Our language crisis

The post-colonial elite of India favoured English in the educational and economic spheres, while the state and politicians were nominally committed to Indian languages. As a result, more than seven decades after independence, the question of the medium of instruction in educational institutions remains unresolved. And, we continue to struggle with poor learning outcomes, high drop-out rates, and the lack of inclusion of the masses in higher education because of, among other things, our inability to provide quality education through mother tongues.

The association of English with material success in the popular imagination and the neglect of intellectual activity in Indian languages have not only allowed the former to thrive at the expense of our languages, it has also made millions believe that our languages (as well as the knowledge ingrained in them) are worthless. I am reminded of a young student leader, whom I met in a remote town of Nagaland. Without any prompting, he told me that his grandparents were “backward” because they did not know English (I asked him if Europeans should be considered backward because they do not know Naga languages).

Nagaland was the first state to adopt English as its official language and the medium of instruction in schools. However, five decades after Nagaland aligned its state policy with the elite preference, a majority of its people are not proficient in English even as their own languages remain neglected. The condition of other states, where private institutions took the lead in introducing English in schools, is not better.

In fact, irrespective of their state’s language policy, people have been going out of their way to learn English. An acquaintance of mine in Etawah (Uttar Pradesh) approached a chemistry teacher, who was barely conversant with English. He was given to believe that the teacher, who could effortlessly pronounce names of chemical compounds, was best suited to help him pick up spoken English.

Phas Gaye Re Obama, a 2010 Hindi film, takes us through the world of spoken English courses exemplified by Tyagi English Coaching Class. The photos of US presidents, sportsmen, entrepreneurs and film stars adorned the Coaching Class, whose tagline was “English seekho amerikaa jaao” (Learn English, go to America). The English teacher warned the students against using Hindi in the class in the following words: “This English coaching, not a local language... You together thinking, English speaking like a rice plate eating. No. Never. Not. English speaking not a children play. English speaking like a undertaker play”.

I was reminded of this film while travelling through Jammu and Kashmir, where I found thousands of posters advertising English medium schools with names such as YES Dubai Grand School International, Ever Onn Public School, KLM International School, JK Montessorie British School, and DRS Kids.

I came across only one advertisement listlessly calling attention to the existence of some Urdu academy that nobody seemed to care for and also a poster meekly inviting students to learn Arabic. Eighth Schedule languages such as Kashmiri and Dogri seemed to be entirely absent from the advertisement space.

Chasing the mirage
The decline of non-English media schools and the growth of strangely-named English medium schools, is not restricted to Jammu and Kashmir though. Until the 1990s, there used to be good Hindi medium schools in Kanpur that ranked ahead of English medium schools. Today, none of them commands the same respect. They did not lose patrons because of a decline in teaching standards. They just failed to fulfil the demand for English.

People are chasing the mirage of English because those who do not know the language are denied both voice and space in (urban) India. A recent Hindi film, English Vinglish (2012), poignantly captured this. In this film, the lack of acquain­tance with English affected the standing of a housewife, both in the society and sadly even within her family. Her daughter, who studied at an English medium school, and husband treated her with contempt. She redeemed herself by learning English. The director could not imagine other means of redemption.

The reel and real life characters mentioned above stand for millions who cannot speak English. Those who somehow manage to learn the language feel on cloud nine. Parents feel proud of their children, when they get better grades in English than in Indian languages. The children innocently proclaim that they hate Indian languages (qua subjects, I hope).

However, even in the best case, most first generation English learners belatedly realise that they have picked up the wrong English, namely, British or Indian one, whereas the elite has moved on to American English. These people constitute a large and growing part of our society that is neither India nor Bharat.

English, which was retained after independence to avoid linguistic conflict within the country, has introduced a new linguistic divide that is aligned with, and thus reinforces, the class divide. But, our self-absorbed Anglophone elite continue to be oblivious of the damage English has done to the society.

A decade ago, then prime minister Manmohan Singh proudly informed his audience at the Oxford University: “Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language… Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language.” English is not just another language. It is, as Ram Manohar Lohia warned as early as the 1950s, a key marker as well as determinant of socio-economic privilege in post-colonial India.

It is time we paid attention to the language problem, which is at the heart of our education system. An education system based on the neglect or hatred of one’s own languages cannot promote the pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, instead of confronting the problem we have abandoned ourselves to market forces that are steering us into an ever tighter embrace of English and compounding the language crisis.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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