Sunday, March 13, 2011

English is an Indian Language!

New York Times recently published a letter titled  “India Faces a Linguistic Truth: English Spoken Here” which succinctly makes the case for how English is the de-facto national language of India. I couldn’t agree more. All around India you can see signs of how English is omnipresent in every walk of life and only politicians and extremist activists portray English as an undesirable colonial imposition on the people of India.

The much lauded 9% growth rate of India is driven mostly by growth in knowledge intensive sectors like IT and the services sector in which knowledge of English is the most basic prerequisite. Even in small towns and villages, there is much demand for English language education and English medium schools as well as private English tuition centres are raking in huge amounts of money.  English is the route to every aspiration that the common man of India.

English is as Indian as Mehendi, Cricket or Tea

The most common and often the only argument against usage of English is that it is a “foreign” language. But how do you define what is ‘Indian’? The tradition of applying mehendi or heena, seen at almost every Indian wedding (both Hindu & Muslim) was brought to India by Persian invaders. Cricket, also a British import, is now an integral part of contemporary Indian culture. It is played, watched and discussed in the smallest of the Indian villages. Any suggestion of Cricket being an undesirable foreign import would sound absurd to any average Indian who has grown up watching and playing it. Tea, the afternoon drink of choice for most office workers in India is always served the British way, with milk and sugar but hardly any one on protests this British influence in Indian lifestyle.

The last but most telling sign of English being as much an Indian language as any other is that most Indians liberally use several English words while speaking their own mother tongues even when local alternatives exist. For example while discussing cricket in Hindi, most people (including the ones who have never learnt English) will still use the words ‘batsman’, ‘bowler’ and ‘boundary’ instead of the Hindi words बल्लेबाज़, गेंदबाज़ and चौका. As far as I know, there are no widely used Hindi/Marathi synonyms at all for words like ‘table’, ‘railway’ and ‘camera’. The practise of using English words for modern tools is specific to India because we feel comfortable with using English. Other languages like Chinese and Korean have developed local words for these modern inventions.

Culture evolves

So, I think that the criticism that English is a foreign and alien language is completely unfounded and wrong. Something that has been a part of Indian culture for atleast a hundred and fifty years cannot be called an alien language. Today, English has has assimilated into our culture to become a part of it just the same way that mehendi did over the years. So English belongs to India as much as it does to Britain, America or Australia.

While whether English should be adopted as the only official language and/or the national language is another different debate altogether, I hope politicians accept the reality and instead of promoting regionalist pride, take steps to use to use and enhance India’s advantage of being comfortable with English. While Indian government schools continue to educate only in unmarketable local languages, surprisingly enough, our neighbour has realised the advantage of English and is leading the way!

Article from Pakistani newspaper -

Image source : - Front Cover of the book, Indian English Language and Culture (Lonely Planet Language Reference)

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