In­dia’s ob­ses­sion with English

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In­dia’s ob­ses­sion with English In last week’s col­umn, I ex­ploded the all-too-fa­mil­iar, fly­blown but in­ac­cu­rate myth that no so­ci­ety de­vel­ops when it uses a for­eign lan­guage for ed­u­ca­tional in­struc­tion, and showed his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ples of poli­ties that de­vel­oped with for­eign lan­guages. I promised to con­tinue from where I stopped last week, and to fo­cus some at­ten­tion on In­dia whose lan­guage pol­icy some Nige­rian lin­guists rec­om­mend.

How­ever, I came across and in­struc­tive ar­ti­cle by an In­dian re­search that I want to share with the reader. It throws some light on the role of English in In­dian ed­u­ca­tion, and lays the back­ground for my col­umn next week. Orig­i­nally ti­tled, “How English Cre­ates a New Caste Sys­tem in In­dia,” it was first pub­lished in the Pa­cific Stan­dard of March 23, 2017. It was writ­ten by Su­nil Bha­tia. En­joy:

Con­tem­po­rary In­dia has cre­ated a sys­tem in which the ma­jor­ity of In­dian youth find lit­tle ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic value in learn­ing their na­tive and re­gional lan­guage.

Gauri, a 60-year-old grand­mother from Pune, In­dia, wanted her grand­chil­dren to learn English in a pri­vate school. But her chil­dren could not af­ford the fees and there was no one at home who could sup­ple­ment their English lan­guage in­struc­tion.

“See, we are not that strong in English so we’ll not put them in English medium schools,” she says. “Why show your fake teeth?”

Gauri fre­quently likens not know­ing English to hav­ing “fake teeth.” Learn­ing English, she be­lieves, gives them real teeth. But as she looks at her fam­ily’s prospects, Gauri only feels tooth­less.

Gauri is not alone in her de­spon­dency. Flu­ency in English is en­demic of the deep class-based di­vi­sions that con­tinue to plague In­dian so­ci­ety. A 2014 re­port from the Cen­tre for Re­search and De­bates in Devel­op­ment Pol­icy in In­dia found that only 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion speaks English, and only 4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion speaks the lan­guage flu­ently. The re­port em­pha­sizes that men in In­dia who spoke flu­ent English earned 34 per­cent higher wages than those who had some flu­ency.

The ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion (ap­prox­i­mately one bil­lion) doesn’t speak English. But the lan­guage has emerged as one of the most cru­cial de­ter­mi­nants of so­cial sta­tus, in­come, pres­tige, and em­ploy­ment. That means 4 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion has the abil­ity to de­ter­mine, con­trol, and op­press the ma­jor­ity 96 per­cent sim­ply by virtue of know­ing English.

In his new book, In­glo­ri­ous Em­pire, writer and politi­cian Shashi Tha­roor lays out the cat­a­strophic ef­fects of 200 years of Bri­tish col­o­niza­tion of In­dia. The English lan­guage was not a gift to In­di­ans, he writes, but an in­stru­ment of colo­nial­ism that was pri­mar­ily in­tended for the ben­e­fit of meet­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tive needs of the Bri­tish colo­nial mas­ters.

In 1835, Lord Ma­caulay fa­mously pro­vided the ra­tio­nale for teach­ing English to a se­lect group of In­di­ans, “We must do our best to form a class who may be in­ter­preters be­tween us and the mil­lions whom we gov­ern; a class of per­sons, In­di­ans in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opin­ions, in morals and in in­tel­lect.”

The English lan­guage’s colo­nial le­gacy, how­ever, con­tin­ues to be em­braced and revered by a mi­nor­ity of elites and has be­come the lan­guage of as­pi­ra­tion, in­tel­li­gence, moder­nity, and mo­bil­ity, for mil­lions of mid­dle­and work­ing-class In­di­ans.

English has al­ways been the lan­guage of the elite caste, an in­deli­ble and pow­er­ful fea­ture of In­dia’s im­pe­rial his­tory, as pop­u­lar­ized in the PBS se­ries, In­dian Sum­mers. Yet, to­day, English’s dom­i­nance is an in­te­gral part of a cor­po­rate global econ­omy and mod­ern la­bor mar­ket that priv­i­leges the lives of those In­di­ans who can speak the lan­guage.

Over the last decade, as a re­searcher, I have been col­lect­ing hun­dreds of sto­ries of how glob­al­iza­tion has shaped the iden­tity for­ma­tion of af­flu­ent, mid­dle, and ur­ban poor youth in Pune, In­dia. Through this ethno­graphic re­search, I’ve learned that a new form of psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pe­ri­al­ism has emerged. In his new book, In­glo­ri­ous Em­pire, writer and politi­cian Shashi Tha­roor lays out the cat­a­strophic ef­fects of 200 years of Bri­tish col­o­niza­tion of In­dia. The English lan­guage was not a gift to In­di­ans, he writes, but an in­stru­ment of colo­nial­ism that was pri­mar­ily in­tended for the ben­e­fit of meet­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tive needs of the Bri­tish colo­nial mas­ters

The com­pe­ti­tion for gain­ing ad­mis­sion to pres­ti­gious pri­vate “English medium” schools is fierce. It starts early: Thou­sands of par­ents ev­ery year spend enor­mous amounts of time and money pre­par­ing their preschool aged chil­dren for English lan­guage in­ter­views and tests.

The English lan­guage di­vide, sim­i­lar to the caste cat­e­gory, plays a vi­tal role in de­ter­min­ing whom they will marry, which friends they will have, where they will work and shop, what schools they will at­tend, what books they will read, where they will travel, how much they will earn, and what media they will con­sume.

Ad­di­tion­ally, tales of In­dian writ­ers of English nov­els and non­fic­tion-peo­ple like Ki­ran De­sai, Aravind Adiga, Ro­hin­ton Mistry, and Jeet Thail-gain­ing recog­ni­tion at home and abroad sup­port this no­tion of the English supremacy. As An­jali Mody, an In­dian jour­nal­ist who writes reg­u­larly on In­dia’s ed­u­ca­tional is­sues, writes, “In­dia’s ob­ses­sion with English is de­priv­ing many chil­dren of a real ed­u­ca­tion.”

Zainab, a 22-year-old col­lege stu­dent, says that non-English speak­ers like her are fre­quently re­ferred to as “Ghati”-a pe­jo­ra­tive term used to ex­clude the ma­jor­ity of the youth who stud­ied at her col­lege.

The rise of a rapidly ex­pand­ing ser­vice in­dus­try has cre­ated many small and large English lan­guage in­sti­tutes and pri­vate schools across In­dia. One such in­sti­tute is called The English Clinic, per­haps as­so­ci­at­ing lack of English speak­ing skills with some form of pathol­ogy or dis­ease.

Wasim, a 23-year-old slumd­weller, wanted to speak flu­ent English so he could get a job in a call cen­ter to help pay for his sis­ters’ wed­dings. Wasim often as­so­ciates be­ing rich with the abil­ity to speak English. He says if he had some money, the first thing he would do is go to col­lege to be­come flu­ent in English.

My re­search also re­vealed that, de­spite speak­ing flu­ent English, In­dian call cen­ter work­ers were sub­jected to hours of train­ing in ac­cent re­duc­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion style, voice mod­u­la­tion, and per­son­al­ity devel­op­ment.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity of com­mu­ni­cat­ing clearly with for­eign clients with the right ac­cent, tone, choice of words and emo­tion falls di­rectly on the in­di­vid­ual call cen­ter worker in In­dia. Ev­ery year thou­sands of call cen­ter agents re­ceived train­ing to re­move their MTI’s (Mother Tongue In­flu­ence) or the in­flu­ence of their na­tive in­flec­tion on English.

The lead­ing icons of In­dia-Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Vi­rat Kohli, Amitabh Bachchan, Priyanka Cho­pra, Aish­warya Rai-may be mul­ti­lin­gual, but they are es­pe­cially lauded for their their abil­ity to speak “good English” and make In­dia proud on the global stage. Con­tem­po­rary In­dia has cre­ated a sys­tem in which the ma­jor­ity of In­dian youth find lit­tle ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic value in learn­ing their na­tive and re­gional lan­guage.

Un­doubt­edly, English needs to be taught in the glob­al­ized econ­omy, but not at the ex­pense of de­grad­ing and eras­ing the rich­ness of In­dia’s lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity of 22 re­gional lan­guages and about 1,000 di­alects.

Re­li­gious foun­da­tions of caste prac­tices are still deeply en­trenched in In­dian so­ci­ety and ef­forts to re­move caste bar­ri­ers are part of an on­go­ing strug­gle. English as the lan­guage of sta­tus and achieve­ment in In­dia is cre­at­ing an­other layer of so­ci­etal hi­er­ar­chy, in­ter­nal­ized op­pres­sion, and con­trol that the coun­try can do with­out.

Col­o­niza­tion did not end when the Bri­tish flag went down and the In­dian flag went up. The ef­fects of col­o­niza­tion linger in the psy­cho­log­i­cal realm-where self and iden­tity be­come sub­jected to a sec­ond form of col­o­niza­tion.

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