English Babu Desh Mein

A certain aspect of Indians irks me no end — the tendency to pre-judge people on the basis of their hold on the English language. It is no secret that knowing English and the ability to converse fluently does open lot of doors in India. We have been brought up in a culture that puts English a notch above the regional languages and the importance is underlined by making us speak at home in English. Although it is somewhat shameful, I willingly admit that I am much more comfortable and fluent in English than in my own mother tongue. It will take me ages to read through a page in Marathi. I won’t blame my parents but rather the culture of our society that makes English the de facto standard if you harbor any significant career aspirations, although the Chinese, French, and Russians do not always agree.

Knowing more languages or ability to converse in English rather than your mother tongue is not the issue here, but rather the false illusion of power that English bestows upon you is. I have come across numerous individuals who blatantly look down upon people who cannot grapple with the subtle nuances of English. English is an ever-evolving language with its vocabulary growing almost every day and what was “cool” a few years back is frowned upon today. I don’t think anyone, especially second-language Indians can profess to be masters of language because we never speak perfect English in our daily life. A bastardized version, Hinglish (Hindi + English) might soon be the most common version of English. So let us not try to preach and accept the fact that we barely get by in communicating our thoughts.

If you have ever heard Ashutosh Rana or Shatrughana Sinha speak in chaste Hindi, you cannot deny the beauty in their words and they are not even intellectuals in the field. I have had plenty of vernacular friends who were much more capable and intelligent than any know-all English dude, but sadly were battered into self-doubt and dejection. I studied in a Central School for three years where Hindi was the preferred norm and they played “hindi kavita antakshari” on a regular basis (yeah I know, huh?). Due to a weird bureaucratic mix-up, I was forced to study Social Sciences in Hindi for a year and I barely managed to scrape through. But that experience impressed upon me the difficulties for a typical vernacular student in an English-dominated world.

Yet people strut around arrogantly just because they can speak and read English bit more fluently than the person next door. To top it all, they have the cheek to extrapolate that ability to their intellectual and personal abilities. I have nothing except pity for such people and trying to change their minds is a futile exercise. I have seen and read about people who come from the hinterlands and climb the pinnacle to greatness, winning adulation and respect of all. Language was never a determining factor for them. Admittedly, it can give you a head start but it can only take you as far. After that, all it takes is an open mind and ability to adapt to change. And of course, respect for others irrespective of certain frivolous language skills.

16 Comments

  1. Strangely enough….i was discussing this a while earlier with a friend…and I agree with you whole heartedly…
    still cannot figure out the trackback option but then I am tech-challenged!!!!!!

  2. Its so true!! We still gauge people’s (our peer group, friends etc. etc) intellectual capabilities and their social acceptability on the basis of their proficiency in the English language. Somehow knowledge of English is supposed to give them an edge over those who don’t. Call it a typical colonial hangover or whatever but the phenomenon is deep-rooted. And yes, till sometime back I was also guilty of being one of the perpetators :(

  3. Ditto Venusian the trackback option went OMH

  4. I agree with you … and I disagree. English today is more than just a language, it is a global connector. To ignore this would be a mistake. In todays voyeuristic world if you cannot present your thoughts in an understandable (u dont need to be spectacular) manner, you will more often than not face issues. Ability in any field has to be matched by presentation and people skills. But I do agree that writing off somebody just cause they dont know english is not acceptable.

  5. Vanilla – Kya kare! Hopefully things change…at least a lil bit.

    Venusian – Strange coincidence, eh? or just great minds think alike. Regards trackback, you can add it to your site from Haloscan. For more on Trackback, you can check Movable Type’s explanation or this guy explains it pretty well too.

    Crab – Nice to see you around. It is definitely a colonial hangover but more we see vernacular ppl doing well in our lives, quicker will be the transition. Check out my comment to Venusian for Trackback info.

  6. its one of my pet rants too. as if the ‘english colonial hangover’ as crabie so neatly put in – isnt enough – we’ve now got to deal with ‘accent neautralization’ bullshit coz of all this outsourcing call centres and stuff. one of my friends in mumbai is a trainer and the way he sometimes goes on in a bloody fake (US/British -take ur pick) accent just drives me nuts. oh and by the way- i was just recently snubbed by ‘u sound so indian’ (hello? i am indian!) by someone in india – and it was said in an insulting way.what bloody complexes we have!

    haven’t kept up with ur posts – work!:( ..hny and will catch up on em soon.

  7. well said patrix and nicely put..do I have to agree with you on this one…grr!

    Makes me feel better about my grammar mistakes. well, actually makes me feel great about not being proficient in any single language though I claim to know five.

  8. Adi – Of course! I don’t disparge English’s wide reach. I am glad we haven’t closeted the way French have..touting their language over English. More languages you know, the better your chances of reaching out are. But as you too concluded, no language is over the other…just your skill in dealing with it.

    Soleil – Must have been pretty pissed to be labelled an “Indian” when you look and act like one. Acting up to the stereotypical image is quite a chore. Glad you aren’t one of those snobs.

    Alpha – Must be the drastic climatic changes that must compel you to agree with me. But five languages?? gosh! someones not being too modest today. BTW ability to cuss is not actually a language skill :)

  9. It is true, and I do share your sentiments. But I guess each of us are a sguilty of it as the person who you are pointing figures to is. I mean, why dont each of us really try to master our own mother tongues? Why dont we try and speak chaste hindi, marati or kannda or tamil ot gujarati or whatever. We are simply blaming the system and people. That is really not going to get us anywhere except for a solace that we ranted abt it, if it is a solace at all!!

  10. Semantic – I agree! we all are equally to blame but I didn’t propose mastering your own mother tongue over English but instead just a little bit more respect for those who do. You really can’t impose what language you ought to learn.

  11. My love for the English language is what is helping me earn my daily dal chawal. That apart, i confess, i too was guilty of getting blindly impressed by people’s command over the language and attributing it to higher intellectual abilities. Not anymore. Linguistic ability is no barometer of a person’s worth. All the same, making the extra effort to improve language skills helps anyone get things done faster and make a better initial impression.

  12. I don’t care what language a person knows but I do insist that a person know at least one language well. The other day I was at a conference at Bhopal. It was about ICT and development. One presenter was driving me nuts with his presentation where he was ostensibly speaking in Hindi but was really speaking what I call “pidgin Hindi”. I interrupted the man and insisted that he choose his language — either Hindi or English — since this was a professional gathering. He said that he will speak in Hindi. And then he continued with statements like “yeh experiment ki result say patah chalta hai ki fifty percent log successful nahin hotey hain. But iska matlab nahin hain ki experiment ko stop kiya jaye…” That is when I am forced to conclude that the man is a moron.

  13. Passerby – It is a subconscious conditioning as Crab mentioned it but the good part is that we learn to grow out of it as we venture out and meet people of diverse backgrounds.

    Atanu – I agree. Hinglish or pigdine Hindi doesn’t sound refined at all..maybe with friends it might be OK but at a professional level, it is a strict no-no. I am glad you interrupted that man.

  14. Pat,

    Consider another thing, if you read Narendra Kohli, Prem Chand etc. in a typical engineering college. The image that your friends are going to have is “aarey yaar yeh tau ek dum desi hein” While on the other hand if you are seen reading Ayn Rand, Jane Austen etc. you are the intellectual :D What an irony.

    Pankaj

  15. Pankaj – I understand your pain :) but we have to let a few generations pass until we can see an attitudinal shift.

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