Friday, March 22, 2013


A friend recently said in a seminar that at least in India, English is a predatory language, a real threat to our languages. For reasons we need not go into here, English is now the main language of international communication in many important domains. And for historical reasons, it is the language most accessible to us for international communication. Both these are unalterable facts. So we must live with the same; in fact we must make the best use of a situation which people like my friend think undesirable.

For a long time English was viewed as the language of the colonizer.  For Gandhiji, it created a group of Indian English-knowing middle men through whom the ruled could communicate with the rulers, and this situation which gave rise to a new group of exploiters. Post-independence, there was a demand by some influential political leaders to dispense with English altogether In India. National identity and pride were among the most important considerations for them when they demanded the banishment of English from the Indian soil. English was not considered to be an Indian language; therefore it was not listed in the 8th Schedule of our Constitution. But it has remained an associate official language of the Indian Union. Nehru called it as a “language of importance to India”. It has a place in the list of languages of Sahitya Akademi. English is the language of science education, commerce, law, and is the main language of higher education in the humanities and human sciences. It is the language of communication at the international level. It is the language of technology. Despite lack of government support, English medium schools have proliferated, and at the same time it must be stressed that often the quality of language education there is poor. For quite some time, there has been a growing demand for good English medium schools from the disadvantaged sections of the society and now the governments of many states are responding to this demand favourably. Antagonism towards English has already become a matter of the past. An analysis of the 2001 Census shows that “in India, English is the No.2 language behind Hindi (The Times of India, Mysore edn., March 14, 2010)”. Although only 2.3 lakh people use English as their primary language, 86 and 39 millions speak this language as their second and third language respectively. The total number of English speakers is over 125 million. It can hardly be dismissed today as the language of a small minority. Besides, if India has to gain from a globalizing world, then English cannot be eliminated from Indian life. 

Those who think the marginalization of the Indian languages and cultures is due to English, which according to them is spoken by a very small number of people in India (they can say so today ignoring such facts as those given above), would have to explain how this has become possible. “Westernization” of our society is more than merely cultural; it also involves absence of resistance to English. The story of the post-Independence period is that English has not been imposed on the Indians by their government. Neither has westernization been. People have opted for both English and westernization.

To understand the success of English in the Indian context, one has to see it from a historical perspective. In the nineteenth century some influential, English-educated Indians believed that English education would be beneficial for India. The colonizers had their own agenda in this regard; they wanted to create a group of Indians who could, on their behalf, function at the lower middle or lower levels of administration. But it must be stressed that English education would not have prevailed in India had it not received strong support from influential Indians. Their agenda was of course different, as indicated above. It is just that both parties wanted English education for their own reasons. They were convinced that traditional knowledge was very much inadequate to deal with the modern world. More than a hundred years after, we know that they were not really wrong. Would a constitution based on ideas such as democracy, citizens’ rights, etc. have been possible within the framework of our traditional legal system as articulated in Manusmriti and Arthashastra? I, for one, am skeptical.

However, what was really unfortunate was that the ordinary anglicized Indian, not the creative reformers, was influenced by the propaganda of some within the colonial administration that in terms of knowledge there was hardly anything of real value in our tradition. Merely because traditional knowledge was inadequate for a different world, it can hardly be said that that knowledge was of inferior quality. Such an attitude, to my mind, was the root cause of westernization and the marginalization of our own knowledge systems and literature. I have noticed the way literature in both Odia and Sanskrit was generally undervalued in my college days in the early sixties. Incidentally, there are still some among our intellectuals who believe that the literature written in the Indian languages is inferior to that produced in English in India.

There is a need to correct these impressions. But nothing can be done if we do not change our attitude to our languages and literatures. We should have respect for the same because they deserve respect. As for language, no language is inherently inferior to any other language. It is the communicative needs of the speakers of a language that makes it a minor or a major language. And as for our literatures, literatures of quite a few of our languages are about a thousand years old. The same are often quite rich.  We need to build some structures to encourage better understanding and appreciation of our literatures. We should have schools of literary studies where Indian literatures in translation, comparative literature, comparative aesthetics – Indian and western, and principles of literary criticism in more than one literary tradition would be studied. We need efforts to translate our regional literatures into English and other Indian languages as well, so that they reach a larger reading public and can be meaningfully compared with literatures produced in other languages.

We must realize that often in our country one uses English because it is possible to talk about a wide variety of topics in that language. We need to create discourses in our languages on a range of topics from football to western philosophy, from Indian classical music and dance to western classical music and dance, and from cooking to mysteries of the universe. We need to teach our languages and also English from a communicative perspective. Communication is a language-independent study, and it does not assign greater inherent weight to any particular language. The communication approach would sensitize learners to other cultures and other modes of discourse, and would develop in the learners an attitude of respect towards communicative strategies other than their own.

English has to be taught well. But it must be noted that it does not lead to setting up of English medium schools. Every subject does not have to be taught in English at every stage; English has to be taught as a second language scientifically and realistically. What are needed are trained teachers, proper teaching materials, time-tested teaching methods and class room strategies and the like.

Turning to a related matter, a language brings with it the culture of the people who ordinarily use that language. Our initial acquaintance with western culture was through English. Now it is not merely through the language. For years our people have been going to America and Europe to study or work there. So our experience of the western culture is much more direct now and the same has impacted our culture to a considerable extent. For instance, even in many small towns in parts of our country parents are addressed or referred to as papa and mummy. It is not unusual to see people even in some villages in our country performing religious rituals in their trousers, rather than in traditional clothes. In birthday celebrations candles are blown out and blowing out light in a ritual is considered inauspicious in our culture. Eating out is sometimes used as an escape from restrictions on food which have to be observed at home. The list is long and it shows that western culture has seeped into our daily life to such an extent that we do not even notice the same. However, one knows that in a culture contact situation some non-native cultural habits do become part of one’s life style. But there is good reason to be watchful. For instance, when a six year old is introduced to the notion of nuclear family through his text book in his English-medium school and understands that his grandparents are outsiders to his family, there is reason to wonder if there isn’t something for concern. The reason is that this gives him a perspective about who are his own and who aren’t, and it may have long term consequences at the societal level. Care has to be taken so that ideas and values that are not in consonance with our culture and are likely to have long term consequences in our social life are not disseminated through the text books among our learners at a very early stage when his (or her) critical intelligence has not developed to a stage when he can discriminate.

So let us teach English to every child and teach it well, but at the same time let us monitor our teaching materials so that the child is not alienated from his environment and culture very early in life. There is a time for everything: there is a time when the learner has to be aware that there are perspectives and cultures different from his own and that he must develop an understanding for them.

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