Posts Tagged languages

Learning our languages: Inability or disability?

One afternoon last week I decided to walk from my Department to the campus school to pick up the little brat. It’s a pleasant 15-minute walk, especially at this time of the year when the campus wears its best, riotously verdant look, thanks to the rains.  The magnificent beginnings of a sublime Nature poem (cough cough) were, however, snuffed out when I heard someone run up behind me.  A young man whom I had taught last semester. After the customary greetings he blurted out, “Everyone says I should improve my English.” “So you should!” I responded, smiling to take the sting out of my words.

This kid really drove me up the wall with assignments that had, among other things, articles and prepositions all over the place – everywhere except where they belonged! And when chastised and explained the errors, he would turn in the next one pristinely devoid of both.   

As I’d expected, he talked me into more of the remedial work I did with him last semester. And then, looking at me sheepishly, he said, “Ma’am I’ve enrolled for Creative Writing this semester.” Laughing to acknowledge the irony and my raised eye-brows, he continued: ” And what I realize is that I know neither my mother tongue nor English well enough to be able to write creatively in either.” For me, this disarming confession is a reminder of one of the biggest shortcomings, tragedies if you will, of our education: the abject neglect and deteriorating importance of language study. 

Take the case of my home state – Andhra Pradesh. It is reputed to have the largest number of engineering colleges in the country. Students from Andhra grab a sizeable chunk of seats in the IITs and BITS every year.  All of this is the result of the “coaching regime” that has the entire high-school system in its stranglehold.  Right from class 10, children and their parents start preparing, mentally, financially, physically, every which way, for the entrance examinations that constitute the gateway to an education in the coveted streams of engineering, medicine and the IITs. 

When I was in high school there were “institutes” that coached students for these entrance exams. Now, we have  “corporate schools” that charge  astounding fee to prepare students for these entrance exams, alongside the regular high-school curriculum. Coaching is now institutionalized!

What baffles me is this. These entrance exams are supposed to test students on what they learned at high school. Why would a normal, reasonably intelligent student need extra “coaching” to clear these entrance exams, over and above what is taught in school?  Doesn’t such “coaching,” tailor-made for these exams, defeat the very purpose of the exams?

But supporters (and benefactors!) of this regime would probably argue that the intense competition for berths in these professional courses demands the extra edge that coaching provides. Even if we grant this (and I don’t!) there are other things falling by the wayside, thanks to this regime. Language skills for instance.

Colleagues teaching at the IITs, BITS and other national institutes of technology tell me that students from Andhra are very often the pits when it comes  to language, communication and other “soft” skills. I’d say that is to be expected. A system that rewards the ability to answer multiple-choice questions in the shortest possible time leaves little scope for expression and communication.

Languages do not even count in the overall percentage scheme – it’s just the ‘Groups’ (Math-Physics-Chemistry/Biology-Physics-Chemistry) that matter! English is important only because it is the medium of instruction. As for the other languages, the less said the better.

Perhaps the situation for English is improving. The realization that English is as important as an engineering degree in the job market is catching on. (Which is why the Andhra Pradesh government has decided to make English the medium of instruction in all government schools.) But what kind of English?  

 As part of a project on English for Science teachers, a colleague and I interviewed a cross section of teachers of Science and engineering in the city last year.  They were unequivocal about improving their English, but most of them felt “correctness”, especially pronunciation, was what they needed most. While that is not untrue, my assessment is that these teachers actually lack fluency – the ability to paraphrase, to explain a concept in at least two different ways, using different expressions and illustrations. Very often, they repeat definitions and explanations from standard text books. (Aside: I can imagine a bewildered student saying, “Ma’am/Sir I didn’t get that. Could you explain it again, please?” “Right,” the teacher would say and start all over again – saying the same thing, albeit more slowly!  No wonder our students don’t ask too many questions! Who wants to listen to the same crap twice over?!)

While the demand for English of a questionable variety is perhaps increasing, what of our Indian languages? They are mere “subjects” in school, second or third languages (telling nomenclature!) to be forgotten as soon as we ‘pass’ them and leave school. Which leaves a sizeable section of the population tongue-tied: inadequate English, barely adequate mother tongue.

But why is this important enough for me to blog about? Why am I harping on the study of languages, Indian languages ? Well, I could give cultural reasons, about how they’re endangered species, these vehicles of our culture, but I will desist.  This post is about languages in the context of technological education and I’ll stick to that.

 Although English is the language of choice of only a miniscule section of our society, it is the language of science, technology, medicine, nay all that is modern and progressive.  But all of this ‘knowledge’ can only be made available to the masses through their own languages. How do we effect the translations, then? Especially if knowledge of these languages is reduced to the level of second/third languages left behind in school? 

While globalization brings more and more ‘knowledge’ to our doorstep through English, such knowledge will remain the property of a few if the means of their dispersal – our indigenous languages – are not strengthened. 

Successive National Policies on Education (which you can read here) have unfailingly stressed the importance of language study. The Policy document of 1968 says:

The energetic development of Indian languages and literature is a sine qua non for educational and cultural development. Unless this is done, the creative energies of the people will not be released, standards of education will not improve, knowledge will not spread to the people and the gulf between the intelligentsia and the masses will remain if not widen further. The regional languages are already in use as media of education at the primary and secondary levels. Urgent steps should now be taken to adopt them as media of education at the university level.

Interestingly, English is mentioned in this Policy as part of other international languages which should be strengthened for the purposes of the study of Science and Technology.

The Policy of 1986 adds very little: 

8.7 The Education Policy of 1968 had examined the question of’ the development of languages in great detail; its essential provisions can hardly be improved upon and are as relevant today as before. The implementation of this part of the 1968 Policy has, however, been uneven. The Policy will be implemented more energetically and purposefully.

And the revised policy of 1992 retains this bit as is.

These documents are studies in vagueness, I must say. But then one must remember that they are Policy documents; they specify what  should be done, not the nature of implementation.

Take, for instance, the policy on free and compulsory education for every child up to 14 years.  What has this achieved?  Today, quality of education is directly proportional to cost and access. The same holds for our policy on languages. Laudable policies that have achieved zilch. Nada. Nil. A reflection of the complete abdication of responsibility by the state. And the result – crass and appalling commercialization of education.

Have we accepted this as inevitable?  I often hear people decry the undercutting of “merit” due to reservation policies in educational institutes. How many of us will decry the “commercialization of merit” in institutes that provide education for those who can afford it, irrespective of merit?

Again, while we debate the merits of primary/secondary education in the vernacular medium and higher education in English, do we realize that this division serves only to deepen inequalities? Children with such a fractured education are at an unfair disadvantage when compared with those who have seamless access to English education.

Are we breeding a privileged, isolated class – with access to the best education either because they have the money or because they were born with silver spoons? A class without a twinge of conscience for their culpability in perpetuating the status quo.


























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Oh, North is North, and South is South, and never the twain shall meet*.

There’s been a bit of comment warring over the tiresome north India-south India divide over at Krish Ashok’s blog. (A blog that I frequent because the author is witty, has a way with words and revels in delightfully irreverent humour that spares nothing and no one, not even himself.) 

The original hair-raising comment that set off the war is ridiculously juvenile and I’m not going to bother quoting it here. Suffice it to say it spawned off a debate on stereotypes about north Indians and south Indians — a debate that clearly refuses to die down, and not just on blogs.  

Yes, there are considerable cultural differences between the peoples of the north and the south in India. One of the most poignant expressions of this difference that I recall is from Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown (a journalistic piece written in response to the Indian and Pakistani parallel nuclear tests in 1998):

“Most of us here are from north India,” a bluntly spoken major [in the Indian army] said to me. “We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with south Indians or Bengalis.”

Absolutely true; and one of the many ironies that make this a fascinating country. However, underlying the terms “north Indian” and “south Indian” are falsely homogenizing stereotypes.

Stereotypes do contain at least a grain of truth. They cannot arise swayambhu. Trouble begins when stereotypes become the norm, the default lens through which people are viewed and understood. Any differences from the stereotypes then become ‘deviations’ and marginalization sets in.

In somewhat of a coincidence I read another blog last week about the recent Air Tel ads featuring the Tamil actor Madhavan and the Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The blogger very rightly points out that while the Hindi version of the ad shows the woman using the familiar form of address (tum) for the man, in the Telugu and Tamil versions she uses the “respectful” form (equivalent to aap in Hindi) suggesting stereotypes about the way women in the north and in the south address their husbands. 

It’s a valid observation, but I am concerned about a more insidious subtext that runs through the ads — that of the woman massaging the shoulders of the man back home from work; of the man as the one who pays all the bills; and of the man watching television while the woman cajoles him into doing housework. These are damning stereotypes that are unfair to women all over India — north, south, east or west. The north-south stereotypes about forms of address, though not unimportant, perhaps deflect attention from the ones common to women on both sides of the divide.

I’m not being merely clichéd when I say that while one cannot but be aware of difference, it’s rewarding and enriching to look for similarities. We sometimes risk missing the wood for the tree when we focus only on the differences. 

A relatively recent addition to this north-south divide is the parodying of stereotypes about how English is spoken in different states on either side of the divide. And I go ballistic when the claim of ‘satire’ is made for such humour.  So let me take this claim apart.

First, some fundas.

Humour, especially satire, is an oft-used weapon in dealing with stereotypes. Cathartic of course, but satire only works for us when we recognize, and disapprove of, the stereotypes it lampoons.  Although a clear line of demarcation is difficult to draw, satire differs from normal comedy in that while the latter attempts to elicit laughter by portraying our common human foibles, in satire there is an overt intent to correct some perceived “wrong” in people or institutions.

Satire invites us to scorn its target because it is believed to be unacceptable in some form.  Therefore it can only be funny if the audience also shares this scorn. Satire relies on commonly held notions of what is unacceptable.  I’m referring, of course, to the English tradition of satire as practised by its acknowledged masters—Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, and then later Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Huxley.  Contemporary satire relies heavily on developing a belief or statement completely, to its logical conclusion, thus making obvious its ridiculousness. This form of satire sometimes invites negative reactions because developing the belief/statement completely might suggest support of it though quite the reverse is true. (The recent New Yorker cover featuring the Obamas is a case in point.) 

Given that satire is a weapon of scorn and thereby correction, I’d say that so-called satirical representations of Punjabi English, or Tamlish or Hinglish are highly questionable. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but let me give you the grounds for my questioning.

First: Who in India speaks English without an accent of some form or the other? Show of hands, please?  For that matter, who in the world speaks English without an accent? There is nothing linguistically superior about one or the other accent. Certain accents are preferred over others for social (spoken by certain privileged classes) and political (spoken by a politically powerful group or country) reasons.

Second: There are political and historical reasons we speak English the way we do. When Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” he laid the foundation stone (erm … I work at a university and this is one of our stock phrases) for the process of teaching English in India—one that still flourishes in Indian schools, colleges, and universities—i.e., teaching it through the preserved, written word. Consequently, what we learn is literary, written English, not the spoken variety. And given the notoriously poor sound-symbol concord of English, we are not attuned to English as it is spoken — the sounds of English words. Only a privileged few have access to such attuning and it is largely they, I suspect, who pillory Indian English. 

Third: When we speak in English in India, we do so for communicative purposes in situations where other linguistic means of expression are unavailable. And so long as it serves that function, what is there to laugh about, pray? As for the argument that people also speak the language out of a false notion of ‘prestige’, well, those responsible for sustaining and nourishing this ‘privileged’ status of English are squarely to be blamed. 

Fourth: Common opinion holds that it is the pernicious influence of the mother-tongue that shapes the sound of Indian English. But this opinion is often laced with contempt. And I don’t see why. When one speaks a language for a considerable length of time, the human vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, and the lips—gets accustomed to moving and coordinating in a certain manner. And this obviously has an involuntary bearing upon the articulation of the sounds of another language learned subsequently. Just basic physiology of the human mouth, hardly justifying any contempt for the intelligence of such speakers.

So now, all ye satirists of Indian English, what, really, are you attacking? Some soul-searching is warranted I should think. And no, I’m not angling toward muzzling of free speech or any such bunkum. What I do advocate is that the onus be placed on speakers, so that they are aware of and sensitive to the import of speech. 

But to return to what I started out with—the north-south divide—are there occasions, situations, anything at all, when neither north nor south,  Border, nor Breed, nor Birth* matter? Is there anything in our shared cultural life that could make such differences seem immaterial? Cricket? Corruption? Traffic jams? Films? Inflation? Ad infinitum?  

(*All postcolonial critics, save your breath and those e-mails. Despite Kipling’s current standing—jingoistic imperialist and the Empire’s most vocal mouthpiece—I enjoy the lyrical charm of his ballads and story-telling.)


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