Stranger At Home
English bespeaks progress. India’s youth is much the worse without it.
Gurcharan Das

Special Issue: The Mobile Republic

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 Dalit women who knew English
rose economically by marrying outside their caste—31 per cent of Dalit
women who knew English had inter-caste marriages and rose
economically, but the average figure for this category of mobility in
the community was just 9 per cent. Dalits identify our regional
languages with caste oppression. Hence, Dalits across the country
hailed Mayawati’s decision to introduce English from the first grade
in UP. (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
cellphones without going through a landline stage, Mohan thinks that
English will evolve from an elite to a mass, second language of the
new Indian middle class. If the pre-literate, dialect stage is not to
have a phone, and learning a standard regional language, say shuddh
Hindi, is to acquire a landline, then aspiring Dalits at English
schools will actually leapfrog from their phoneless (pre-literate)
stage to mobile telephony (literacy in functional English).

UP is also a crucible where one can observe the social mobility of
Muslims. Mulayam Singh Yadav 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 the it/ites industry is 12 per cent,
compared to less than 4 per cent in other sectors. It escaped
Mulayam’s attention that every mofussil Muslim mohalla and qasba in UP
has small, private English medium schools catering to artisans,
rikshawallas and 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 Microsoft 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 Indians like me, who balance
our language of empowerment (English) with our language of identity

There is thus no danger of losing rich  languages like Marathi and
Kannada; regional chauvinists are unnecessarily alarmed. That said, if
our children had learned both English and the local languages 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. We teach an
artificial Hindi in a soulless way, which doesn’t connect with people.
Bollywood does a much better job and Hindi’s popularity continues to
grow. Unless we 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
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)


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