English Divides a People

4 Oct

People who know English in this country often use it deliberately to create a distance between themselves and the ‘ignorant’ rest

The walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are clearly drawn in India — those who serve and those who are served; those who rule and those who are ruled; those who sit in cars and those who walk on the roads. These lines may be crossed, but not the barrier between those who speak the English language fluently and those who do not. It is not uncommon for people to speak in English, in the process excluding those who cannot speak the language. Sometimes this is done deliberately to create a class divide, sometimes inadvertently — but never apologetically. This separatism is felt most keenly by those who are shut out.

Those who are left out of the club are keen for themselves and their children to master the English language. While many opinion makers are not convinced that English should be the medium of instruction at all, especially at the primary levels, the demand for English medium schools reveals what the people want their children to study it.

Knowing English transports one into the land of the privileged. If spoken with a different accent, it can open doors. Better still, some accents earn the right to receive respect, others get deference. Those who speak English well, or can use it tactically, rarely get treated rudely in their street-side transactions. One almost automatically gets elevated to ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, and orders that would have been barked out to lesser mortals get converted to pleas and requests.

Many jobs in the service sector depend upon language skills — especially English. Those who are unable to speak with confidence and a modicum of accuracy are unable to access those jobs. This is simply about the skills required to perform a certain task, there is no discrimination here. No amount of reservation can create those skills, training and hard work can. It does remain true that those who can speak the language will have opportunities that command premium wages, while the others will be left out of the race.

Performance in tests clearly depends upon one’s language skills. Those who do not understand what is being asked of them will not be able to answer satisfactorily. This is a key argument in seeking regional language teaching for the very young, especially in rural areas — those who have rarely seen bread will not be able to answer a comprehension passage about birthday cakes. Language is often used in its natural context, which makes it a challenge for those who have very different lives. The richness of language also comes from its idioms that do not translate easily.

Performance in international skills and other tests clearly depends on the way you interpret the question. A simple example: If the question asks what is ‘twelve by six’ the answers may vary depending on where you have been taught. In large parts of Europe ‘by’ means divide, while in many parts of India ‘by’ means multiply. Depending upon the kind of school one went to, the answer could be either 72 or two. Many such quick sands exist in testing. It has been acknowledged that even IQ test results can change due to language barriers. Would that mean that those who don’t know English are dumb? No, but they may be proved so in international testing.

Any barrier to privilege is bound to create unrest. The surging millions who seek to be educated are not all asking for intellectual inputs. They are asking to be educated in ways that will bring them lives of prosperity and dignity.

There are people who say that there is an implicit pact between people who cannot say so, but clearly want to retain these barriers. There are others who believe that regional language teaching is the best way to increase learning levels. Balancing these out are those who believe that all schools must not only teach similar things, but must also look the same — the way to reduce these barriers is to introduce the less privileged in private school classes, so that all learn the same.

Noble intentions all, and yet, we allow an underclass to stay that way. It is time for honest reflection, to ask ourselves if we are really that insecure that we need to create this distance, this apart-ness via a language.


This was published in the Pioneer newspaper on Thursday, October 4, 2012

One Response to “English Divides a People”

  1. Venkat Ramakrishnan October 4, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    There is no need to create an apart-ness with a language. In fact, during the college days, I have felt the same with Hindi too. People who are not able to speak HIndi were not included into the ‘affluent’ / ‘upper-middle class’. Speaking Hindi was putting you in the elite class and opened doors for special invitations, special friendships and everything exclusive. Believe me, this was in Chennai. Sigh, it has been 20 years, so I don’t know the scenario now.

    Let’s come to English now. English should be medium of education across India, so that children who study in any state can go and pursue higher education or work in any other state in India or abroad. Our horizons have expanded, and now we are in global picture. We can’t survive if we learn physics, chemistry or biology in Indian local languages but can’t apply that in a neighboring state which is 30 kms away (Take the example of Hosur and Bangalore).

    Everyone respects their native language, so it can be made compulsory to learn the native language as second language, but the medium of education for the subjects should be in English.

    Narrow-mindedness won’t help in the global economy today.

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