Colonial hangover

English snobbery has reached new heights these days, writes Lakshmi Palecanda, wondering where this trend will lead us.

In the 1830s, eminent historian and statesman Lord Macaulay introduced English education in India, and by doing so, unwittingly set in motion a train of events that continue to affect the subcontinent even today.

Anglicised Indians are still referred to as ‘Macaulay’s children’ in a derogatory way. However, while India took to English in a big way, it is fair to say that India took to its own versions of English.

“Open the door and let the atmosphere come in.”
“Why because?”
“So only he is saying like that, no?”
“As soon as she came home from work, she changed her clothes and became fresh.”
“Excuses, excuses. Always giving excuses. You only!”
“Can you able to see?”
“She is eating my head, yaar!”
“What for you are doing like this, no?”

Statements like these provoke giggles and grimaces from most of us. To state the obvious, we Indians long for two things: white skin and perfect English. We try to whiten our skin using all kinds of potentially harmful chemicals. The way in which we mangle the English language is also equally damaging.

We are not native speakers of the language. And we’ve learnt it the wrong way too. Instead of first listening and speaking, and then moving to reading and writing, we start off with the English alphabet, and then proceed to get thoroughly muddled in our use of the language. But why are we crazy about this very ‘phoren’ language?

Being colonised caused India to unite. Provinces, principalities, princely states and mini-kingdoms put aside their differences to join hands against a common enemy. But this was a country that was so insular that neighbouring towns kept their identity by speaking different languages. So, how were people to communicate?

For one thing, there were too many languages to learn. Even if you knew five totally different languages, you couldn’t communicate with three-fourth of the country. Another important factor was that it would be conceding the neighbour’s superiority if you spoke his language instead of your own. Most importantly, it was tantamount to insulting your mother tongue if you spoke your neighbour’s language. Enter English, a language foreign to all on the sub-continent, that could safely be adopted without injuring our own pride.

This may be a rather simplistic explanation for why English found fertile ground in India. But it sure is a major reason why we find it so much easier to get around the country today. Using a common currency, the Euro, helped simplify business transactions in the European Union. Similarly, using English for pan-Indian communication has made life so much simpler for us all to move around the country. However, the Euro also brought along its own headaches, as has the English language in India.

The arrangement of words in a sentence or the syntax in English is very different from that of native Indian languages. The most basic one (and quite frankly, the only one I know), is that, in English, the verb comes after the subject and before the object, while in Indian languages, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. Therefore, when we think in our mother tongues and translate the thought into English, we still have to work on to make it grammatically correct.

‘I ate two chapathis’ in English is ‘I two chapathis ate’ in our languages, and requires more work after translation from the vernacular before it becomes acceptable. Given rules like this (and the many more that I don’t know), it is no wonder that most of us have trouble with framing proper sentences in the language. Add to this, the multitude of English phrases, expressions, idioms, and slang, and it becomes a veritable jungle of words.

However, even then we’re not done. Don’t forget the pronunciation and the
accenting aspects also. The use of long and short vowel sounds, the differences between the alphabet and the phonemes, not to mention the baggage of mother tongue influences we bring with us, make it all the more difficult. So it is a feat that we are able to utter a syllable at all in English.
But all these problems notwithstanding, Indians, on average, speak good English.

India now claims that it is the world’s second largest English-speaking country in the world. What makes us proudest is being able to speak the language as well as or sometimes even better than its native speakers. “I don’t know nuthin’,” says somebody, and we smile in a superior way. We know all about not using double negatives, don’t we?

In fact, there are many of us who bravely venture to foreign shores with only
English-speaking ability to give us any confidence. I, for one, went to the United States to study, with no skill other than my English.

I was somewhat naively confident that the ability to communicate would smooth over most difficulties in a foreign land, and I was proved right. This is an advantage that many people around the world, like for instance the Chinese, don’t have, and Indians do benefit a lot from it. However, along the way, we became snobs when it came to English language.

When they colonised India, the British administered, made rules and conducted business in the country in their vernacular, English. They also taught their language to their helpers in Indian administration.

Thus, English was the language of the pucca sahibs and their wannabes. Well, things haven’t changed all that much. People who can speak good English regard themselves, and are regarded, as good enough to be ‘foreigners’.

English snobbery has reached new heights these days. There are homogenous families with one mother tongue who all speak English to each other. These so-called sophisticates are so eager to Westernise themselves that they try to shake off every vestige of their own culture. Their hair is coiffed in Western salons, by desi-Westerners.

Their clothes and accessories carry brand names with Made in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Honduras/Philippines written in tiny letters on the labels. They eat the local chicken and aloo tikki in McDonald’s and KFCs, paying exorbitant amounts. They don’t even read Indian authors, because “they just aren’t any good.” To these people, language is just another effort to leave their origins behind and belong to something they think is better.

Passport to success

However, there is no getting away from the fact that a good knowledge of the English language, written and spoken, is essential to landing well-paid white collar jobs and getting ahead in life today.

There is also no denying that lack of English language skills results in a huge number of people being given little respect and excluded from the higher strata of our work force. When I was young, somebody once ridiculed a man for writing coffee powder as ‘caffe powder’. A very wise aunt of mine was listening to this. She immediately said, “That may be. But his wife just bought a pair of gold bangles. My husband speaks and writes good English, but you don’t see any new gold bangles on me.” Though she had very little formal education, she had the good sense to see what most of us don’t, even today.

There are many people with immense talent who languish without an opportunity to prove themselves because they cannot master English. Many are denied jobs at which they deserve a shot, just because, “they can’t speak two sentences in English,” or “they can’t write a leave letter in English.”

These people lack nothing essentially: they are good at what they do, they are intelligent, have people skills and good communication skills. They even communicate well in English. But they don’t have the quality in language that comes with regular use of the language, both in spoken and written forms, and are punished for that. At the same time, we reward empty-headed people who may be able to speak and write the language very well, but are unable to do anything else of use.

It is time we mobilised the population that lacks English skills, and gave them back their self-esteem and legitimacy. Yes, they are fully capable of helping India shine even better. And if they don’t speak the best language, so what, yaar? Language is there only for communication, no?


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