Volume 5 : 1 January 2005

Jennifer M. Bayer, Ph.D.



Television is important for the socio-economic transformation of the country; language is the conduit between the two; and therefore, it is significant to study its impact as a means of a futuristic trend set to guide language management in India.

Communication through television is a significant mode to promote new discourse in multiple languages. Television which is a different type of leisure activity has a passive audience, and unlike the internet, which is interactive, is bound to make its impact on language use. The multiple TV channels in India televise the multicultural diversity of India in particular and the world at large. The regional languages now occupy a domineering place in the media where previously Hindi and English dominated. However, issues of "preservation" vs. "change", of the multiplicity of languages emerge on the scene.

Caught in the dynamics of liberalization as a factor of globalization which diversifies and decentralizes physical distance and isolation, observation of language use on Television indicates that although television globalizes multilingualism it may homogenize and destabilize the dialects, socialists and further restrict the development of the tribal languages. The promotion and development of languages is linked with the avenues it provides for upward socio-economic mobility for individuals in particular and society in general. This paper draws attention to a phenomenon that the TV medium may promote language loss and/or shift of the powerless dialects, sociolects and tribal home languages.


From Doordarshan to cable networks, television transmission in India emerged on the Indian scene on September 15, 1959. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then Vice-President of India declared "Television will go a long way in broadcasting popular outlook and bringing people in line with scientific thinking" (Dua, 1998).

The information age or the new electronic environment available to people through a series of technologies is like a tidal wave "inevitable" and "unstoppable" resulting in the creation of the "information society".

Television in India may lead to significant unanticipated repercussions. Its audience is exposed to increased pan-Indian as well as international cross-cultural programmes, and may lead to unimaginable social consequences, such as the commonly voiced view "westernization of Indian language and culture".


In this paper, I propose to present the TV media in India as a source to globalizing the major Indian languages, which continue to function as a strong marker of ethnic identity. At the same time, I will also like to suggest that perhaps the TV is a source or a cause for processes of shift/loss of the dialects, sociolects and tribal home languages. Societal pressure for services through major languages may have a homogenizing effect on the non-standard dialects and sociolects as a consequence of listening to discourse in the major languages. Therefore, one may argue that there is a need to protect this from happening.


The pervasive presence of the television medium is transforming the sociolinguistic scene in India. Television plays three important roles.

  1. It is entertainment.
  2. It is informational.
  3. It is educational.

As entertainment, it is a means to relax and escape from an intense mental frame of mind. Television provides an access to information and knowledge for everyday life, and portrays the past and possible future events from one's drawing room, and this has made learning convenient.

Television is expected to be significant in language teaching, general education, and politics. For example, we have a serial on television that teaches Hindi where the students represent the major linguistic backgrounds, and we get a feel of Hindi pronounced by various language speakers. Television is a means to teach children language with entertainment through the cartoon series in different languages. The themes presented by these cartoons are both Indian and non-Indian. For example, the Kannada TV channel televises "Cinderella" through Kannada.

The idea of nationalism is instilled through short messages such as "Mile Swar Mera Tumhara" or "I love my India".


These programs are sponsored by commercial establishments whose sole aim is to boost sales of their products. However, insofar as the home languages of tribal communities are concerned, multi-nationals will not sponsor a program in languages of tribal communities as, for example, the sales of Coco Cola or Pepsi will not increase if a channel were to televise through one of these languages. While major Indian languages provide a market for profit making, minor languages will only supply exotic scenes for garnishing the commercial messages for the profit making markets. Perhaps one has to concede to a fact that the role of the Television is constrained to play a limited role insofar as the development of the minor languages is concerned. And therefore, whereas television is a source of reinforcement (an important technique to learn a second language) for learning the major languages including English the smaller languages lose out in the race.


There are two types of channels on the Indian scene:

  1. National - Doordarshan : the central channel, with its regional links, and
  2. Private and regional channels.

"Doordarshan is the National service of India and is also one of the largest broadcasting organizations in the world…. A network of three National channels, two special interest channels, ten regional language channels, four state networks and an international channels ... . Through a network of 868 terrestrial transmitters of varying powers it makes available TV signals for over 87% of the population." Doordarshan programmes are watched by 300 million viewers in their homes. TV sets established under various schemes in community centres in villages for a total number of 450 million viewers (India, 1998). The country-wide classroom on the National Network is aimed to reach quality education of students in small villages.


The Doordarshan televises through the Official and Associate Official languages, and its regional channels televise through the state dominant languages and dominant minority languages. It has ten regional language satellite channels, a three-tier service: the national, regional and local, and uses the language and idiom of the particular region.

The Private channels televise through the state dominant languages. For example, in Mysore, we have access to programmes in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Kannada. However, the ZEE News Channel televises through Hindi, and English, and has plans to introduce Marathi, Punjabi and Bengali.

In a country with over 3000 mother tongues, it has, so far been possible to televise in ten languages only. However. we have the privilege to hear various languages from the most rural parts of India, under circumstances such as interviews with the sufferers of natural calamities of cyclone, communal disruptions, animal invasion, etc. And that's it.


We have the following major international channels:

  1. BBC
  2. CNN
  3. CNBC
  4. Star : Plus, News, Sports, World
  5. National Geographic
  6. MTV and channel V

The list has already grown bigger since I first wrote this article.

The international channels televise through English. The sponsors of these channels advertise products that are targeted at the rich elite. We do get to hear languages from far corners of the world but once again it is to learn about their culture, and know of their sorrows.


In the early periods of this century, language was not an issue in political or cultural processes (Kohn, 1945:6) Later, Fishman (1972:4) voiced the view that language unifies as well as divides. It is a symbol of loyalty and animosity, solidarity and conflict, and pride and prejudice. In multilingual and multicultural situations, conflict and control over language is often a compliance-gaining strategy. And language use on television enriches this process. The languages on television are "exclusive" by its very choice and "inclusive" by its use. But at the same time, it "isolates" and sets apart promotion and development of the powerless minor languages in close proximity with the major languages.

Haugen (1953) and Fishman (1966) have identified the print media as significant in promoting the continued use of ethnic languages before the advent of television. Dodson and Jones (1984) document peoples' emotional involvement behind the maintenance of threatened languages, such as Welsh, "highlighting the assumption that media provision in a minority language will stem the decline in the number of users of that languages" (ibid) Kuo (1984) discussing Mandarin in Singapore shows "the conscious use of television in promoting an additional national languages, which is not used outside the official spheres, to serve as an ethnic and cultural marker of national identity". (ibid)

In a longitudinal study of watching television and its effects on Dutch children in Grades 2 and 4 Koolstra et al (1997) have found that viewing television "exerts an inhibiting effect on the development of children's reading comprehension. In addition … development of children's decoding skills is promoted by watching sub-titled foreign television programs". Further watching television induced reduction in book reading.

In a recent newspaper review of the MTV's Latin American audience, its executive director discussing the significance of the local language and culture simply put it as "We speak the same language but they're totally different cultures". Most often, in order to remain relevant programmes are increasingly on the local culture. When MTV made its presence felt in 1993, the channel's video mix was 75-25 of English-Spanish, it is now 50-50. "MTV Europe began as one channel with one feed in 1987 and has since split into five different services targeting the continent's various languages and cultures". (DeJuana, 1999)

Television globalizes Indian-ness; through Indian and non-Indian programs it portrays the unknown and the unfamiliar through multiple channels in multiple languages. In fact, each channel voices its preferences for more local flavor into its programming with the aim of recognizing distinct tastes and cultures of the region.


To generalize on the current trends of language use on television is rather a complex task. All channels have formalized and non-formalized programmes. Consequently, there are basically two styles of language used on television, namely, formal language used in televising news, and informal language used in serials.

The most interesting aspect is the creative mix of language and culture to portray unity in diversity. In a family related serial such as "Ham sab ek hai," the father is a Hindi speaker, his wife is a Tamil speaker; their three sons are married to wives from the Punjab, and Bengal, so, although the dialogue is in Hindi, nuances of emotions are best expressed in their respective home languages with Indianised English words (such as "finally" reinterpreted as "phinally".)

In a Kannada program over the Udaya channel, there is programme sponsored by Pepsi called "Dance, Dance". The presenters of the program freely mix English with Kannada. The competitors danced to music from Hindi and English. Even titles of serials are mixed, such as 'COSTLY HALIYA'

We have all leading beauty products and fabrics targeted at the elite, and even home appliances advertised in all major Indian languages, but there is not much for the lower economic groups, not to speak of these ads in the smaller languages, because doing so is not cost effective to both the advertiser and the consumer.

Channels are also streamlined according to the prestige and power of the programs and products. BBC, for example, advertises products that are international and westernizing. These commercials are sponsored by the Indian Multinationals. The products advertised in the local channels are more localized.

Channels are bilingual. For example, during the Hindi news broadcast, the news in brief is in English scripted on screen. But, when a message is meant for those involved in hi-tech professions, such as the problem of Y2K or outsourcing or even military build-up, it is in English on Star Plus.

Then we have the fusion of various forms of music storming the socio-cultural scene. Profuse mixing of elements from different languages with music is also interesting.

We have, on TV, the creative use of the standardized form of modern Indian languages, which may lead to homogenization of linguistic form, code switching, and code mixing which can lead to complex linguistic forms at the informal level. Which in turn can lead speakers of small languages to shift from their home language to languages that enable them to ride up the ladder of economic upliftment.


Urbanization and regional development has caused a stir in the nature of language change. Ishtiaq (1999), through spatial explanations, linguistic, and social descriptions, provides social, economic and political dimensions of changing linguistic identities resulting in language shifts among the tribal population in India that is leading to assimilation into the majority culture. The Korkus of the Khandwa Tehsil have made a complete shift to Nimadi, a regional dialect of Hindi with no intention to revive their traditional language. Moreover, "the people consider themselves superior to those Korkus who have retained their traditional linguistic identity and live in the Hersud Tehsil." Researchers on different speakers of minor languages indicate similar trends of shift from their home language to the dominant language.

While the process of shift in language is occurring due to reasons such as migration from the rural to the urban, and language contact of the rural on the borders of the urban, the role of television is bound to play a significant role in linguistic change.

The "disabling processes" identified in this paper has no easy solution. Languages compete for power. The quest for power of French over English is a well known example. There is a French State policy that at least 40% of programming shown on television must be of French origin. The two states are now at a cyberspace war - the French are lobbying to ensure that "cyberspace doesn't leave their languge in the dustbin of history" (Asian Age, 1999). "For years, the staunch defenders of the French language have battled to stem what they see as an American invasion of their culture, successfully passing a series of laws limiting the presence of American songs and shows in the French media. Now they are seeking to limit the use of English on what they see as the newest threat: the internet". In India, while the diasabling situation is almost similar, the remedial action is practically nil, or at best ambivalent.


The Unesco has over the years argued that respect for the culture and identity of people is an important element in any viable approach to people-centered development. We experience a rapidly changing worldview caught in the throes of unmatched globalization where individual group identity is emerging as a result of self-awareness and pride in cultural identity, which is seen as sources to empowerment. The cultural rootedness of people in their respective societies, heritage, and their living culture promote sound economic development. Therefore, a smooth transition from the local to the regional, national, and international carries with it ways to conserve and amplify expressions of values and heritage (Dine, Wolfensohn, 1999). Given this realization of fact by an international organization, we in India have a serious problem in our hands.

Unlike most European countries where the education policy is aimed at bi-/multilingual learning, the Indian Education system is multilingual at its core. The Constitution of India, has provided for the protection of the linguistic identities of its citizens, and therefore, by implication, the language policy is the promotion of multilingualism. Therefore, Planning Language Management in multi-lingual, multi-cultural India is central to national integration.

To legitimize management of language to play key roles and thereby stabilize national integration, new roles for major Indian languages have emerged in formal domains such as education, administration and mass communication. Use of the major regional languages in Television programmes has widened their roles and may have lessened the hegemonic or colonized role that English played in post-independent India. The major Indian languages have displaced English in significant domains and the Television has made a major contribution to formally globalizing multilingual India. Therefore, the overall plea is that serious thought needs to be focused on the language of the powerless societies, the tribal people in border areas, where studies indicate large scale language shift to the state dominant language, and similar groups in the interior hills who are cut off from the globalizing effects of information technology.


Asian Age. 1999. Bottom line: Against Monopoly: "French push to dilute dose of English in cyberspace" : the internet must have laws governing it. It cannot be a savage world where everybody can do as they please.

Beadsmore, Hugo Baetens. 1984. Introduction. Language and Television. In International Journal of the Sociology of Language. No. 48. Mouton de Gruyter.

Cees M. Koolstra, Tom H. A . van der voort; Leo J. Th. Van des Kamp. 1997. Television's impact on children's reading comprehension and decoding skills: A Three year panel study. In Reading Research Quarterly. Vol.32. November 2. April,May,June. 1997. USA.

Dua, M. R. 1998. Contemporary Television Scene in India. Telematics and Informatics. 53-66. Feb-May.

Dejuana, Carlos. 1999. MTV Latino balancing when to lead, when to follow. Asian Age. Bangalore. 30.9.1999.

Fishman, J. A. 1966. Language Loyalty in the United States. The Hague. Mouton

Fishman, J. A. 1972. The Sociology of Language. Rowley Mass., Newbury House

Haugen, E. 1953. The Norwegian Language in America. Philadelphia University of Philadelphia Press.

India 1998. A reference Annual. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Government of India.

Lamberto Dine; James D, Wolfensohn, 1999. Financing, Resources and the Economics of Culture in Sustainable Development. In Asian Age, 13.10.1999.

Kohn, H. 1945. The idea of nationalism. A study of its origin and background. New York. Macmillan.


Jennifer M. Bayer, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India