Mala Mehta, OAM, who was presented the Overseas Indian Award in January for her efforts in promoting Hindi in Australia, believes that despite renewed support from the Indian government, there are still not enough opportunities for children to learn the language abroad
When Mala Mehta was awarded a Pravasi Bharatiya Samman—Overseas Indian Award—in January, it was the culmination of nearly 28 years hard work teaching Hindi to children in Australia, and campaigning to have it included in school curriculums.
Mala founded Bal Bharathi Vidyalaya Hindi School (IABBV) in 1987 with 35 students, running weekend classes in borrowed classrooms at Thornleigh West Public School, in Sydney’s northwest. Volunteer teachers, some of them mothers who were schoolteachers in India, taught Hindi and Indian culture to Indian origin children and a sprinkling of kids from other backgrounds.
But Mala, who migrated to Australia in 1983, said back then she struggled to get the local Indian community interested in their children learning Hindi.
“Initially they were not interested if I can be quite honest,” she told The Indian Sun. “The Indians said why should we bother learning Hindi… we’re living in Australia and it doesn’t act as an advantage to our children here.”
Now things couldn’t be more different.
“The whole dynamic has changed and India is evolving as a very major partner not just for Australia but worldwide,” said Mala, who speaks Hindi, Punjabi, French and Bengali.
“Now a lot of the young families look to coming back to India; to work in and invest in,” she said. “And when you work seriously in a country, it is very important to know the language, so you can understand the thinking of the people.”
It helps too that India now has a Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, championing the use of Hindi in government and schools in India—while using it himself in public speeches inside and out of the country.
“Finally we have the Indian government support, it’s the first time we’ve had that,” Mala noted.
“I can’t say how much of a difference that makes, for all the language teachers working on this around the world to finally have that support,” she said. “It makes everybody around feel yes we’re on the right path.”
Mala is passionate about the Indian Diaspora studying Hindi, seeing it as a way to preserve Indian culture abroad. “I feel language gives a child an identity and belonging of the country that they’ve left behind,” she explained.
She believes it also gives children pride in their heritage and boosts their overall confidence. “They’re not hesitant to share their culture with others around them,” she said. “And when they’re confident in themselves, they don’t hesitate when they’re in mainstream school.”
But there are still not enough opportunities for children to learn Hindi in Australia today, according to Mala.
Very few schools teach Hindi as part of the mainstream curriculum—in NSW, West Ryde Primary School has been offering Hindi since 1994, Blacktown Girls High School introduced it for HSC last year, and Girraween Primary School will begin classes in 2015. While in Victoria, Rangebank Primary School offers Hindi as a community language.
Mala said parents with children in other schools have to track down weekend language classes, and squeeze them into busy weekend schedules, around sport, homework and play dates.
Still, the number of weekend language centres offering Hindi is increasing, with IABBV opening two new centres in Waitara Primary School and John Purchase Public School in NSW this year. Mala hopes these schools will eventually introduce Hindi as a mainstream class students can take in school hours.
It’s thanks largely to Mala that Hindi was listed as a Priority Asian Language in the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, alongside Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian. It had been left off the list until Mala spearheaded a successful Australia-wide campaign calling for its inclusion.
This then led to Hindi being included as a new language to be developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for Foundation to Year 10. The development process is going on now.
As for Mala, she is now planning to boost her efforts promoting Hindi to school principals, who get to decide which languages are included in their school’s curriculum. “A lot of school principals have been really positive,” she said. “It’s up to the principal… but their curriculum are usually very full on so it becomes a little difficult [to include more courses].”
Mala said principals and school authorities were also concerned about demand—how many of their students actually want to learn Hindi. “It’s a question of funding really,” she explained. “Is it worthwhile to have?… is the student demand there?” On that front, Mala is optimistic. “The moment it comes into the mainstream you will see a number of students opting for Hindi,” she predicted.
Over the years Mala has won widespread recognition for her efforts promoting Indian language and culture and assisting new migrants. In 2006, she became the first Indian woman to be awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM), she was Hornsby Shire’s International Woman of the Year in 2009, and Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin’s (GOPIO) Indian-Australian Woman of the Year in 2012.
Now receiving the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, she remains humble, saying she could not have done it without the help of many along the way. “I have to thank all those who have taken this journey with me, because it has not been easy to achieve what we have done so far,” she said. “And many travelled along with me.”
“We have the passion to do this but the next generation won’t,” she said. “They are more Australian than we are.”
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