In our multilingual fabric, English is another language

In our multilingual fabric, English is another language

In our multilingual fabric, English is another language

It has finally been decided to disregard the scores for the rather simple English comprehension test from the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT II); on the other hand, we have introduced English from Class 1 across the country without having any adequate arrangements for teachers who are sensitive to the nature, acquisition and structure of language or multilingualism;

nor have we worried that English language teaching would be impossible unless we have qualified English language teachers or English language materials or teaching aids. Perhaps nowhere else in the world teachers who themselves know no English, teach English nevertheless.

In fact, most people may not even know that in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, English is the medium of instruction from Class 1 though most teachers there acknowledge that they teach English and all other subjects through the local languages of children.

Is this the way we are going to address the problems the phenomenon of English pose for us? It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of English in modern India just as it is impossible to deny that the way we celebrate English these days, it minimises the significance of the languages of people and widens the gulf between the rich and the poor. We need to locate English squarely in the multilingual and multicultural fabric of India.

We have created an aura around English. It is being projected and celebrated, in particular, in the developing world, as a necessary requirement for higher education and social mobility. In fact, we first spend billions of dollars to create that image and multiply that demand and then argue that even the poorest of the poor want English.

In the process, we marginalise the languages of the people on the margins of society and then spend token amounts of money to display them as objects of wonder in a museum. That point was emphatically brought home to us by Ivan Illich in his introduction to D P Pattanayak’s 1981 book Multilingualism and mother-tongue education.

One should therefore not be surprised that the most well-funded language enterprise of modern times is the documentation of ‘endangered languages and cultures’. The other industry that is flourishing in the domain of language is of course the English Language Teaching i.e. the ELT industry. About 3 billion pounds of the British economy alone come from the ELT industry.

‘Locating’ English

What does it mean to locate English in the multilingual fabric of India? The first step towards that agenda involves getting rid of those myths we have created around English. There is nothing special about English; it is as systematic a language as French, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Tamil, Telugu, Gondi, Angami or Bodo; nothing more, nothing less.

Secondly, for a variety of socio-historical and political reasons and exploitation of centuries it has like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian or Arabic acquired a status that seems to overawe people, forgetting what happened to the rest may soon potentially happen to English as well.

Thirdly, we must begin to ask in what sense is English a global language. Not in terms of ‘native’ speakers; it is far behind Mandarin, Spanish and in some ways Hindi. The most optimistic estimates for speakers of English is around 430 million (of course many use it as a second or third language; but that may be true of Hindi or Spanish as well); the number of people who have some working knowledge of Hindi in the Hindi belt of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in India may be close to over 550 million! The number of people who use English alone for all purposes in India would be very small; the number which uses it for important auxiliary purposes is substantially large.

Yet for rural India which would be at least 60 per cent of the whole country in terms of both area and population, English is a foreign language, even though it has already been introduced from Class 1. English is indeed a global language for us in that it provides us access to world knowledge and world trade; it is our associate official language constitutionally; a medium of instruction of most higher education and a major link among the Hindi and non-Hindi speaking states. It is an important component of the verbal repertoire of the Indian community.

We therefore need to ensure that all Indian children acquire a reasonable level of proficiency in English. This has to be done not at the cost of the local and regional languages of children but in a framework that ensures dignity to and proficiency in the languages of children. We do need to recognise that languages flourish in each other’s company; they get suffocated in isolation.

Recent research has brought to light the theory and practice of language teaching that are located in multilingualism. We are beginning to use code-mixing, code-switching, translation, translanguaging and multilinguality as positive practices of the language classroom.

It is now possible to use pedagogical practices that are rooted in multilinguality. These practices do not insult the languages children bring to school; instead they treat them as a potential on which to build not only proficiency levels in their own languages and English but also as sources for enhancing cognitive growth, scholastic achievement and social tolerance.

(The author is currently professor emeritus, Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox