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Stranger At Home

Submitted by admin on Sun, 08/15/2010 - 08:22

English bespeaks progress. India’s youth is much the worse without it.

Our obsession with the English language has served us brilliantly. It has kept us united as a nation; it has contributed significantly to the social mobility of Indians; it has been a major factor in our recent success in the global economy.

 One of the cheerful things happening in India is the quiet democratising of English. Dalits are today its biggest advocates because English allows them to work in call centres and other modern jobs where there are fewer caste barriers. A recent survey in Mumbai shows that Dalit women who knew English rose economically by marrying outside their caste--31% of Dalit women who knew English had inter-caste marriages compared to 9% who did not know the language. Dalits identify vernacular languages with caste oppression. Hence, Dalits across the country hailed Mayawati’s decision to introduce English from the first grade in U.P. (That there aren’t English teachers is another issue!)

 The linguist, Peggy Mohan, likens social mobility through English to the mobile phone. Just as the masses today are leapfrogging to cell phones without going through a landline stage, Mohan thinks that English will evolve from an elite to a mass, second language of the new emerging Indian middle class. If functioning in pre-literate dialects is not to have a phone; and learning a standard regional language, say shudh Hindi, is to acquire a landline; then aspiring Dalits at English schools, will actually leapfrog from their pre-literate mother tongues to literacy in functional English. The child who confronts English for the first times faces incomprehension initially, but eventually most manage to take a leap into a new world.

 U.P. is also a crucible to observe the social mobility of Muslims. Mulayam Singh shares a distaste for the English language and computers with many Muslim clerics. Because he lost Muslim support after his bear hug with Kalyan Singh, he decided to win Muslims back with an anti-English crusade. This strategy backfired, however, for young Muslims find English and computers are the route to good jobs—minority employment in IT/ ITES industry is 12 per cent employment compared to less than 4 per cent in other sectors. It escaped Mulayam’s attention that every mofussil Muslim mohalla and qasba in U.P. has small private English-medium schools catering to artisans, rikshawallas, reriwallas.

 Since the nineties there is a new, quiet confidence in our nation, and our attitude to English has also changed. It has become an Indian language. Unlike my generation, today’s young are more relaxed about English and think it a skill, like learning Windows, and comfortably mix it with their mother tongues. When they speak English, even if inaccurately, they feel that they own it. 

 I do not agree with critics who claim that we have created a rootless elite, which has lost the ability to think because it does speak any language well. I went to an English medium school and work mostly in English but Hindi is my street language. Even though I do not read Hindi newspapers or novels, I have spent the last six years reading the Mahabharata. There are millions of English speaking Indians like me, who balance our language of empowerment (English) with our language of identity (the vernacular). There is thus no danger of losing rich and ancient languages like Marathi and Kannada and vernacular chauvinists are unnecessarily alarmed. That said, if our children had learned both English and vernaculars in a lively way from class one, we would have become a truly bilingual and culturally richer nation.

 There is also a problem with the way we teach language. For example, we teach an artificial Hindi in a soulless way, which doesn’t connect with people. Fortunately Bollywood does a much better job and Hindi’s popularity continues to grow. Unless we drastically reform how we teach regional languages, they will suffer the landline’s fate.

 English, too, continues to be taught abysmally and we have run out of English teachers. Over the next ten years 3.5 million jobs will be outsourced globally. India is likely to lose these jobs, according to the expert, David Graddol, author of English Next, because we are losing our “English advantage” to other countries. China is doing a far better job in training English teachers, and soon English speakers in China will outnumber those in India, according to Graddol. If this is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is!

Gurcharan Das is the author of India Unbound and The Difficulty of Being Good