. A majority of north Indians do not understand the languages spoken in southern states — neither in script nor in word. As for me, I understand only four!’
The language barrier not just creates problems for individuals, but has implications for the whole society. The problems are diverse and are better appreciated when experienced first-hand. For example, one issue of Marathi magazine Lokprabha dealt with growing garbage pile near a tourist place. One correspondent noted that the sign boards (indicating the allotted places for garbage dumping) were written in Marathi/Hindi, which could not be understood by tourists from other states. He suggested writing in only Hindi or Marathi — as the two languages shared a common script and appropriate words could be used for comprehension — and another language from south, or English.
Through this post I intend to bring to your notice one innovative step that has been proposed to tunnel through a language barrier and has been quite successful in its efforts. It may not resolve all your problems; for example, it may not help you speak or understand the local language. However, it would definitely help you find your way through the written word. That itself would be a great help, considering the fact that most of the problems are due to our inability to read the road signs, shop names and details, restaurant menus, public signs and so on. Most of the information required to find our way around a city is already available on site — if we could only read!
The work was initiated by Liron Lavi Turkenich who joined Hebrew and Arabic alphabets and came up with a hybrid script she calls as Aravrit. In her YouTube video, she describes the rationale behind her work. Whenever we find ourselves in a cosmopolitan culture, we selectively read words and sentences only in our native language or that we understand, but ignore all other languages. She further noticed that in English, it is only the upper half of words that is required to identify the words. That means, if I cover the bottom half of a sentence by a blank paper, you would still be able to understand the sentence. Liron noticed that the same holds true for Arabic as well. It was true for Hebrew also, but with a difference — here the bottom half was required.
With this curious realization, Liron went ahead, joining alphabets from the two languages, forming a new script that had upper part from Arabic and bottom part from Hebrew! It is not a case of simple copy and paste; she worked hard on making the joints smooth so that the comprehension of the two individual scripts is preserved, and at the same time the new characters possess all the characteristics of alphabets. She printed several words from this new script and showed them to people in market, buses, offices, and restaurants. First they remarked that the words looked strange, but they understood them all the same. She modified her script based on the feedback she received from general public and implemented it at a place where the need is the greatest — road signs.
I would say it is a simple but extraordinary idea which is still in its infancy. However, in the coming days, the idea is going to gain ground and would prove to be of great potential. This same idea, or its variant, could be an answer to most of India’s language-related communication problems.
It may not help much with Marathi/Hindi/Bengali which have nearly similar alphabet structures. As of now, the barrier between these languages is mostly in spoken word and not in script. The biggest dividends that could be reaped is between any of the north-south language pairs. Another case study could be Hindi-Urdu combination. Railway station names, road signs, public messages (‘no parking’, ‘road under construction’), shop names and addresses are some of the places where it could be implemented.
Gone are the days of sitting in a Vaishnava Bhojanalaya and ordering Chicken Dum Biryani!