English Vinglish

The average Malayali has a tortured relationship with English. It’s full of contradictions – love, hate; admiration, envy; desire, indifference. The actress Urvashi commenting during a popular music reality show put it succinctly when she said, “Those who make fun of those who speak English well are actually jealous. They just hide behind a pretense of disdain.” She could not have been more right. Mallus have a strange fascination for and hatred of English. They secretly admire those who speak the language fluently but put on an outward show of dislike. “Oh, come on,” you will hear them say, “There is no sayippu (white man) here. Why don’t you speak in Malayalam?” Yet the vast majority of them want their children to learn to speak fluent English and will stand in snaky queues for long hours in front of dubious ‘English medium’ schools and cheerfully pay exorbitant fees. Why these double standards?

Yet those who champion the cause of Malayalam chauvinism most vocally are found to have admitted their children in English medium schools. Those who blame America and Western culture for all our ills have their children working in these places. In private conversations they are often heard to say very proudly that their children are settled in the ‘states’.

The Past Catches Up

As far as English is concerned many of us have a colonial hangover. English was the language of the colonial masters and during the Independence movement everything that concerned the British including their language came under criticism. Macaulay’s minute on education was minutely discussed and several national leaders including Gandhiji expressed the opinion that English has enslaved us and has resulted in us slavishly aping the Western masters including their customs, culture and morals. To a certain extent and as far as certain people were concerned, this was true. But it was also true that among the national leaders it was English that had acted as a link language and but for this language the Indian National Movement would have been severely disabled. A South Indian Rajaji would have been unable to communicate with a Gujarati Gandhiji or a Kashmiri Nehru.

Yes Macaulay did intend to use English to create a class of Indians who would loyally serve the British and to a certain extent he was successful. But the subjects of the education experiment by the British were not inert laboratory specimens but human beings and the most important characteristic of human behavior is unpredictability. If you put three different kinds of inputs into a mechanical device you can predict with certainty what the resultant output will be. But you cannot do so with humans. And this was where the British colonialists miscalculated. They tried to put Western ideas and language into the human population and wanted a certain class of people who would unquestioningly obey them but they found that they had instead created a class of people who used the ideas taught to them to question the practices of the colonial masters. So much for the colonial hangover regarding English. If you have owned something for more than two hundred and fifty years you certainly would not call it foreign. Besides the English language with its wonderful quality of absorption has absorbed so many Indian words and Indianisms that it is now possible to have a variety of English that is our very own.

Why Learn English

English certainly is the language in which most of the world does business. Whether you like the scenario or not it makes sense to learn the language and have a reasonable degree of proficiency in it. Monolingual countries like Japan and China are making great efforts to teach their people English and some reckon that in the economic competition between the two Asian giants – China and India – India is likely to do better because of its proficiency in English.

Besides, we are a multilingual country. How can we afford to neglect a language that serves as an effective link at least among the educated Indians? With India being a virtual tower of Babel with at least twenty two major languages and many more minor ones not counting the dialects, one cannot ignore the importance of a link language. Given the resentment with which the imposition of Hindi is seen, it is likely that this is going to be the cause of disagreement between the peninsular south and the northern parts of the country. To prevent this Hindi should not be imposed on people who do not wish to learn it. And there should be some rethinking on the three language formula. I feel it would be best to make it a two language one where a child learns English and her regional language and has the option to choose one more Indian language as a subject if she so desires.

As Indians we cannot afford to indulge in language chauvinism. We already have enough to divide us and some of these fault lines have become deeper in recent times. Each of us should make an effort to speak and learn more Indian languages apart from our home language and English.

A Bizarre Story

Let me end on a lighter note. I don’t know whether the following story is true but it does have some relevance to the topic under discussion and so here goes:

A labourer from Kerala, so the story goes, once went missing in Bihar. The man’s relatives met the then chief minister of Kerala and requested him to directly intervene in order to trace their man. The chief minister readily obliged and wrote a letter to the then Bihar chief minister in English requesting him to look into the matter. After a few weeks he got a reply from the Bihar chief minister, a very long and detailed one, but in Hindi. The Kerala chief minister lost no time in replying and he sent his Bihar counterpart a long missive in Malayalam! I dread to think what happened to the missing man.  

What’s true of Malayalis is largely true of other Indians too. Let’s learn English and not denigrate it. It’s the language the world is speaking in. But let’s also learn our own languages more than one if possible or we shall end up in conditions as chaotic as the one in the story above.

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