Thursday, August 24, 2006

What about my mother tongue? August 27, 2006

My column on ‘Inglish’ last month brought a lot of mail. Much of it was favourable, but a few criticised me for advocating the “bizarre” idea that we should think of English as an Indian language and exploit it unabashedly to “conquer the world”. Since my critics are serious academics I don’t want to dismiss their concerns lightly. The nation’s 59th birthday has also just passed—so it is a good time to dwell on our linguistic future.
Anthropologists tell us that language is a carrier of culture and one’s first language carries one’s culture. Gauri Vishwanathan writes in the Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India that the English language came to us as an "imperial mission" of educating and civilising colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England. English speaking Indians thus became “alienated from their roots, their character degraded, and their minds colonized and incapable of innovation”. English also became an instrument of social exclusion against the low caste. Hence, many critics want English banned from our primary schools.
True, it came here on an imperial mission and got left behind by accident, but English is now a part of our history, as much as Gandhi and Nehru. Millions of Indians have been speaking English for generations and they don’t show imminent signs of losing their Indian-ness. Besides, young middle class Indians today are more confident and relaxed, and their minds are finally decolonised. They think of English as an empowering skill, like Windows, and are comfortable mixing it with their mother tongue. They “live in their own skin" as the great French-Algerian writer, Frantz Fanon, would have put it.
Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, says that no one 'owns' English anymore. It is the global language and a quarter of the world's population uses it. Three-quarters of the world's people are naturally bilingual, he adds. This means that people are capable of maintaining a balance between their language of empowerment and their language of identity. Hence, major languages, like Marathi and Kannada, are in no danger of extinction (although our tribal languages are). Vernacular chauvinists, in Karnataka and elsewhere, are wrong to go against parents’ wishes who want their children to learn English in primary schools. Linguistic experts say that a person has a huge advantage if he learns a language before the age of ten. This is one of the reasons why 98 out of 100 candidates for call centre jobs get rejected. Over the next ten years 3.5 million jobs are expected to be outsourced globally, and they are likely to be lost by India because BPO experts say that India is losing its “English” advantage to other countries. China has realised that outsourcing is capable of wiping out the disease of “educated unemployment” and it has made teaching English from KG a national goal.

What is truly “bizarre” is that India, whose success in the global economy derives from its facility with English, should remain hostage to the deep insecurities of its vernacular chauvinists. They worry about borrowing English words. Imagine if Shakespeare had written his plays in pure Anglo Saxon and hadn’t borrowed wildly from Latin, Germanic and French roots! We can either be like the French or the Chinese. The French whine over globalization while the confident Chinese go out to play and win the game. I’d rather follow the Chinese. Let’s think of English as an Indian language and go and win the world.


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