The Obsession With English: Why Are Local Indian Languages A Matter Of ‘Shame’?

Posted on September 18, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Society

By Ankita Mukhopadhyay:

I studied in an English medium school since the beginning. For me, learning to communicate in English was an utmost necessity as a child, because it was a sign of me being ‘educated’. Many Indians of my generation have faced a similar situation – they belong to a generation where private schools have mushroomed up and their parents, having ‘suffered’ after being educated in the vernacular, decided to put their children in an English medium school. With economic liberalisation in the 90s, English became a language learnt by most privileged young children in ‘English medium’ schools. Currently, according to the latest data compiled by the National University of Education, Planning and Administration (NUEPA), the number of children studying in English-medium schools has increased by a staggering 274% between 2003 and 2011, to over 20 million students. After two decades of rapid economic growth, landing employment has also become equated with knowing English, especially due to the software boom and the expansion of the service sector.

English was handed to India by the British along with colonialism. It is a remnant of our colonial past, much like the railways. But unlike the telegraph, it is here to stay.

The hegemony of English around the world has propelled upper and middle-class Indians to pursue education in English with a vengeance. Knowledge of the language makes us more coveted in the job market, more acceptable as educated individuals in society. It is not a new trend to see youngsters talking to each other in English to appear cool and distinctive from the ‘local’ population. In schools, if children talk to each other in Hindi, or another local language, it is not uncommon for parents to say, “I send you to English medium to talk in Hindi? Wasting your parent’s money!”

Coaching classes have sprung up to capitalise on our new obsession with learning English. It is not uncommon for us to be embarrassed by a family member who can’t speak English ‘correctly’. Why has knowledge of English become a social status? Is speaking in an Indian language a matter of shame?

India is a country of myriad languages and it is difficult to pin down one as the official language. Hindi is one of the working languages of our country alongside English, but our national language isn’t just Hindi. There are still many schools in India imparting education in the vernacular, and it is sad to see the lack of social mobility in vernacular educated students. Studying in the vernacular is treated by the average Indian youth today as a sure shot method of escalating down the society’s ladder of progressivism. Students who don’t know English are demotivated so much by society and by the education system that they lose confidence and begin doubting their value addition to the academic atmosphere. Even speaking in any other language in the workplace, school or college apart from English is becoming a bane for teachers, administrators, children and parents alike.

English has created opportunities, and its adoption for all major examinations like the JEE Advanced, AIPMT, UPSC has cemented its status as the dominant language of the country. It is not surprising to see many Indians today who claim to be monolingual. In a country that speaks 780 languages, 220 have already been lost in the past 50 years, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. And we are on the road to losing the other 560 too.

Our vernacular education is dying, languages like Sanskrit are considered the most ‘atrocious’ subjects to study at University. I remember seeing young students choosing languages like French over Hindi/Marathi as a second language in school – because it was more “global”. The fascination of integrating with the ‘Western world’ motivates us to discard our heritage and shun those who are sticking to it. Despite not having English as its first language, China has outrun India in every area of economic endeavour in the last 35 years, except in computer software industry and agricultural research. Why? Because the language of a country isn’t directly proportional to development.

We shouldn’t let the vernacular die for something that isn’t even our own. Our feeling of accomplishment of knowing English is dangerous, and unfortunately, we all feel that just because we speak a particular language, we own it. Yes, English is a universal language. And we should learn to live with the fact that most of us aren’t the top-most speakers of the language. No language can be perfectly mastered, but no master of a language should deter another person from trying to speak it. You can know your vernacular language, yet learn a foreign language. The logic of Indians who speak to their children in English is absurd. I once heard a lady tell her son, “Don’t talk in Hindi. It is crass.” I was amused at the fact that she decided to shun her entire heritage at one go by labelling her identity as ‘crass’.

Education in the vernacular isn’t a disgrace – it is a source of empowerment. It is an assertion of our culture. Just because a foreign language helps us stand out on a world forum, doesn’t mean it’s a sign of civilisation. If this were true, Japan, Germany or France wouldn’t have been functional countries today. It is necessary to know English, but it shouldn’t be a hegemonic language. Speaking, writing or communicating in our mother-tongue shouldn’t be a matter of shame.