Friday, April 9, 2010

Are we an English obsessed nation?

The two largest English speaking countries in the world are India (350 million) and United States (300 million). In the next decade more than half of the English speaking population on Earth will be Indians. We will determine how the language will be spoken. Feels good, but I have a question – will Mamata Banerjee’s spoken words qualify as English too? She could be speaking in Hindi, Bangla or English – to me it comes across as a strange, uniform version of Esperanto.

A recent survey has officially established the Queen’s language as India’s lingua franca. That comes as no surprise. We as a nation still suffer from a massive colonial hangover. In school we are essentially taught British. Mushrooming BPO s promote the Yankee version. Our children end up speaking a bastardized version. Texting has made it worse. Address is now addy, afternoon afty, vacation are playing around with the language, which may not be such a bad thing. Why waste time on silly things such as spellings and sentences? It’s so not cool.

The non-NextGen Indians on the other hand love their English, more than even the English. Nowhere in the world are people so particular about diction and grammar. Maybe it represents much more than just being particular. How one holds forth in English often reflects schooling, social background. Pepper your conversation with a few tricky words and you are qualified to fit into certain elitist circles. A rather superficial way of slotting people, yet most of us succumb to it.

The world over, English spoken with a foreign accent is considered exotic. Did any one of us snigger at Penelope’s Oscar acceptance speech? But dare anyone in our country say yem yen square, we make that person the butt of our jokes for the rest of his unfortunate life. We are a lot more tolerant of incorrect Hindi.

We name our pets Sparkle, Goldy and Tipsy. Parmeet becomes Pinky, Sandeep becomes Sandy. Our children are more conversant in English rather than their mother tongue. Even my daughter prefers English even though the first language we taught her was Bangla. Why blame the kids, it is the parents who reinforce the belief. An NRI friend of mine had briefly migrated to Bangalore. At community get-togethers try as she might she could not get people to speak to her in Bangla. Who do you think we are – village bumpkins?

Agreed, in a diverse country such as ours it is this language that binds us together. We are heavyweights in the global IT space largely because of our ability to think and speak in English. And we have scored over China in acquisition of brands like Jaguar, Tetley and Corus probably because our felicity in a western language engenders western comfort.

It has certainly helped us stay connected globally, access and upload information globally, and share experiences globally. Millions of us mull over the philosophies of Ayn Rand, applaud the visual wizardry of Avatar, and sway to Linkin Park (for me it’s good old Eagles any day).

But if this language is the great unifying factor, the harbinger of opportunities, it is also a divisive factor. Lack of it translates into lack of opportunities. Small towns and cities where subjects are still taught in the vernacular are still grappling with this change. In metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi our rich diverse vernacular is dying a slow death. I miss the mellifluous, full of “adaa”, Lucknawi Hindi which my Dad and uncles used to speak. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone speak in chaste Hindi. All I hear is a confused mishmash. “You won’t believe what I saw jee, I toh nearly fainted”.

Is our obsession with English making us lose our identity? Or are we evolving into a new progressive society? On the flip side, were we better off with Bombay and everything it represented, or are we better off now with Mumbai and everything it is being forced to represent? We live in strange times where, in rural India, innocent youngsters are being killed because they dared to fall in love and urban India is witnessing a sexual revolution of sorts. Rich kids are ramming their BMWs after a drinking binge but girls are being dragged out of pubs by self-appointed moral police. We are a nation of startling contrasts where many of us are yet to come to terms with this new emerging India.

We are beyond the point where we can discard English, because it really is a great enabler. And I suppose we will emerge stronger as a race and a nation when we treat English exactly that way – an enabler, not a labeller.


  1. Nice post,

    Purba, What i wish to say is that it all begins and ends with the family. I can understand bengali(mother tongue), punjabi, hindi, urdu(to some extent) and can read french. But at family I only and only prefer BENGALI. And as far a practicably possible don't allow others to use any other language, especially hindi or english. Similarly with friends I prefer hindi/punjabi, but language is always peppered.

    The beauty of language is that it acquires forms and survives, and those which doesn't acquire. We do are English obsessed nation, but somewhere outside the elitist circle I feel that language is still there. Isn't one good conversation in Kanpuri Hindi, or Bijnori Hindi or Brijbhasa, or Bhojpuri, livens up your senses and beautifies your mind. It does the same to me at least. Also if someone talks to me in Chittagong dialect, it is great.

    That was long one..:)


  2. the purpose of any language is to communicate so it has to and will evolve over time... how nice to know indians will teach the world to communicate!

  3. From fighting with restaurants for giving the goras to encouraging designers working to create Devanagri fonts for the computer, I have done it all.
    But the fact remains that English is the language of economic upliftment first and then of social. That's the way the system is skewed. I have pictures on my blogs protesting. I have at least one post, this one: complaining...
    We can but point out the facts, the situation, but no one's going to take to the street to save their mother tongue if it ain't going to make him rich or powerful.

  4. @ When my daughter started school she did not know a word of Hindi. She was conversant in Bangla and Oriya(courtesy my maid). Obviously I was worried, but she managed.

    It's not easy being a bong in Delhi. We have to grapple with so many languages. And somewhere down the line Bangla becomes the first casualty.

    And a big Wow for your multilingual skills.

    Magiceye: The kind of "awesome" awful English the now-generation speaks, it's not exactly a comforting thought.

    Deven: And I will reiterate my point. For us English is more that just a mere language. We take dotting the i and crossing the t to the point of obsession.

  5. I am a Keralite who speaks Malayalam only with my parents...
    with my sisters it is English...
    with my husband and kids, TULU...
    with my maidservant, Telugu...
    with friends and some relatives-Hindi
    studied in Delhi, Goa, Kolkota, Bengaluru... lost touch but do understand Punjabi, Konkani, Bengali and Kanada...
    and Chennai just 2 hrs away, shopping there helps me manage in Tamil ...So now what's my language?

    The whole of India is one big bowl of KICHADI/ which the binding factor is English. Remove that factor and every other state is foreign to an Indian.
    English we speak is Indian English...It has entered the Dictionary of all English speaking and learning countries...Dekho?

    'Take a Dekho'...Hey I am speaking English!...I am speaking good English from a good dictionary!...Dekho is no longer just a Hindi word now!!! Sorry Mam...but it's taken, borrowed, stolen...whichever way you choose to look at it.
    The same with English...its our language now!

  6. @ Purba...same was the case with me, and hindi I spoke..could have broken anyone into laughter..and it is not difficult...I have infact :)

  7. This just tires me. Losing identity is the worst thing u could have. We would virtually be in cultural limbo. May be we are.

  8. Nalini: I have not berated English the language, but what it represents for many of us. English is a great unifying factor and we Indians have made it our own by adding a desi tadka.

    Pappu: A nation, society is constantly evolving. Change is the only constant :)

  9. Good post... True, english is a unifying factor when I travel within India.
    As you have rightly said, english is of late becoming a label of the elite society, sidelining capability and knowledge. This is nothing, but one more trend or narrow minded bias growing in India. But I guess it wont survive long... People and our society will get over it, as always.

  10. The post and the comments were engrossing.
    Language is constantly evolving, dynamic...the ones which do not adapt or evolve, die out. Over a period of time words and their meaning changes but the essence of the language remains. And these changes are hardly the result of any conscious effort. So, it would not be fair to put the blame of this apparent corruption of English on specific reasons, it had to happen in due course. But yes, bracketing people on the basis of their fluency with the language is uncalled for.
    As for the question in the post title, methinks that it is not an obsession but a legacy that we are living which would take a lot of effort to grow out of.

    Well written post.

  11. Thank you ABS

    Sujoy: Wasn't it Nirad C Chaudhari who was considered the "Last Englishman on Earth"?

  12. Interesting post, Purba…something I feel connected toJ

    I feel we are English obsessed, mostly the new generation and that obsession is for getting in touch with the new world (kind of competition) and cracking more and more deals. In these competitions we actually forget the real feel of the language, correct meaning of the words. How many of those who speaks English use an above average correct words at correct place or even know correct words?

    This post actually made me remember my early days in Pune when people would laugh (some times sarcastically) at my ill English pronunciation (pronouncing ‘hall” as ‘hole’ would be perfect exampleLOL) and Gujarati toned Hindi . I learnt many things about language during those days but thank God, not from them…xD!!!

    I realized the touch/feel of language more while watching foreign language movies, as I have to depend on subtitles. Sometimes they are written so poorly that it’s really hard to connect subtitles with on going conversation.

    So at the end I’ll say it is preference of an individual – to understand the language completely or just use it to server needsJ

    @Nalini: That is great that you can manage to communicate in so many languages. No personal attack but how many of those conversations is absolutely language specific? When you talk in Tamil, do you absolutely use Tamil vocabulary or when you listen to someone who speaks Punjabi, can you answer him/her absolutely in Punjabi? The point here is, we speak/understand part of the language and manage to get the whole picture but aren’t we losing the real touch?

  13. Alpesh: You are so right about the subtitles. Sometimes they border on hilarious.

  14. ermm..interesting post!! and i think Indians learn english to be a star in front of others rather than use it in real life!! But its truth, without english India can't be a world leader!!

  15. Purba,
    Great post and I have been thinking on the best way to comment on this without making my comment into a blog by itself :)
    I think all of us in India make a huge emotional hullaballoo about languages. I love and appreciate our ethnic & linguistic diversity, and love listening to different accents, but somewhere down the line we have let politicians and hardcore elements make us cling too strongly to our language.
    I am a Tamilian, who can speak decent Hindi, English, and understand a bit of Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, French, and now German. I did not try to master any language, but rather stuck to what was most convenient in every scenario. I’ve tried to remain very non fussy about languages and that’s helped a lot.
    Coming from a state whose politicians are at the heart of divisive linguistic chauvinism, it’s not an easy job (a few decades back you could have been lynched for speaking Hindi in Madras). But it has its rewards. I speak shamelessly terrible Kannada and my Bangalore friends don’t mind at all :)
    I think it helps a lot if everyone can speak their local tongue, plus English, plus Hindi. So, to a large extent I appreciate the importance of English and Hindi as some sort of link languages. And yeah if life takes you on a travel abroad, being fluent in English helps a lot. But there should be absolutely no compulsions whatever and nobody making a big deal whether you can, or can’t speak English.
    So, let us all understand the diversity of our languages, stick to some functional languages (English), learn as many as we can at whatever fluency level, and speak whatever is appropriate at that juncture.


  16. I guess you've said it all..

    Two sides of a coin.

  17. Nice post. Its always a tradeoff. It has done both good and bad. The pros and cons are nicely brought out. But I have to say, English is one of the binding force in this multilingual nation. Go to any place, English , most of the times ll come to your rescue :)

  18. Thank you Nkr, Vasu, Rahul , Priyanka for your comments :)

  19. English is an enabler .. correct .. it does help us fetch global business (especially in the services sector) .. but on the one hand, while it enables us to connect with people who speak languages other than our own mother tongue, doesn't it bring some disconnect with the people who speak our mother tongue itself?

    Sadly in the world that we live in, most of the things are defined by prevalent market forces. Preservation of identity probably no longer matters. Some 20 years down the line, when the Dalai Lama is no more and Tibet has no internationally recognizable face to represent it, in all probability the Tibetans will be forced to pick up firearms against the Chinese tyranny. At that time, the humble-most of all the human races on the earth will probably get labeled as terrorists just because the forces of the markets will be with China and not with Tibet. It is in such a sad period of History that we live in.

    We choose English because it helps us get jobs .. it does not matter what we lose in the process by neglecting our own mother tongue and, including more than 5,000 years of knowledge that they have to provide.

    I know Hindi and Bengali as well and am trying to make my blog at least a bilingual one (English and Hindi) - just in order to keep connected to the soil.


    The Dog.

  20. The latest issue of Newsweek features English as Globish, a new language for the new world.
    How it is morphing into a new and simplified version of itself, with a stripped down vocabulary.

    Very interesting read, you must catch hold of that issue.

    Went through your blog, seriously good writing.

  21. Sadly, we as urban India don't recognize and accept the existence of the majority India and instead try and impose our new-found, progressive viewpoints on those we deem ignorant, and the English language is just one of those many impositions.

  22. Very neat writeup.. you spoke my mind.. whenever you got time, please read my blog

  23. Reached here looking for your older posts.
    This post reflects a lot of hard work and premeditation from your side. The analysis is so realistic, and true.
    You are certainly a treat to read!

    English, just like any language, has accents varied across cultures and peoples... Your mention of Penélope Cruz's speech was necessary, it must have enlightened people who are under the false belief that English is spoken in just one way - the London way - and if anyone alters it, they are a laughing stock.

    At the end of the day, a language must remain a medium of expressing oneself. It's unfortunate that it should become a status symbol, as it is now.

    I was impressed by the last conclusive paragraph.

  24. Kaushik...An imposition that we are only too happy to accept.

    Bhavna..Glad you liked it.

    Tanay... A lot of hard work went behind this post, it drained me completely.

    It's only in our country people put on fake accents just to impress. Agreed English has evolved into a global language, but let's not embrace it at the cost of our rich vernacular.

    I'd rather hear people speak "shudh hindi/bangla/marathi" than the terrible mishmash that goes around in the name of English.

  25. Interesting Post. This is what Manmohan Singh had to say about english in India
    "Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system. That is, of course, if you leave out cricket! Of course, people here may not recognise the language we speak, but let me assure you that it is English! In indigenising English, as so many people have done in so many nations across the world, we have made the language our own. Our choice of prepositions may not always be the Queen’s English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we may drop an article here and add an extra one there. I am sure everyone will agree, Nevertheless, that English has been enriched by Indian creativity as well and we have given you back R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language"

  26. Somehow I have this theory that our language system and English doth share a large amount of common sounds. When a child is born into this world he/she is born global its the sounds they process and eventually string together. Hence language system are the same.... its the stringing together which makes the difference.
    Obsession to English, has got a lot to do with the life style were are trying to live. If only we are able to focus on the language and not the lifestyle baggage it comes with ... i feel its perfectly acceptable.

  27. Learning and using English is fine. But the way, we are taught languages in India is actually pretty awful. We become literate but not educated. However, with English, there is no denial that it is useful, however, to discard own languages is a crime. We should learn from Scandinavians who do all their work in their languages and still have fantastic command over English than most English educated Indians. They are the ones who produced ABBA! Another problem with our country is the sense of eliteness which is there since British times, earlier it was a sign of being connected with the powerful and now is a sign of uplift-ment. However, the way our convent educated class (not all so apologies if it offends a few) treats our common masses who are not well versed in English is a pity. The fact that one cant get a decent job in our own country without knowledge of English is a bit of shame and that the fact that we have to borrow a language to bind the country. Before British came, Indians used to speak 3-4 languages at least and with English's arrival, tendency to learn other languages has diminished. English is surely going to stay, but the point is are we going to allow our languages to die. Look at China, sure they are learning English, but not at the cost of Mandarin! In India, we are learning English at a great cultural and civilizational cost! When I see air-hostesses/stewards in Indian flights talking to common people in English (like an old couple or children or people who cant speak English), it feels very strange and artificial.


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  30. The greatest respect we can do to a language is to use it in a proper way.
    Not all are shakespeare, but nowadays I pity kids who start using the four letter word "F***" just because their parents always speak English and this is what they think is English/westernization.

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