My paternal grandmother was 92 when she passed away twenty years ago. Though she had spent the first half of her life moving around a lot in Karnataka and the second half as a home bird in Tamil Nadu, she managed to live and die knowing just one language. Although, in all, five different languages are spoken in Karnataka, namely Kannada, Kodavu, Konkani, Baere Bashe and Tulu, my grandmother’s mother tongue Tulu was her first and only language. I’ve often wondered how she managed to travel in Karnataka without knowing the more widely spoken language Kannada. Surprisingly, as long as she was alive and as far as I know, she never suffered from an identity problem because of language.
In stark contrast to this fairly old story, an Indian’s identity today is distinctly different, which is closely reflected in the rising use of English as a common language at least in major cities and towns of the country. Nevertheless, despite being kindled by a strong desire to speak good English, most Indians are plunged into complexes. Relating to a person with better proficiency gives rise to an inferiority complex just as trying to converse with one at lower levels logically results in a superiority complex. What ails the Indian mindset about knowing and using English, then, is the judgement that people draw by comparing levels of proficiency and accuracy.
Firstly I’d like to share a festering issue regarding my own proficiency and use of English language. Tulu happens to be my first language. As a language that’s slowly dying and having lost its script already, the existing minority of native speakers of Tulu are desperately trying to keep at least the spoken form alive by using it to communicate in their households. Besides this, though I had my education in English medium schools, they were ordinary schools in which English was not spoken by most of the students since it wasn’t a mandate. That explains why the environment I grew up in had very little use of the English language, which, as I perceive it, puts me at a disadvantage. Like the many Indians out there who suffer from complexes arising out of comparison, as a teaching professional, I too can’t help comparing my proficiency of the language with those who use it copiously, given their English-speaking backgrounds.
I’d be damned with prejudice if I didn’t include the other side of the coin because the identity problem does not end with the ability to use English alone. Unmistakably, cities and major towns in the country recognise and appreciate speakers of good English while the rural pockets still see speakers of English as intellectual heavyweights who can neither connect nor belong. As a teacher, I’ve often come across students who are torn between an unflinching desire to articulate in English and the pressing need to thwart the perils of social alienation due to overuse of the language. When questioned on why they don’t communicate in English with their friends, they often say they are subjected to taunts and being nicknamed ‘Peter’. I’m as clueless as anybody else as to how this name came to be associated with the meaning of ‘a snooty show off’ in Tamil Nadu.
As a class, women who are housewives suffer in silence because elders in the family disapprove of their use of English with their husbands and children. These days, parenting tips from India strongly encourage the use of mother tongue with new-born children and toddlers for fear that ‘English speaking families’ might feel impelled to ignore or even be tempted to give up the use of languages that are native to the motherland.
The British Council’s language courses are considered special and sought after. The courses offered to students after a placement test not only give them an appropriate level of challenge, but also help them to learn with and relate to users of English at the same level of proficiency. The library is also unique, offering a wide number of graded reader books mapped to the CEFR. Housewives, students and working professionals admit that frequenting a place like this and enrolling for courses help language enthusiasts like them dispel misconceptions and deal better with their dilemmas.
As citizens belonging to a country that’s home to many languages, I wonder (and hope) will proficiency both in English and their mother tongue give Indians the identity and the inclusiveness that will truly put their hearts at rest?
Post by: S. Shailini, British Council, Chennai