Watching your language

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

In the confusion and controversy over the medium of instruction, it was the children of ordinary citizens who suffered. They learned little or no English. -

In the confusion and controversy over the medium of instruction, it was the children of ordinary citizens who suffered. They learned little or no English. -

The elimination of English from school education has ultimately affected the ordinary citizen. Experience shows that the language has the potential to unite people, offer them economic advantages and usher in socio-economic change.

WHAT the British left behind after they left India - the colonial legacy, to be politically correct - consisted of a number of things, of which a few will suffice for the purpose of this essay. They are the railways, the telephones, the educational system and the English language.

The railways have expanded a good deal since independence, and in this process more help has been taken from Germany, Japan, Korea and other countries. As far as I know, little material help or expertise has come from Britain, which the British themselves complain has a railway system that is a mess, and there is a demand that it be taken back by the state from the private companies that now run it.

We all know the almost complete revolution that has taken place with our telecommunications system; there has been a huge leap into the world of cellular phones and a number of private companies are competing fiercely with one another and with the state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL). Of late, private companies have entered the hitherto sacred preserve of the state-run companies, cable connections to land systems, but, be it said to the credit of BSNL and MTNL, they have grimly held on to their markets and are giving as good as they get. Their services have improved, including their billing and accounting, and all in all it is a good example of what a public sector company can do if it sets about doing it the right way.

The educational system has stayed more or less the same in essence, though the content and teaching techniques have changed; there have been largely political attempts to fiddle with content, and one of the earliest and most passionate campaigns was the alteration of the medium of instruction in schools and colleges to the mother tongue and the elimination of English, which was seen, for populist reasons, as a symbol of colonialism. In virtually all the States this is now the pattern; education in most government-run or aided schools is in the mother tongue, although policy on teaching English has varied. Some States have done away with it, or made it optional; and others have introduced it as a subject late in the school system, so the child barely gets to know how to read and write the language. Most of them cannot speak it in any intelligible manner.

Fortunately, the university system still uses English, by and large, to teach, mainly because a number of subjects have hardly any textbooks in the local language - in Physics, Economics, Chemistry, to take just some examples. But nevertheless there are universities where they still keep the medium in which the student can answer questions in examinations optional - they can do it in their mother tongue or in English. Not surprisingly, these universities are for the most part in those areas of the country where Hindi is spoken.

For some decades, the equation of English with colonialism continued, and with it a curious double standard in the political class. Those who raged about English most quietly sent their children to English medium schools, and even to the United Kingdom and the United States later for higher studies. Thus, when the impact of globalisation became more and more pronounced, these favoured children easily found lucrative work in different multinational companies and other organisations within the country and abroad. Inevitably, too, the institutes of specialised professional studies within the country - the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), and Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) - were filled with students who were, as they had to be, proficient in written and spoken English.

In all this the ordinary citizen was the one who suffered; his children learnt little or no English, could not compete in competitive examinations either for institutions like the IITs and IIMs nor could they get jobs in private enterprises that were opening up for those who had a good command of the language and a specialised degree. It took a while for some States to realise this, and some, West Bengal, for example, openly declared that their policy had been a mistake, and they reversed it, making it compulsory for children to study English from Class I. It was a brave and practical decision; the rhetoric of colonial domination made way to concern for their young - a concern that they be fit to compete with the best for the jobs that were becoming available with the revolution in Information Technology, and larger investments being made in India as India began to be seen as a huge potential market.

Indeed, it seems unthinkable that in the 21st century there still are people in this country who would like to limit the spread of English. They argue that it brings with it the crass commercialism and consumerism of which MTV and McDonalds are symbols, and to an extent they are correct. But maybe a distinction needs to be made. Globalised television does bring in a kind of synthetic culture one would not like to see take root here, but it comes via the English spoken in the U.S., the colloquialisms, slang, catch phrases and all of that. And when it is used for more serious discourse it comes up with some rather strange, pedantic and almost amusing ways of using the language. `I would advise you to dismount your vehicle' and `terminating with extreme prejudice' are some examples of this.

BUT there is an English that is developing in India that is peculiarly its own; it is based on British English, but has moved on from there to a place of its own. Writers who have no colonial baggage to bother them are using it, shaping it to meet their own requirements and preferences. We can see it in the novels that are being written, in some - not all - essays published in academic journals and those which have a more discerning and, well, English-speaking, readership.

Consider its advantages by looking at a negative aspect, at one of the present day developments in the advertising world. The use of English and Hindi started the trend, because so-called creative people in the advertising world felt they would, firstly, have a more direct impact on their potential customers, and secondly because of the blithe assumption that everyone understood Hindi. (There is a car called the josh machine, even in the south and in the east of the country. What on earth does it mean to those who do not speak Hindi?) Inevitably, in different regions English-Tamil, English-Bengali and other hybrid ads began to appear. What it meant was that in the cities - and that is where these ads are most common - they meant nothing to those who did not speak the local language.

Given the fact that the population - the population with the purchasing power - in, say, Kolkata and Chennai - are now cosmopolitan and a large section of it does not speak Bengali or Tamil, the advertisements lose their effect as far as these people are concerned. Whereas advertisements entirely in English are understood everywhere, and, I dare say the response is hardly any the less for that.

Which is the point. English unites. Across the country, as more and more people are able to speak it. It is time to throw political rhetoric out and look at the future of our young. It is not just an economic advantage; it ushers in socio-cultural change.

Look at Singapore. The Chinese speaking population still speaks Chinese, as the Indians speak Tamil, and the Malays speak Bahasa. Yet, English is an integral part of their education, their ability to communicate with one another and the outside world. If we had not been afflicted with the political bigotry that tried to suppress it for decades we would have been in a similar situation. But it is not too late; some States are changing, and we must hope others will follow suit.

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