Being able to speak English with a ‘foreign’ accent, be it American, Australian or British, is often considered an intangible status symbol in India.
Indians, especially Punjabis, are notorious for being class conscious. This is a striking characteristic that we share with our colonial master. While India, unlike the United Kingdom, decided not to recognize or confer titles on individuals, our society’s obsession with stature has certainly shaped our attitude towards language.
Neither of us harbours any ill will toward English, or any other language for that matter. We love all languages. But the assumptions that our society makes about the intelligence of a person based on the language he or she speaks can be problematic. This often occurs when people exclusively use English in social settings, as that were an indication of being refined or polished. The corollary is that non-English speakers are less ‘cultured.’Â Think of Shashi, Sridevi’s character in the movie English Vinglish whose children mock and are embarrassed by her lousy English. An interesting, albeit minor, twist at the end of the movie is when she boards her flight back to India, and despite her newfound fluency in English, she makes it a point to ask the attendant for a Hindi newspaper. Perhaps the humorous scene carries an underlying message here: that it is socially acceptable to voluntarily speak in Hindi despite being competent in English. This is a phenomenon that we seldom see in our urban middle and upper class society.
Many Indian youth speak to each other in English despite being able to speak fluent Hindi. While studying overseas it was evident that this tendency to dismiss the vernacular is unique to our culture. Greeks, Brazilians, and those from Arabic speaking countries converse in their native languages, despite their fluency in English. While interacting with friends from Delhi who were studying in the USA, I (Digant) noticed that even when I would speak Hindi, they would mostly respond in English. A friend offered his explanation for this phenomenon: “Delhi girls will speak English at all times, but Delhi boys still tend to speak to each other in Hindi because of the sense of camaraderie it espouses.”
The politics of language has been a significant shaping factor for India. Linguistic groups have demanded statehood along the lines of language in the past. Political parties have even capitalized on language as a social identity to appease such groups. But the social stratification that exists with respect to language requires a more profound discourse. Few of us realize the elevated status that we unthinkingly ascribe to one’s competency in English. For instance, elders often insist on your speaking English with other Indians because of the positive image it portrays. The ‘look my son/daughter is so well educated‘ syndrome, if you will!
While in most countries it is the norm to speak one’s native language, irrespective of competency in English, speaking Hindi in India can invite the assumption that either they do not speak English or they believe the other person does not. Consider this: Digant, an Indian who has lived and was educated abroad, meets Saanya for the first time, and speaks in Hindi. After responding to him in fluent English a few times, she wonders why he insists on speaking Hindi, when she too has been educated abroad and is clearly competent in English. But outside our interaction with each other, we have witnessed similar incidents in restaurants where waiters whom we speak to in Hindi start to reply in English, indicating that they are in fact well versed with the language. They often look bemused when we continue to speak in Hindi. This is telling of the distinct social capital that the ability to speak English carries in India.
There are undoubtedly advantages to speaking English, the most significant of which are economic. In the ‘India versus China debate,’ English language competency is often cited as an edge that Indians have over Chinese. Moreover, given the sheer linguistic diversity of our country with over 700 languages, it is more likely that English as opposed to Hindi (which isn’t spoken in many parts of the country) will unite us. Enrolment in Government Schools has steadily declined because parents want their children to be educated in English. But the purpose of language should be to facilitate communication, and not stratify a society. Amidst the race to learn English, let’s not forget that.
Note: This article was originally published here.