Monday, August 15, 2011


The story of English in India is interesting. It is the only foreign language against the continuance of which there have been agitations from time to time in post-independence India, till at least the nineteen nineties. Yet its continuance has never really been threatened in the least. In fact, ways have been found to explain and justify, although only indirectly, its place in India. In Nehru’s words, it is a language “of importance to India”. It is the Associate Official language of the Indian State. Because it was not an Indian language, it was not included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution but was not excluded from the Sahitya Akademi list of languages. In 1958, Central Institute of English (CIE) was set up – interestingly, Central Institute of Hindi and Central Institute of Indian Languages were set up in 1961 and 1969 respectively - to improve the quality of the teaching of English in India. Pandit Nehru is said to have specified even the model to be promoted at CIE, and by implication, in the country: British English. In the early sixties, English was accorded the status of a “library language” in India. Probably because linking English with education directly was to be avoided in public discourse on the subject, this rather curious phrase was coined and thereby a terminological contribution to educational linguistics made by the UGC, although this sub-discipline of linguistics does not seem to have been thankful for it. Among the academicians, whereas some called English the language of opportunity in India, some others called it the language of the elite in the country. In fact, most of them were indeed of the elite class, a fact they preferred to forget in their public utterances. By the nineties, such discourses on the status of English in India had become more or less a thing of the past. In the meantime, the so-called English medium schools had come up like mushrooms, to use a really stale, but apt metaphor, in the by-lanes of the cities, and in small towns, where more often than not, bad English was taught.

There are some interesting contradictions concerning English. The most popular one is that most of those who opposed English sent their children to the English medium schools. Then many of our scholars who talk most loudly and write with much conviction and a good deal of jargon about the decolonization of our attitudes and modes of thinking use English, not an Indian language, to articulate this idea. For the modernization of the Indian languages, resources of Sanskrit and of the Indian languages themselves are to be used, according to a directive of the Constitution of India. The implicit message here is to avoid English for the purpose. But in reality, both the lexical repertoire and the forms and the styles of discourse of our languages have been enriched through interaction with English, which brings out the hollowness of the argument that English has adversely affected the growth of our languages. The Constitutional directive has been generally followed in the preparation of the glossaries of technical terms, but these glossaries have largely remained confined to the libraries. Despite a rather apologetic attitude towards English by the government, the language education policy of the Union Government has made Indians multilingual, one of the languages of their multilingualism being English. Today the English-knowing population in India is said to be quite large, their number exceeded by only the Hindi-knowing population. Thus English has emerged as one of the two link languages in urban India. One of the familiar arguments against English has been that it is the language of exploitation; now the deprived and the marginalized population of our country are demanding that they be taught English, the language that has been effectively denied to them by the hypocrisy of the privileged population, who, they say, have earned their privilege because of their knowledge of this language.

Now with this has effectively ended the rhetoric about English being the colonizer’s language. The generation of the nineties, who read from their text books about India being under the British rule for about two hundred years seems to have noted that this so-called foreign language had become probably the most important language of opportunity for the Indians. Globalization might have contributed to this understanding but is certainly is not its main cause.

In India English has been Indianized as the Indian languages have been Englishized. Our pronunciation of English is pretty Indianized. A bit of the syntax is Indianized too. We use expressions like “where are you coming from”, “I am having three houses in this very city”, unaware that these are Indianisms. We don’t care, even when told that these are Indianisms. Many say, if these are un-English or are errors, they are so only in our English teacher’s English. Four O’clock is not evening for us, it is “afternoon”. Two A.M. is not wee hours in the morning for us, it is “night”. The school name is the “good name” for us. But the ultimate Indianization of English is its transformation into an icon, a goddess, for whom a temple has been built in Uttar Pradesh.

1 comment:

Abhisek Sarkar said...

Actually West Bengal government once ousted English language from primary school education and the consequence was no less than what is expected. We rallied for our prestige variety and restored our anglican rights. The chief argument against this sudden burst of linguistic nationalism was that it deprives students from West Bengal of jobs across the nation and even abroad. It is hard to be totally dismissive of the truth. But interestingly restoration of the lost glory of English in West Bengal did not work wonders and surprisingly there was no rise in the number of students qualifying competitive examinations or attaining lucrative careers.