Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2429

No More Advantavge English

By TusharCcharan - Syndicate Features

Even ‘anti-national’ Indians concede that by virtue of it being the source of most Indian languages, Sanskrit should and does command great respect in the country. The government does not have to go so far in support of Sanskrit as to make it compulsory in schools, colleges—and IITs, as the human resource minister wants.

In today’s world the young Indians find it more useful to learn English and other foreign languages for moving ahead in life and career. But contrary to the view in certain circles, these unpatriotic elements, sometimes derided as ‘Macaulay putras’, accept that in a country as diverse as India, all languages spoken in India deserve equal respect. Where these ‘seditious’ Indians disagree with their critics is when the latter begin to question their patriotic credentials for speaking in defence of English, the language introduced by our colonial British masters.

Whether by design or accident, a subtle attempt is being made in the country in the name of empowering the common man to downgrade the role that the English language has played in the country, both during the long freedom struggle and after Independence. It is ‘subtle’ because it has not figured among the host of programmes launched by the Modi government with catchy titles.

But it may be recalled that after taking over as the prime minister one of the first acts of Narendra Modi was to ask his bureaucrats not to use English as he pledged himself to speaking only in Rashtra Bhasha, Hindi. There has been a slight relaxation in this diktat because it would have been impossible to expect the bureaucrats to give up the decades, if not more than a century old, practice of using English for official work. But by and large, Modi has kept himself off English in his own communications within and outside the country.

Not that his self-imposed ban on English is absolute. He reportedly converses with most visiting dignitaries in English. But he will be well advised to stick to his ‘Rashtra Bhasha only’ rule if his intention has been to put across his point of view effectively before his foreign interlocutors.

Contradictory as it may sound, his indigenous audience will have to struggle less to comprehend his English since they are used to hearing a variety of accents from their compatriots. The point, in any case, is not about accents but the role of English in modern India which aspires to be a major ‘soft’ power.

Can India reach the level it aspires without the help of English? No! Interest in learning and speaking English well will wane as both at the official and at individual levels there is no effort to hold on to a linguistic advantage that India has held for long.

The standard of both written and spoken English has been deteriorating. With few exceptions, the proficiency of most of the young students coming out of the ‘best’ schools, colleges and other campuses of higher learning can be questioned. It is not that they write or speak totally unintelligible English. Much of what they write and speak in English can be understood, at least within the country. But can the same be said when they interact with foreigners, especially those whose mother tongue is English?

Increasing contacts with the outside world is essential for India and Indians if the country has to make a more impressive mark in the world. We will be harming ours interests if we pay no attention to the importance of speaking and writing English well.

The so-called advantage that India has enjoyed on the basis of its vast army of men and women who are comfortable with English is already under threat from a number of non-English speaking countries in Europe and Asia. The Philippines has knocked India out from the number one position in the BPO sector. One of the reasons is that the accent of English spoken by the call centre employees in the Philippines is easily understood in the English-speaking world.

It is no secret that in the English speaking world they like to mock the ‘Indian’ accent. The US presidential candidate Donald Trump did it recently. In Hollywood movies, British actor, Peter Sellers, acted in a number of films mimicking the Indian accent.

There is an element of exaggeration in the English-speaking world’s reaction to ‘Indian’ accent. But there is exasperation when Indians struggle to convey their thoughts flawlessly in English. This happens because during their early education not enough attention was paid to learning the language with a degree of perfection because of the ‘anything goes’ (‘chalta hai’) attitude.

‘Minor’ mistakes in the language are considered inconsequential. It is common to hear adult and ‘educated’ Indians converse in a mixture of English and their mother tongue. The habit of continuing to speak in one language is discouraged.

It is perhaps seen (and heard) in its worst form in North India where even Indians from outside the Hindi heartland are forced to listen to ‘Hinglish’ and speak it too. There was a time when in some ‘reputed’ public schools, pupils were punished if they were found speaking in any other language than English. Obviously, that was possible when India was a colony. In free India that will raise a storm.

‘Hinglish’ or its other Indian variants may be acceptable in private conversation. But surely not on formal occasions like, say, when you are invited to participate in a debate or being interviewed for an English language programme.

Taking the ‘subtle’ campaign to relegate English, most of the ministers and even some spokesmen of the ruling party respond to questions asked in English in Hindi.

The objection is not to the fact that they respond in Hindi; the problem is that an English language programme has to be conducted entirely in that language. Some, if not most, of the listeners or viewers of a programme would like it to be conducted in one language. If a guest is unable to speak that language, arrangements have to be made for simultaneous translation.

There is certainly nothing shameful in acknowledging inability to speak in English or any other language or refusing to speak a language over which the person’s command is weak.

Many of the top leaders of the former Soviet Union would never speak in English in public even when they were fairly fluent in the language. They spoke in Russian and their words would be translated for the benefit of the audience. It helped them avoid embarrassment later for having said something in a language they did not know well.

But in India the situation is somewhat different. Here many of our public figures boast of ‘degrees’ that presume a certain degree of proficiency in English. It does them no credit if they display lack of confidence in their linguistic skill. Besides, as leaders and public figures they set a bad precedent.

- Asian Tribune -

diconary view
Share this