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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Talk English, Walk English

The Samajwadi Party manifesto is not exactly bestseller material (strictly speaking other than ‘guide books’ for IIT-JEE, nothing in our country is). In spite of that, however, the manifesto had achieved a considerable amount of infamy for the single sin of calling for the abolition of English in our schools. Newspapers went apoplectic, lengthy editorials were written and English news channels interviewed people who, with some passion, compared the SP to the Taliban. Now without resorting to any tactics of Reductio ad Hitlerum, let me try and state why the concept is, here at least, not totally in the wrong (although, it must be said that since the point is being made by Mulayam Singh’s party, it does reek ,somewhat, of hypocrisy).

But before that I must introduce you to the concept of the Rooster Coop—an excellent paradigm from Arvind Adiga’s otherwise unremarkable book, The White Tiger.

“Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

And the English Language is, unfortunately, one of the components of that coop.

In India, English is, without a doubt, the pre-eminent language. As a rule of thumb, anybody who is somebody will try and express himself in English as opposed to his native language. Which is not remarkable considering most avenues to success in our country require knowledge of English. Which in India, a country that has a minuscule minority who speak the language, is odd to say the least. After all there’s only one thing worse than discrimination against a minority and that’s discrimination against the majority.

This fascination of ours with the language leads to some odd consequences, sometimes. You could for example, write your higher secondary examination in, say, Bengali. Not only that, you might be a bright young lad with an affinity towards the sciences and, by extension, engineering. But unless you know a certain language, you would never be ‘good enough’ to study in, say, the IITs.

Now there are a few arguments invariably put forward towards maintaining this status quo.

The first is the English-is-a-global-language one. Classical Rooster Coop, of course. How many Indians, as a percentage, would ever be in a position to interact with the world? So in any case this line of reasoning would, at best help a small minority. Secondly, I’d say there are quite a few countries that, without adopting English as a Holy Grail, have done remarkable well for themselves, globally. We could, maybe, present the Japanese as an example? Language is only a means of communication—the world respects ideas not the medium, and I can think of no better way for ideas to be nurtured than to educate a person in his mother tongue.

The second is the Hobson’s choice one—which single language in a diverse, multilingual country like India would work other than English? So in other words, a person must give up his claim to being educated in mother tongue and learn a foreign one (prohibitively expensive for most Indians) to keep the country going. Shouldn’t the Union of India actually help its citizens rather than burdening them with so high a cost of having to abandon their native languages if they would want to advance in life?

So what’s the alternative? Should Hindi be imposed instead of English? Hardly. In my opinion, no one single language should be imposed. India, for better or for worse, just isn’t a single language country. Maybe we could learn something from the EU. Some people would want the EU to become a federation in the near future. Then would one language be imposed through Europe? Would students of History in Germany be forced to study the history of WW2 in English? I hardly think so. So why impose that burden on India, whose people are many times poorer than those in the EU and, therefore, much less suited to take on the burden of learning a foreign tongue?

English’s charmed status, on the other hand, does incalculable harm by strengthening the Coop and making social mobility doubly difficult. In any “middle-class” job, knowledge of the language is de rigeur . So, now not only will a person from an economically disadvantaged background have to struggle to acquire the skills needed for the job, he will also have to spend considerable time and money to acquire a functioning knowledge of the English language. Most Indians, of course, can hardly do the former, much less attempt to accomplish the latter. And so we have an automatic contraction of the list of eligible candidates for the job, irrespective of the actual skills needed for the job. Only people whose parents were rich enough to get them tutored in English need apply.

And so the Coop remains intact and the chickens remain confined in their cages to faithfully await the butcher’s next sale.

30 comments:

Gigi said...

nice blog.

Kislay said...

Good one mate . I agree with most of us the points you have made here . If only the bhura-sahabs left behind after the gora-sahabs left could think up of this . And you should volunteer to design SP's manifesto the next time . :)

You say “So what’s the alternative? Should Hindi be imposed instead of English? Hardly. In my opinion, no one single language should be imposed. “ But what is the solution ? Apart from our mother-tongues , we do need a common language , right ?

redkazim said...

Wonderful post -- the situation isn't different here in Pakistan either.
I have written a post titled Tyranny of Language here:

http://redkazim.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/tyranny-of-language/

Amit said...

"Only people whose parents were rich enough to get them tutored in English" - It's not so hard or expensive to learn another language - especially if it is taught from an early age. I studied in a KV which definitely charges low fees and I learnt English just fine.

Plus knowing Engish makes it much easier to access international sources of knowledge - both online and otherwise.

Amit said...

And of course you are aware of the offshoring industry which is wholly dependent on Indians knowing English. Even the Chinese are trying very hard to learn English.

This is so unlike your usual posts.. are you being tongue-in-cheek or something?

cluelessness said...

If all IITs were teaching in local languages, students of one state would not be able to take advantage of an IIT in another state simply because they don't know the language!

Hades said...

Gigi, Redkazim,

Thanks.

Kislay,

Apart from our mother-tongues , we do need a common language , right ?

Do we? What about the example of the EU?

Hades said...

Amit,

Ah! A Contrarian. Good. :)

This is so unlike your usual posts.. are you being tongue-in-cheek or something?
Not at all.

I studied in a KV which definitely charges low fees and I learnt English just fine.

How many KVs does our country have for 1.2 bn people?

Plus knowing Engish makes it much easier to access international sources of knowledge - both online and otherwise.

Check Para 8

Even the Chinese are trying very hard to learn English.

Which is great. But you must understand that I am not against learning English or any other language for any utilitarian reason. I am against the elitist tag that goes with the language.

Does China require knowledge of English for its Engineers at its car plants? I doubt, which is sensible ‘cos you don’t need English to make cars. Yet when Tata Motors hires, would they conduct interviews in any language other than English? No matter how good an automobile engineer you are, you would never make cars in India if you didn’t know English.

Hades said...

Cluelessness,

If all IITs were teaching in local languages, students of one state would not be able to take advantage of an IIT in another state simply because they don't know the language!

Only about 8% of Indians speak English (as a 1st, 2nd and 3rd language). Therefore 92% of Indians would not be able to take advantage of an IIT even in their own state “because they don't know the language!”

Amit said...

I find it so unusual to be disagreeing with you so much but I hope you will bear with me...

I think the main thrust of your argument seems to be that we should be doing the bulk of our education - be it humanities, science or technology - in our own languages - just like japan and china. Well the stark and uneasy reality is that Indian languages nowhere have the vocabulary to disseminate all the technical knowledge that exists today. To hold the higher education in India hostage until the languages are brought up to scratch (through a very complicated process undoubtedly) would be suicidal - given that higher education in India is already languishing. Remember, language is for the people, not people for languages. I don't think we should be too nationalistic about only using our languages, and fritter away even the learning we have now

The real problem is not that there are so many non-english speakers in the country that have to learn English, but that there is lack of education in general. You said "How many KVs does our country have for 1.2 bn people?" Of course we need more schools, not just for learning English, but learning everything. You think that's something we can do without? Once you have the schools, learning another language is relatively trivial. Many people in the world are multilingual.

Developing local languages to impart higher education is something we can think about when the more pressing problems of both primary and higher education have been solved.

If on the other hand your contention is just that the elitist tag with English is unjustified - there I definitely agree with you.

indyeahforever said...

hmm..'nothing should be imposed '
being the key here..have a draft on this topic(kinda)lying with me..I am till unclear about the solution though...

cluelessness said...

Hades,

I think we are looking at skewed statistics here. Only 8% of the population speaks English, but we need to what percent of the population is actually literate - in any language.

Secondly, only the most brilliant get into the IITs. I am sure learning a language over a summer should not be that much of a hassle.

Now, you might ask, why not learn a state language instead of English? Because, simply put, English crosses borders. If you did your engineering in State B and wanted to get back to State A for a livelyhood, it would be a problem.

Second, most of the multi-nationals use English. If you are in a tech sector, there are more chances than not that you will interact with a Multi national. Even Japan, for all its nationality, gets its tech people to learn English.

And for the example you gave about Tata motors conducting interviews only in English, that's because there is no way you can be an automobile engineer in India without having studied it in English. If we had local language colleges, would Tata motors interview only in Gujarthi because the plant is in Gujrat? Would that not be unfair to the automobile engineer from Karnataka who does not know Gujrathi?

Hades said...

Cluelessness,

Good points. Let me try and respond.

I think we are looking at skewed statistics here. Only 8% of the population speaks English, but we need to what percent of the population is actually literate - in any language.

Around 65% of India is literate. But the rest 35% speak in their mother tongue, not English. How will promoting English help those who can’t even read and write in their native languages?

Secondly, only the most brilliant get into the IITs. I am sure learning a language over a summer should not be that much of a hassle.

An IITian means he is a good tech chap, not God. There is no guarantee that a person good at Physics will show the same genius towards language, sports music or any of the hundreds of other fields of human endeavour.

And this is precisely my point. Normally, to become an Engineer all you require are tech skills, or to become an accountant you need math. But in India you’ve got to be bloody linguist too.

And for the example you gave about Tata motors conducting interviews only in English, that's because there is no way you can be an automobile engineer in India without having studied it in English.

Precisely my point. I’m sure the laws of physics are not a slave to the English language, now are they?

If we had local language colleges, would Tata motors interview only in Gujarthi because the plant is in Gujrat? Would that not be unfair to the automobile engineer from Karnataka who does not know Gujrathi?

Would it also be fair to the 92% Gujaratis who know no English?
And the same would go for the 92% Kannadigas.

If Volkwagen conducts an interview in Germany which language would they choose? English, so that the a minuscule minority of Frenchmen could participate or would they conduct interviews in German in Germany and French in France so that a majority of Europeans can participate?

Why do we not have a language policy that also benefits a majority of Indians rather than freezing social mobility by restricting all that's good to 8% of the population?

Hades said...

Amit,

I find it so unusual to be disagreeing with you so much but I hope you will bear with me...

I sure will. Happily at that.

Well the stark and uneasy reality is that Indian languages nowhere have the vocabulary to disseminate all the technical knowledge that exists today.

Incredibly, most of the “technical vocabulary” in English is borrowed from Latin and Greek.

Individual words are the least of our issue, if that’s what you mean. Let us call an Atom an Atom (a Greek word) but let us explain what an Atom is in our native language. There is no better way to learn.

Of course we need more schools, not just for learning English, but learning everything. You think that's something we can do without?

But now we have two problems. Teach people life skills like Science math history etc and teach them in a foreign language. As it is India sucks at the former. Why burden ourselves with the latter?

Once you have the schools, learning another language is relatively trivial. Many people in the world are multilingual.

Amit can you show me one example in 5000 years of human History where a huge mass of people (and we’re talking one-sixth of Humanity) has, in a short span of time (few decades, a century) changed their language/learnt another language which is totally unconnected to their mother tongue?

What makes you confident that India, a country that has failed in the most basic of tasks, will accomplish this superhuman feat?

And, to the best of my knowledge, overwhelmingly, most people in the world are uni-lingual.

Amey said...

Hades,

What about the South Bombay crowd? If English is no longer considered an elite language what will those poor buggers speak?

pmax3 said...

Hi buddy,

First of all thanks for taking the time to explain in detail. I think you have replied to my points well and I do see merit in your arguments. Having to learn a foreign language in order to access higher education certainly seems unusual, and unique to India.

Actually even I have observed and wondered about this strange phenomenon in the past ... the necessity of being good in English for obtaining specialized knowledge - but I somehow reached the opposite conclusion - my thinking was probably colored by my personal experiences.

However I gave a lot of thought to the points raised by you, and I hope you won't mind if I describe a couple of points where I am still not convinced...

1) You said "Amit can you show me one example in 5000 years of human History where a huge mass of people (and we’re talking one-sixth of Humanity) has, in a short span of time (few decades, a century) changed their language/learnt another language which is totally unconnected to their mother tongue? " - If I am not mistaken I think Latin America serves as an example - they actually changed their mother tongue to spanish/portugese as a result of colonalisation. May be not a perfect example, but probably we can do that we for a second language - for people who want to pursue specialized education.

2) I think you are interpreting "not knowing English" as a cause of "not having access to higher/technical education". The way I see it, both "not knowing English" and "not having technical education" are results of a third cause - which is lack of opportunities/funds/resources. I don't think that people who are literate in their mother tongue but don't know English are held back from getting higher education because they don't know English. Instead, they are prevented from learning both English and higher education because of lack of resources. Learning English is surely less challenging (intellectually and financially) than excelling in specialized fields. And teaching English to all people interested in certain kinds of higher education is certainly no more a challenging project than making higher education available to the whole of the population.

You said "here one has to be bloody linguist..." I can assure you one will still have to be a linguist - just in an Indian language - if one is to articulate their ideas well enough to do justice to complex topics. So there is no escaping learning some language really well. This is somewhat related to point 3 below.

3) Finally, and I make this point from much less authority, I think the problem with vocabulary is more than just importing words. Firstly, there would be so many technical/social/anthropological (e.g.) terms ("atom" being a simple example) to substitute that the result would be an incomprehensible and unnatural mishmash - one would rather learn English itself. Moreover it's about expressive power. Sorry if I sound like a western supremacist here, but due to less progress/ original research/cultural discourse happening in India,Indian languages are yet to acquire the power that English enjoys. Would you have been able to express yourself as articulately and eloquently if you blogged in Hindi, or Bengali - your mother tongue? (How do you say eloquent and articulate in Hindi?) I took up the project of translating English Wikipedia articles for Hindi Wikipedia and quickly gave up. I agree that the last two points might be explained by you and me not being good in our mother tongues but not many others seem to be doing it either. A solution could just be to ramp up our languages (assuming that is straightforward) and learn them better - but you will still need to be fairly proficient in a language (Indian or English) to assimilate and create knowledge. Language is an indispensable skill

(continued...)

pmax3 said...

(continuing from previous reply)...

This leaves out primary education. We could do away with English in primary schools and teach science etc. in Indian languages. But given the fact that higher education will require English (if my arguments above have merit), students should have the choice to learn English from an early age, and learn science using it. The problem of children not being good at English is one of not having good schools and teachers. While we do, as you say, suck at providing basic primary education - can we use that incompetence as an excuse to just give up on our schools, roll up all English education, and deny children the choice to pursue their chosen field because we can't teach them the language? What makes you think we will get any better at teaching Science if we just abandon teaching English?

To return to a previous point, I still can't shake off the feeling that if you have the resources and ability to pursue specialized education, then having to learn English is not going to stop you.

Of course my argument is still probably very incomplete, as this is a complex topic. I might even be completely missing something important, in which case you can just reply for now with a "You are stupid" and I won't mind :) (Though I will pester you some other time for an answer ;-))

Sorry for the long reply. My intention is not to be argumentative. I just like discussing things and presenting my opinion on your very popular blog.

Amit said...

Oops, pmax3 above, is me, Amit. I chose to reply with my livejournal identity there.

Zee Bee said...

Though many people , especially those from vernacular schools aspire to speak good english - speaking good and correct english is not a must for entry level, middle level jobs . Why, even call centers have lowered their standards and are willing to settle for accent which does not have mother tongue influence.Most people do just fine with very limited vocab in jobs like e.g engineering ,accountancy where knowing correct english is not going to give brownie points. In india, majority people still think in their mother tongue and really kaam chaloa with english or should i say indian english or even pidgin !
I think having english makes life easier,...one does not need to study a new language- i mean both written and spoken everytime one changes the state in india.

Anonymous said...

I don't think learning a new language(at least to a basic level where people can understand you-you don't need to be salman rushdie by any standard) is being made out to be more than it actually is. Immigrants to various countries do this all the time (as do south indians moving to the north of the country)

As for an entire generation of people learning a new language - think Hebrew in Israel or Mandarin in the Canton region of China.

More a question of resources and application rather than difficulty. The country does need one common language.

Hades said...

Amit,

Sorry for the delay in replying. Again, fair points.

If I am not mistaken I think Latin America serves as an example - they actually changed their mother tongue to spanish/portugese as a result of colonalisation.

Incidentally, do you know how brutal the conquest of South America was? “It is estimated that parts of the empire, notably the Central Andes, suffered a population decline ration of 58:1 during the years of 1520-1571” is what Wikipedia tell me. Let us hope India will not have to kill of 98% of its population to try and establish English.

Learning English is surely less challenging (intellectually and financially) than excelling in specialized fields. And teaching English to all people interested in certain kinds of higher education is certainly no more a challenging project than making higher education available to the whole of the population.

It’s not a question of which is more or less challenging. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the use of English burdens a person with yet another obstacle to overcome—a needless one at that. Why that obstacle should be there in the first place when we have so many other natural obstacles is beyond me.

And teaching English to people is certainly an extremely challenging task. I will show you colleges in Calcutta, state capital no less, where English Honours courses are taught in Bengali. I kid you not.

So there is no escaping learning some language really well

Correct; and as it so happens we do automatically, with little effort and money, learn one language very well—our mother tongue.

Would you have been able to express yourself as articulately and eloquently if you blogged in Hindi, or Bengali - your mother tongue?

Quite. But after all, I am only the sad product of a shameful system that serves to cut people of from their mother tongues and the less fortunate from positions where they can improve their lot. That is the sad truth.

What makes you think we will get any better at teaching Science if we just abandon teaching English?

Comprehension, for one. Science, at the very least, is a subject that is understood. Most people understand best in their mother tongue.

Second resources. The country could, from the huge and needless money spent on English education, improve the infrastructure for science in our schools.

Though I will pester you some other time for an answer ;-))

I don’t think anybody here would have a problem with questions, at the very least.

Anonymous said...

Hi

I have a cousin who studies in a telugu medium school in a village and another one who studies in a English medium private school in a small town. The cousin who studies in village has certainly better understanding of her subjects and is more articulative too in her language.

where as the one who studies in this small town can't communicate in English and answers all your questions in broken Telugu aided by English technical terms.

Really, middle class obsession for English Medium schools has been well exploited in rural towns which have served up poor quality education charging good sum of money. These kids do not have good facility in language (English or their mother tongue). Inhibited by their poor communication skills and lack of technical knowledge, how far can they succeed in these days of mad competition to make it to the best of the colleges in sciences, engineering and management.

Coming from a telugu medium background, I know the pain of being compelled to improve my English skills to do well in life.

I completely agree with you. It is time our gov.t woke up and did something to improve our educational infrastructure in regional languages.

Sam L

Amit said...

Thanks, Hades, for your answers. As I said, I see much sense in what you say.

However, before concluding this discussion, some food for thought: China has a 90% primary school enrolment rate. A foreign language, which is almost always English, is introduced either in the first grade or the third grade (depending upon region), and is compulsory through high school.

To deny our kids the same right, to learn the world's lingua-franca which is also the established language of science, because of lack of resources, far from being a help, would in my view be a terrible terrible abdication of responsibility.

Hades said...

Amit,

China ...compulsory through high school.

I hope that India follows China too, as far as education goes. But for that it'll have to downgrade English.

To deny our kids the same right, to learn the world's lingua-franca which is also the established language of science, because of lack of resources, far from being a help, would in my view be a terrible terrible abdication of responsibility.

And to deny people cake, when they have no bread would be? :)

But let us, for now, agree to disagree. Thanks for your patience in answering. Wish we had interacted more in office. Nothing like a good argumentive chap like yourself as company. Your session would have started, I understand.

Amit said...

Hey! Yeah let's leave it for some other time ... I enjoyed the discussion though :D

Yeah my session here has started. Getting used to things here:]

Amit said...

Hey why don't you do a post with pictures again? I really enjoy your captions :D

Paradox Philic said...

Amit, I agree with you on each point word to word... (Great expression too!)

Hades i am your fan.. i follow your blog and read it regularly, however do not quite agree with this particular post!

Hades said...

Philic,

however do not quite agree with this particular post!

Not to worry. I live to fight another day. :D

freespirit said...

You've made some good points, however can't say I agree with you completely.

As various other bloggers have pointed out- how is one going to cope when he shifts residence? Learning a new language each time is hardly practicable. Imagine those with army backgrounds!

The status that English enjoys as an 'elitist' language is definitely misplaced but we are a nation of anglophiles so...

A common language is definitely necessary and English is ideal because, thanks to the British, we tend to worship anything white. Another reason English is a viable solution is because people are spared the tedious debates focusing on the superiority of one 'Indian' language over the other.

For better or for worse, English is here to stay.

Anonymous said...

what I can't gather is - why such a fuss?
If all us bright minds.. the 'future of a nation' can't come up with a solution of any kind, how can our leaders? Who've never been familiar with open-thinking?