Why Is Speaking English A Matter Of Pride And Speaking 5 Different Indian Languages Not-So-Impressive?

By Rangashree Thirumalai:

Having grown up in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India, Bangalore, I took to English like a fish to water. Neither my school nor my family took notice of how most of my daily communication – with my teachers, friends and even my parents and grand-parents, was in the world’s third most commonly spoken language, namely English (pardon me if the ranking has changed now).

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Tamilian by birth, Kannadiga by domicile and tracing roots to Andhra Pradesh and currently living in Delhi, I have always wondered about the hullabaloo surrounding one’s command over the English language and its precedence over one’s native language. I am not advocating the abolition (or even regulation) of the usage of the language. For, it would be impossible for my professors in college to correct answer-scripts written in 22 different languages (the number of scheduled languages in our constitution). I recently read an article which enlisted how being the second-largest number of English speakers in the world was something we should be proud of. I am all for the enculturation of the language by us, Indians. Call me an idealist, but as a 19-year-old, my only concern is regarding our inability to over-come the idea that our country’s identification in today’s world must lie beyond the fact that we house the world’s second largest number of English speakers. Blame our rising population for such statistics, if you wish to. But, our identity (and identification) is a celebration of the multitude of languages that have originated from our land and the richness and glory of their infusion into not only English, albeit gradually, but also within one another.

If “Kolaveri Di” could be used by my classmates in Delhi, and “Kanjoos” become a staple word in my conversations with my grandfather in Bangalore, and the amusement on my friends’ faces when I tell them how I know of people who can speak in up to 5 different Indian languages (my grandfather for instance – who also quotes Milton and Rousseau at the drop of a hat), I ask you, is this not what we should be proud of? Is celebration of our linguistic diversity too much to ask for? Are we “scared of being left behind” if we did not become the world’s largest English speaking country? Or are we so incapable of national unity in the absence of a language that was imposed upon us by men who could not have wished for greater misfortune? At a time when “the local” is hailed, is it not necessary that we protect what is ours before it gets too late?

The though of that (apocalyptic) day when, decades hence, Sanskrit or Maithili would have become officially extinct (in cities at least; for, the rural heart land may be the harbinger of the language protecting it from vanquishing off the earth’s surface) and Hindi, a passing phrase in Bollywood films, gives shudders, isn’t it? In place of this, wouldn’t acknowledging and celebrating the plurality of mother tongues be a more pleasing vision of the future?

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10 Responses

  1. sg02

    First of all, very nice article Rangashree. :) My 10 yr old nephew can speak 5 languages. Even I speak in 4 languages. i am happy to be part of a country with such diversity. Often, I have thought about how English is being over-hyped in our country. (*I am convent-educated, with many of my teachers being Irish or English). Its just a language after all! it does not provide any means or measures to judge a person by his/her command over the language. Language is always just a means to communicate.
    Maybe, one thing about English is that its ‘all-around’ and somehow its ‘easier’ to pick up and that’s why its gaining so much popularity. Even maids and rickshaw-pullers feel elated after managing broken and grammatically incorrect sentences. Speaking in mother tongues or Indian languages is considered being ‘ganwaar’ by many even today. It is indeed sad- not celebrating the multilingual crowd in India.
    In a diverse country like India, there is a constant danger of flare-up over just any issue. Political parties are always waiting to seize the moment and create cultural divides. So, then you can imagine what nuisance will be caused if one out of the many Indian languages is to be chosen as the official or business language. Since English is a language not native to India, its foreign to all cultures, its acceptance is less of a disputable matter. (ironic). Armed with English, people from two very different states can communicate (like all of us here on this forum) or people from two different countries can communicate. My emphasis is on English being nothing more than a language and its use being connecting the multilingual population in India. Though, knowledge of English is important, young people should communicate with parents in mother tongue to keep the culture in you alive… and some day.. one day.. we shall overcome and celebrate unity in diversity. :)

    (* the nuns and the non-nuns had taken up Indian citizenship. these people were really working for root causes like quality education to poor for free with midday meals-part of which we contributes very gladly. so, till i was in school i was in a very healthy environment- in patriotic and education terms. it was after i left school that i had to face the real India. Reservations based on caste system was the first national issue that hit me hard when i was fresh out of school. i realised, when people really care to bring about a change, they rise above religion, national and cultural differences. They work for human beings. we cant all be nuns and saints, but atleast we can try to be good Indians.)

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  2. Saumya Sahni

    Today people who converse in their mother tongue languages are considered as naive. Linguistic chauvinism which is attributed today to the English in unjust. People discriminated on the basis if absences of knowledge of the English language is pointing towards a dangerous tend. This also stands true for colleges where they lay extra stress on the language. even if a person is uncomfortable using the language, the person is forced to adopt to the systems. This results in the person not performing well in a certain subject, not because the conceptual understanding is poor but because the language English is not comprehensible.
    Instead of being proud of the linguistic diversity in India, we today lament loss of not knowing English.
    The film “English Vinglish” no doubt a good work of fiction by Gauri Shinde again does nothing but reiterates the fact that it is only about being able to converse or write flawlessly in English language.

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    • Raj

      Many disciplines require the use of English as their basis including engineering, science, law etc. This is quite similar to knowing the language of mathematics to study calculus or knowing Java to study computer science concepts.

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  3. Kavya

    Being multi lingual is a matter of pride and anyone who speaks and languages other than the one they are required to most often should surely be appreciated. Your article was much needed or so I personally think. If a foreigner from countries not familiar with hindi or similar languages manages to speak but a few sentences in hindi they are appreciated to no extent while an Indian is required rather expected to speak English more fluently than hindi which is our national language. This is not something that makes Indians proud- it just ridicules our narrow mindedness and the nature to undermine our own language/s.

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    • Raj

      Hindi is NOT India’s national language. Please make a note of that. Say such a thing in south India, especially Tamil Nadu and see the reactions you get.

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  4. Aditi Thakker

    Being multilingual is definitely a matter a pride, and you deserve a lot of credit for being able to speak 5 languages! The real problem is that English has always been promoted as the language of the elite in India. Languages listed in the Indian Constitution maybe rich in literature, complex to learn as well as important to our heritage. But, how much strategic importance do they hold today? I think, the focus on English in India today, is to ensure that India remains at par with the world, because we failed to the give Hindi, Tamil or Bengali (or any other language for that matter) a position in a global setting. China did it, France did it and so did Japan. We could not, because we do not have any one language. With everyone in the urban areas thinking globally today, and everyone in rural areas wanting to modernise like the cities, regional languages are only going to lose its importance. India does in fact use English or Hindi, to communicate with fellow Indians from other states. After all, we are a union of what was a huge scatter of endless kingdoms speaking over a thousand languages.

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  5. Hanam

    Agree with Rangashree Thirumalai .

    We seem to be clinging to English to help us bind as a nation .

    Its a great write up on the 67th Independence day – let’s get away from our addiction to English , a foreign language and be proud of the languages we have in India . India must grow on its pride of its unity in diversity . Let’s not consider English speaking a sign of intelligence or affluence or pride for that matter . We must shed our complex and be proud of our own mother tongue and our own indian languages . When the Chinese , Japanese and Germans can do business in their language – we too can – why not use Hindi and learn to use Hindi as a business language of India . I am sure all Indians will embrace Hindi and learn this along with their own local language . Plurality is our strength as Indians and this gives India its beauty – that we can be proud of as perhaps the only country , with such variety of languages and dialects and culture. Jai Hind.

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    • Raj

      No, all Indians do not and will not submit to the primarily north Indian arrogance of learning Hindi. Visit South India, North East and J&K ; then you’ll know about your precious Hindi. I don’t think you’ve ventured beyond the cow-belt of the Gangetic plains. India is much larger.
      And you listed the Chinese,Japanese etc. and their success with local languages. How about quoting the lack of success of Islamic nations or African nations , who too have tried to restrict English?

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    • Vaishali Jain

      Why restrict English, Hanam? Just because a language is not ‘our own’, does not mean we should curb its use. I agree we should not feel inferior for using Hindi in our daily conversations but to curb the usage of a particular language because it reeks of the men who once ruled us does not sound right to me.
      It’s really about the global setting of a language, as Aditi said.

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  6. Raj

    “Or are we so incapable of national unity in the absence of a language that was imposed upon us by men who could not have wished for greater misfortune?”, this line is so xenophobic and racist, that I still wonder how people can be so narrow-minded.
    It’s pretty clear who these “men” were, the British. But I ask you, did the Mughals do any better? Did those numerous Hindu kings do any better? Didn’t they both loot and plunder India for themselves? Didn’t they fight endless wars, kill ordinary folk and destroy entire kingdoms? Why do you wish to preserve languages like Kannada, Telugu etc. when these kings treated our ancestors like crap? Because they were racially similar to us so we must preserve a language imposed by them but not the British?

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