With English, one arrives at the doorstep of power. Without it, despite any measure of excellence in any language of Indian origin, there is no hope. While this may be an exaggeration, it is largely true — English is more than a language in India. It is in this context that I disagree with your editorial’s assertion that the growth of English is largely organic to India (‘Tongue twisted’, IE, June 4).
More than 70 years after the end of colonial rule, English sounds still reverberate an aura of awe, especially across large parts of India outside the metropolis. From a small district in Arunachal Pradesh, where my uncle was a schoolteacher, we would go to my village in Bihar for the summer vacation: When I was in Class V, the villagers would often gather around and demand English. Flustered that I still had no expressive ability, as I studied at a government school, I would utter a flurry of randomly assorted verbs and nouns accentuated with no semantic connections whatsoever, peppered with a long-sounding “and”. It left the crowd mesmerised. Years later, when I was in college in Bomdila, I saw my now old uncle come home depressed and humiliated. The district education officer had scolded him publicly: The humiliation felt was particular for being called a stupid Bihari.
With my newly-adorned English reputation, I drafted a letter I would myself be unable to understand a word of. A sense of resentment for the officer combined with compassion for the old teacher produced a mishmash of outlandish words and convoluted sentences that simply made no sense. Subsequently, the intended reader invited me to his office. He looked at me with vague admiration and cynicism. He offered the letter to his subordinate, who read it and looked flummoxed. After some moments of gestural consultation, they looked at me. “Very high class English, umm?” he said. I was offered tea, and asked what I actually wanted. Then, as if to show that he was not far behind in owning English, he dictated a letter of apology, often substituting a simple expression with a verbose one.
It is such attitudes and assumptions associated with the language that the draft national education policy seeks to redress. In villages and small towns, English schools are mushrooming. The teachers in these schools are often less than proficient in the language. They mutter half-understood content to an unsuspecting but confused lot of school children. There is nothing wrong in the intent expressed in the draft which echoes what the acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o wrote in his influential book, Decolonising the Mind (1986): “Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” It seeks to find a common ground between the language of culture and language of education and professional life.
The editorial claims “the exhortation,” in the draft, “to value languages other than English in the workplace, especially hiring, is perplexing”. Well, rather than perplexing, it is seeking a course correction. The consumer base for all the companies ultimately are the masses of the country, and the vast majority of them are non-English speakers. We can already see a change over the last decade or so when it comes to the use of Hindi and other Indian languages in the business world. This has, perhaps, been possible due to the greater presence of these languages in the cultural and public sphere, especially through social media. The draft seeks to ensure that the language of culture also remains the language of education and profession.
The elite, in the universities or the workplaces, often deride and exclude people with weak English language skills. There are cases where a student who is otherwise brilliant either drops out of a university or continues, but with a dented self-esteem adversely affecting their performance. Some may say that English is also a language of emancipation against various inequalities. English lifts an individual from a social environment of deprivation to a life of freedom and prestige. This may be true in particular and limited cases, but widespread progress can be achieved only in a language that one is born into and grows up with, in the family and the society.
However, the Draft is unfairly dismissive of English. It is not English in itself that is a problem: English has been the only available language of communication between Indians who speak languages that are mutually unintelligible. The Indian variety of English is recognised the world over as Indian English, and it has produced some great works of literature and art. The Sahitya Akademi has instituted an award for the best work written in English. For a small community of Indians, English is indeed their first language, and, for many, their second language. A respectable number of Indians living in the cities have English as one of the languages of their bilingual identity. Not only this, socially and culturally, English is lending its words to the languages of Indian origin. Even an unlettered Indian has no substitute, for example, to “missed call” in her own language.
English is an enigma. Like all issues of social importance in the country, there is no one way of thinking and arguing about it.
(The writer is professor, Centre for English Studies, JNU)