Tuesday, October 16, 2012

From ‘English Vinglish’ to 'Mandarin Vandarin'

Not knowing English makes an Indian highly insecure. An illiterate who can only speak English feels more confident than a graduate who does not know English. It is not necessary for an Indian to go to U.S. to see how difficult it is to get by without English skills. His ‘mother’ India is more than enough to make him feel insecure due to lack of English language skills. However, the solution to such insecurity does not necessarily lie in acquiring English language skills. It may be a solution but only temporary. The real issue is fear, which is the mother of insecurities and anxieties. How to get rid of fear is a fundamental question man has always tried to seek an answer to. 

English should not been seen simply to obtain confidence to get a job or to make one’s future financially secure or to gain a respect in the society. It is high time Indians looked at English as an instrument to pursue the fundamental questions of life. It is high time we looked at English as a way to create knowledge. It is high time we looked at language as means to create knowledge. 

Though English is being projected as a threat to the survival of ‘native’ Indian languages, its dominancy has hardly abated. But people look at it simply as an indispensable need to get by in today’s highly competitive global world. The English medium schools are rising not just in cities but in villages too. The business of English-speaking classes is just thriving every year. But English is mostly seen merely as means to obtain a job or a financially sound career but hardly as means to obtain, rather more importantly, create knowledge.
When the British defeated the Muslim rulers in India, they replaced Persian by English as the official language. While noting down how the British rule undermined the traditional world of Indian Muslims, Alatf Hussain Ali, Persian poet of that time also wrote how Indian people looked at English imposed by the British:

‘I‘d been brought up in a society that believed that learning was based only on the knowledge of Arabic and Persian….. nobody even thought about English Education, and if people had any opinion about it all it was a means of getting a government job, not of acquiring any kind of knowledge’ (From the ruins of Empire, the revolt against the West and the Remaking of Aisa, by Pankaj Mishra) 

Nothing has changed much in the last two hundred years in India. Ever since the British imposed English on Indians, English has been seen more as a means of getting a job than as a means of acquiring knowledge. We mostly use the knowledge that has been already created in the West. By the time we acquire it, it degenerates into mere information. 

We hardly question the knowledge that is created by the West. When we learn science, we use the unscientific method to learn it. In our schools and colleges, our education system is so exam-oriented that we simply believe in exactly what is told to us and reproduce it when asked in the exam. In schools and colleges, we are forced to think in English which actually becomes a barrier to learning and independent thinking. Why can’t we translate all knowledge created in English into our own languages and then question it further to create knowledge again? We simply insist on studying in English at all levels. And even though most Indian universities teach in English medium, none features in top 200 universities in the world. At the same time no Indian university even dares to think to run all its courses in an Indian language medium. The reason is simple: we in India don’t look at language as means to obtain, rather more importantly, create knowledge.

Many Indians oppose English education. But, they do so hardly because there is no creation of knowledge. Creation of knowledge is completely out of our usual debate on the role of language in education as well as in life. Those who oppose the English language do so mainly because they fear it alienates us from our cultural roots. Some of them even take an extreme stand and want English to be banned by the government. But their views are equally powerfully opposed by those who advocate English. By emphasizing its need to obtain a job or to reap the benefits of globalization, some of the advocates of the English language go to other extreme exhibiting an obsession with the use of English. To do away with these two extremes, some coin the idea of an Indian form of English (or an English form of an Indian language). They think Indian English may satisfy both sides: its Indian feature can save us from our alienation from our cultural roots while its ‘English’ feature will help us reap the benefits of globalization. A few also claim that such ‘kolaveri’ type of English or a ‘chuntified’ version of English can free us from our prejudices and biases due to our widely diverse culture and traditions.

It is true that no Indian language and also English are free from prejudices and biases. However, it sounds illogical to expect that ‘Indian English’ alone will bury the differences and will free us from our prejudices. To eradicate prejudices and biases, besides a fresh language what is needed is a grand or noble context. Its absence is the real problem.
It has already explained earlier here that fear should be recognised as the fundamental problem behind insecurity and that acquiring English skills is just a temporary solution to it. Likewise, the absence of a grand or noble context is the fundamental problem behind our prejudices and biases and our differences. Language alone can’t provide that grand context. The mere efforts of creating a chutnified English can’t provide a way out of fundamental problems. But it should certainly be looked as a vehicle to pursue them. Learning in English should not be just out of some superficial problems like ‘insecurity’ or ‘ job’.  Likewise, the need to have a chutnified version of Enlgish should not be just out of inability to grasp correct English (helplessness of ‘we are like that only’ kind). 

The need to have a ‘chutnified’ version of English should arise out of creation of knowledge. Otherwise, it will be just another temporary phenomenon, which will be lost when the domination of English will be over and will be replaced by the domination of some other foreign language, say, the Chinese language: 'Mandarin'. And we will again come up with a chutnified Mandarin and also with a film called ‘Mandarin Vandarin’, showing a painful effort of an Indian lady to learn the Chinese language to get out of inferiority complex.