The place of English language in India today

The place of English language in India today
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First Published: Tue, Apr 14 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Tue, Apr 14 2009. 11 17 AM IST
In the mid-1980s, when I was studying journalism in the US, a question I was often asked was: “How do you speak English so well?” My reply was simple and honest. I would start by patiently explaining how I had studied English not just as a language but as the medium of instruction for all other subjects and then I would add: “English is not a foreign language to me. It is my language. It is as much of an Indian language to me as, say, Hindi or Tamil or Urdu.”
Over the years, my view of English hasn’t changed. I remain unapologetic of my ability to speak, write, read and dream in English. And I remain more convinced than ever that English is my language. As an Indian, I have happily embraced it and I believe that it has inherently joined the pantheon of languages—official and otherwise—that are spoken in this country.
Of course, there are problems with adopting English. It is not native—but neither is modern plumbing. We’ve soaked in various influences, from architecture to our legal system, that have only enriched us as a country. Many of our major religions—Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism—were born outside our boundaries. That doesn’t make them less Indian than our indigenous religions such as Jainism or Hinduism.
So, why do we persist in seeing English as a foreign language? Why do we remain apologetic about our usage of it, even though our own strains have enriched it? Bungalow, jungle, khaki—all have their origin in India. And I’m not even getting into the robust energy of university and MTV English with its wonderful, frequently untranslatable words such as pataofy, time-pass and enthu-cutlet.
Cause for resentment
Much of our resentment against English has to do with how it came into India, via East India Company.
Thomas Babington Macaulay’s goal of having a class of persons who would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect” could only be offensive to all Indians.
Yet, our elite, including such nationalists as Jawaharlal Nehru, had received an English education and conducted our dialogue for independence in English. Western education surely provided at least some of the ideological tools to defeat colonialism.
Some 60 years later, our ongoing resentment has its basis in the fact that though English is spoken by only a fraction of our population, it is the language of the social and economic elite. Even the way you speak it—with the baba-log sing-song intonation of a Nafisa Ali or the robust ethnicity of an Amar Singh—immediately places you within a certain class and rank. But this resentment is also coupled with a sense of needing English to get ahead. Look at the number of English language teaching institutions, particularly in smaller towns, to understand that English-speaking is regarded as a ticket to social and economic advancement.
Yet, the existence of an English-speaking elite does not deny the existence of a Hindi-speaking elite, at least in north India. Certainly Mulayam Singh Yadav for all his banish English rhetoric is part of this select club. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has traditionally advocated the adoption of a Sanskritized Hindi (as opposed to the more colloquial Hindustani). And Atal Bihari Vajpayee as foreign minister of India famously addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi (though the Bharatiya Janata Party has more recently taken to English with a new enthusiasm, reflecting its links to the English-speaking economic elite in this country).
Ban English?
The Samajwadi Party’s manifesto vowing to give short shrift to not just English, but also malls, stock trading, computers and agricultural machines, is out of touch with contemporary reality. India’s biggest global advantage has been its information technology competent, English-speaking population—a segment that our famous youth demographic clearly aspires to. Based on the outcry and ridicule heaped on his party’s manifesto since its release on Saturday, Yadav has modified his party’s anti-English stand: He doesn’t want to ban English, he only opposes it.
Yadav’s views on English are not new and go back to Ram Manohar Lohia’s anti-English movement. In 1989, when he became chief minister for the first time, Yadav had vowed to drive the English language out of the country. Then, in a nod to his non-Hindi-speaking alliance partners in the Deve Gowda government in 1996, he introduced Tamil as part of the Uttar Pradesh school curriculum.
On a recent visit to Japan, where English is frustratingly scarce, I was informed that the government has decided to make the language compulsory, at least as a subject, in schools. In China, teaching English has become a national mission. And in Singapore, another former British colony, English is the official language.
But claiming to not know English has its uses. When a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha member of Parliament was accused of accepting a bribe in order to vote in favour of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in a confidence vote in Parliament, his defence was simple: The evidence against him was false; it was in English!
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to
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First Published: Tue, Apr 14 2009. 01 15 AM IST