The loss of language

Print edition : February 10, 2006

At a workshop on effective English teaching, in Udhagamandalam. A file photograph. - D. RADHAKRISHNAN

The erosion of language skills in India is a major problem that requires urgent policy attention.

IT has happened slowly, almost unbeknownst to most of us. But the change has been widespread and reasonably dramatic. In a country where written language skills may have been the preserve of a minority but were still valued and cherished by that minority, we now have the emergence of a new generation where these skills are noticeably absent.

Across the country, institutions of higher education (even the most elite among them) are producing graduates with less than perfect control over the language or languages they normally use. The problem is particularly marked in English, where it is now difficult to find educated people under 40 years of age who do not regularly make mistakes in spelling, grammar and syntax. It is now commonplace to come across incorrect English in newspapers, in government documents, in advertisements, in instruction manuals - in fact, in everything that is written.

All this could still be excused in the case of English, on the grounds that despite its wide prevalence, it is not the mother tongue. But, unfortunately, the same seems to be true of the actual mother tongues. Those who teach in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and so on increasingly complain of students' lack of basic language skills, especially in written form. So, we now have as products of our education system, people who do not have true command over any language.

How has this happened? Even 20 years ago, schools and colleges in India were producing students whose English capabilities were on par with any native speaker, even if there were local peculiarities of usage. Indeed, among the elite, language skills were very highly developed. In an even earlier generation, being genuinely multilingual was almost a necessary qualification. Being educated inevitably meant also that proficiency not only in English, but in one's native tongue, and familiarity with its literature, were seen as essential.

While this may not have been so true for those born into the post-Independence elite, it was still the case that "English medium education" ensured that the correct use of the language was inculcated and generally absorbed, and also that the vocabulary was at least moderately large and reasonably sophisticated. Such an assurance can no longer be made for the vast majority of more recent products of our education system, even when they have graduated from the most prestigious and internationally recognised institutions.

This actually reflects different trends, not only in education, but also in society in general, in modes of social communication and information sharing, and even in the social and material rewards for correct use of language.

The problems may begin from early school education onwards, because of a newer and more "flexible" approach to pedagogy, whereby insistence of what are seen as "rigid rules" (of spelling, grammar, and so on) was abandoned. This was a tendency that first became evident in the United States in the 1970s, and moved on to England by the early 1980s. Naturally, it was adopted by the 1990s in India on the assumption that if it was being there, it must be the best way of doing things here as well.

In the primary and middle school curriculum of private schools in India, for example, there is hardly any emphasis on the rules of grammar, which are introduced in such a gentle and hesitant fashion that they could easily be ignored by less punctilious students. Spelling mistakes are routinely condoned and there seem to be few incentives to ensure that correct spelling is embedded in the mind. (So much so that there are even examples of spelling mistakes made in the report cards in some elite schools.) The building of vocabulary is similarly neglected, so that word usage remains at a basic and simple level, without much nuance and very little complexity.

Add to this the widely observed phenomenon that children (and adults) read less and less - especially of classics, great literature and the like - and it is not hard to see why language skills are being eroded.

But there is more to it now, of course. New technologies have changed both the modes of using language and the exposure to it in the most widely prevalent ways. Written English has thus been dramatically undermined: first by word processors, which do all the "hard work" of correcting spelling and finding appropriate words; then by email, which exonerates all mistakes supposedly committed by speed and immediacy of response; and now by mobile phone text messaging, which has created an appalling new vocabulary of its own.

Spoken English is much more undermined by the entertainment industry, especially the influence of television, which is increasingly dominated either by American serials or by our own variants of reality shows and fictional serials using the now ubiquitous Hinglish. This is why we now come across teenagers who cannot speak a sentence without inserting "like" in unlikely places, punctuated by declaimed pauses, as in "And uh, I'm, like, wow!" It is also why many perfectly well educated people are not even aware that in general parlance they are mixing up languages (such as Hindi and English) and therefore messing up and contravening the rules of both.

There are those who will argue that such complaints are much ado about nothing, the crabby responses of an old world purist who is not responding amenably to the changing times. Why do we need to bother with rules of grammar when we can be understood without them? Why be obsessed with spelling when the computer will do the spellcheck for you? What is the need for syntax when the basic communication is through a SMS?

This kind of argument misses some critical issues about language. The first, which is something that will resonate most sharply with those who see ICT (Information and Communication Technology) as a future driver of economic growth in India, is that genuine language skills are going to become much important for economic growth than ever before. Indeed, while off-shoring and relocation of IT (Information Technology)-enabled services may in any case be only minor contributors to India's future growth, there is little chance of them fulfilling even that limited role without ensuring greater and more comprehensive language skills among a much wider population.

But there is a deeper, perhaps much more significant, issue at stake here. Linguistic philosophers from Noam Chomsky to Steven Pinker have shown us how language is embedded in structures of thought, and how the interplay between language and thought processes is both deep and intricate. If that is so, could it not be that the way we use language also reflects the way we are thinking?

If our use of language is sloppy and casual, could it be that we are also falling prey to sloppy and casual ways of thought? If our prose communication lacks discipline and clarity, does it reflect lack of mental discipline and conceptual clarity? We can go further, since discipline is ultimately essential for any true creativity. So if our thinking in individual cases becomes slipshod in this manner, then what does it mean in terms of the social capacity for introspection and creative reflection?

The loss of language then has implications that go far beyond mere economic disadvantages. It extends to more worrying effects upon our ability as a society to generate, among our people, either philosophic understanding or mental creativity.

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