From the “Unbiased and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream” comes the question—well, not question, but the verdict really: Now, when English is becoming an economic driver, is a revolution near?
The piece referred to is the cover story of last week’s Mint Lounge, the weekend edition of the country’s second largest business paper The story relates anecdotes from students, vendors, and admen to make an argument on why English is such an important factor in reaping rich economic dividends in these times.
It starts off with Gauri Shinde, director of the forthcoming Hindi film English Vinglish, telling us about how the work is inspired by her mother, a spice seller, “who regretted not having known enough English to expand her business...” It goes on to relate instances of how students other than from English-medium schools feel belittled when faced with their suave counterparts educated in English-medium schools. “Bura lagta hai,” they admit, while talking about how they have to seek help from these very “friends” for presentations and projects and how they are made fun of for not understanding simple English in classrooms.
The author informs us of the involvement of British Council in English-language development projects in 11 States. The Council has partnered with the Maharashtra Government for a two-year programme, which started this month, “to improve the quality of English-language teaching in lower primary classrooms”. The underlying assumption here is that such a project will wash away the “gap” that becomes a source of shame for the non-English-medium students.
Yet, trying to address an issue such as this is like treating the symptoms while ignoring the underlying malaise. The problem is at two levels. One, that in a society so deeply divided as ours, where access to premier private schools is the preserve of a select few along the lines of caste and class, it’s anybody’s guess what parity such efforts will bring about. There will always be a gap between education in government schools and private schools, unless the education policy is overhauled in its entirety.
Secondly, the programme does nothing about the hegemonic status that English enjoys in society. It does not question why English is “the” language to learn, but only serves to reinforce the social status that the language enjoys. What we need more urgently perhaps are lessons in schools and elsewhere on valuing languages other than English, and to a certain extent, Hindi. Students as well as teachers need to be taught that each language expresses one way of seeing the world; it’s an expression of the history, culture, society, and identity of the people who speak it. One only needs to refer to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India spearheaded by G.N. Devy to understand the urgency and the enormity of such an effort. It’s nobody’s business, after all, to designate one language as “better”, or more efficient, than the other. In one sweep, it could take the sails off all efforts at linguistic jingoism too.
Changing the terms
The article does not fail to take note of the fact that language cannot be equated with knowledge. In a section titled “The countercurrent”, the writer speaks about how the monopoly of English has, in fact, been broken. She quotes Nitish Kumar telling Business Standard after a trip to China: “They took knowledge and turned it into their language. We mistook language for knowledge.” What skews the picture however is what follows: A quote, Prasoon Joshi saying “advertising has by necessity become a bilingual industry...You can’t survive in it if you can’t speak Hindi...”
Prasoon Joshi is an example of what senior journalist Shekhar Gupta calls HMT, or Hindi Medium Types. In interviews with Joshi and others from the HMT-bandwagon, Gupta makes a big deal about the fact that these people have succeeded in breaking into an arena that was elitist, reserved only for those with knowledge of “proper” English. It is pertinent to ask, however, if the HMT-types Gupta refers to would have made it big if they were not enjoying the benefits of some hegemony or the other. Would Gupta be such a big name in the news industry if he were the editor of an Indian language daily? Would Joshi be such a big name is he were not hobnobbing with the biggest producers of Bollywood, writing lyrics for them and creating ads that sold the products of powerful MNCs?
Holding up their own lives as examples of those who have been able to break the monopoly of English is changing the terms of the debate. It’s no longer about how people have managed to make it “big” without the knowledge of English, solely on the basis of their native tongues. It’s about breaking in. And that’s typically the frame into which this Lounge cover story falls. And how!
The story talks about the work of Swati Birla and Amit Basole, professors at MIT, who are measuring the penetration of English in Indian society in a project called “Negotiating English in Mumbai’s Informal Economy”. They are attempting to quantify this “working your way in” (or breaking in, call it what you want).
The story recounts the tale of a bookseller in Mumbai’s Flora Fountain area who rues the fact that he can’t speak English though he understands it. He and other vendors mention that their businesses would have done much better, that they wouldn’t be thought of as “ignorant”, if they could speak English fluently. One has nothing against this functional role that English can play. In fact, the author of the Mint story also points out something similar. “India is beginning to realise that cultural identity and the functionality of a language are separate things, and can coexist’, she says. But to ignore the issue of being considered as “ignorant” and to refer to functional knowledge as a revolution is carrying things a bit too far.
One can argue that the story tries to show what the man on the streetthinks of English. But is the role of the press limited to glibly talking about what exists, or does it also include pointing out what’s unjust about the picture?
While that revolution—of moving from merely stating to sharply analysing—might take a while, what’s do-able in the short term perhaps, in order to break the monopoly of English, is creating language literate newsrooms. Enough has been said about how our newsrooms are not inclusive, and one could well add language to caste and class exclusions. Unless there is a diversity of languages in the newsrooms of the biggest news networks in the country, the positing of English knowledge as a marker of a revolution will continue unabated. What will also continue perhaps are instances such as these:
While Mamata Banerjee was presenting her Railway Budget a couple of years ago, English news channels were going about their efforts to get their fix of breaking news from her speech. When she mentioned that she would start a new batch of fast trains between select cities christened “Duronto”, Times Now’s newsroom thought she was referring to the superfast Toronto-style trains in her markedly Bengali accent. And out went the breaking news: Mamata introduces Toronto-style trains.
Only later did they realise that Mamata Banerjee was referring to the Bengali word duronto, translated loosely as “restless”. If this can happen with a “major” language like Bengali, whose speakers populate the media quite a bit, imagine the fate of lesser languages.
Aritra is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and Programme Executive at Jnanapravaha Mumbai. He completed an MA in Sociology from the University of Mumbai this year, and teaches in a couple of city colleges.