Sunday, May 13, 2007

Divided by "English"

It is pardoxical to write this post in English....

India consists of some 18-22 scheduled languages... A tower of Babel!

One of its strengths is also its "large English-Speaking" population (but then, in India everything is large due to its size and proportion... where else on the planet, will one call a population on 120mn people - twice the size of the population of many countries - a "minority")

But, the "large English-Speaking" population, actually consists of around just 30-40mn people (out of 1bn+)... These are the people who can read-write-speak "English". The others have there own version of "Hinglish", e.g.:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
(Photo Credit: Unknown)

One of the assumptions one makes as an educated, urban Indian is that it is the size of the "large English-Speaking" population that gives India an economically competitive advantage over other countries in the world in this globalised world. It also leads to some other implicit assumptions, e.g.,

  • "good" education gets equated with English-education

  • English is seen as essential for higher studies in engineering, medicine, science, social science, management, etc.

  • knowledge of English becomes a symbol of sophistication, of being cultured, and even of intelligence (or as the term currently in vogue, of "merit")

    And as happens with deeply cherished and widely shared social assumptions, they get enacted in the "real" world, shape the social reality, and become a self-fulfilling prophesy - i.e.,

    ...teaching in higher education is done in English, selection tests are designed in English, job interviews are conducted in English, candidates get selected on the basis of their knowledge of English, etc.,
    ...more technical books are written/published in English, there is greater demand for learning in English (or more number of shops that teach "English speaking"), knowing and conversing in English becomes "smart", "cool", "in" etc...

    It is in this context, Sankrant Sanu's post on the "The English Class System" is worth looking at (actually, recommended!)

    The following two tables are from his post, and show that:

    Rich countries are more likely to speak their native language:
    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    ...while the poor countries adapt their "colonial" language:
    Image and video hosting by TinyPic

    I don't think that, based on this data, one can generalise that speaking the language of one's past colonial rulers makes a country poor. However, the fascination with English (or the colonial language) among the poor (and mostly post-colonial) countries does explain the historical antecendents of the linguistic divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of these societies. As Samuel Huntington had noted:

    "As the former colonies moved towards independence... promotion and use of indigenous languages... was one way for the nationalist elites to distinguish themselves from the Western colonialists and to define their own identity. Following independence, however, the elites of these societies needed to distinguish themselves from the common people of their societies. Fluency in English, French or another Western language did that. As a result, the elites of non-Western societies are often better able to communicate with Westerners and with each other than with people of their own societies..."

    And so - among many other divisions - India also remain "divided by English"... There are "English-haves" and "English have-nots"...

    ... Or as, in an earlier post about Garima's story, I had quoted from an article by Barkha Dutt:

    "...Garima’s story exposes India’s paradoxical relationship with the English language. Nobody in the world speaks English like us. We have our own idioms, our own words and our own accents.

    We pretend to love our own English and brag about how it is India’s great selling point; the reason we dominate the global outsourcing business. But, of course, deep down we know that our English is not the English that the West really wants. And so, each time we talk to Britons or Americans, we subtly alter our diction and inflection. When we set up our call centres, we drop the subtlety entirely and start accent classes to teach our young people to abandon the speech patterns of our own society and to migrate to a virtual, linguistic, middle America, where they become impersonators of people they will never meet and never know.

    But within India, we still treat our own English as the great social decider. We laugh at regional accents, smirk at those who make grammatical errors and feel most at home with those who talk like us. Everyone else belongs on the other side of the English divide. And as it turns out, the other side of the class and caste divide as well."


    umeshunni said...

    A couple of things I wanted to point out:
    1. It's not the fact that countries adopted their colonial tongue that made them poor. It's the fact that they were colonized and never recovered from it. From your list, the US, Canada and Australia also speak their colonizers languages and not the language of the natives that lived there.
    2. The US doesn't have an official language. See

    Madhukar said...

    Thanks for the visit and comment.

    1. in fact, that precisely is what I have written:

    "I don't think that, based on this data, one can generalise that speaking the language of one's past colonial rulers makes a country poor.

    re US, Canada and Australia, the nature of colonisation was qualitatively different. These countries were first colonised by Europeans (English and French), who settled there as conquerors or immigrants. It was the migrated Europeans who rebeled - not the natives - and got independence. This is very different than the countries in the second list.

    2. yes, point well taken, but the same article/ sentence also says " English has long been the de facto national language, which is spoken by about 82% of the population as a native language"... which again is very different from the reality of the post-colonial countries, where the colonial language is the language of the elites.

    Punk'd said...

    Lovely article.. wot a read !

    And Madhukar, That photo would belong to me. :) Took it on a trip to Laloo's Karm bhoomi.


    Inferno said...

    The article talks of the psychological effects of allowing a foreign language to dominate. Every time I read Indian female bloggers discussing non-sense (treating India as the ultimate wasteland), I am reminded of the dangers of this education system and how apt Sankrant Sanu's analysis is.

    Here is another great article on this subject:

    Destroying Minds and Skills
    The Dominance of Angreziyat in Our Education