Language and identity: English and the Indian Identity

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

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5 thoughts on “Language and identity: English and the Indian Identity

  1. shashikumar

    Renowned philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein says, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” People quite often say language is important only for those who are directly related to it. But, the fact is, it is important for all. Because, whatsoever one’s field may be, all our thoughts can be expressed only through language. In that sense, our epistemelogical and ontological expressions find place only in language. As far as English and Indian languages are concerned, English has been one of the Indian languages, and for at least some of us the first language, as we quite often take the refuge of English to express ourselves to a person who doesn’t know our language. And, it has become increasingly difficult to communicate without English especially in urban places. Instead of treating English as a foreign language, and a threat to Indian languages, it would be wise to absorb it in our languages and grow with it. How classical our languages may be, in comparison with English, we can’t rule out the importance and inevitability of English. But, we should also realize the importance of regional languages. And, as the author questions, “proficiency both in English and their mother tongue give Indians the identity and the inclusiveness that will truly put their hearts at rest?” Yes, it will. If not the whole lot of India, at least for the educated masses. Above all, the questions that remain are: why can’t Tulu people have the same attitude they have with English and Tulu, with Kannada and Tulu? Why can’t Kodavu, Konkani, Baere Bashe make use of Kannada’s omnipresence in their daily life? Why should non-Kannada speakers treat Kannada as a threat to them, and not English? Is that a mere inferior/superior complexity? With such complexities we can’t cultivate “linguistic harmony” and “linguistic pluralism.”

    1. Shailini

      Thank you Sashikumar, for drawing attention to some relevant issues.
      I can’t agree with you more when you say that language is very important for epistemological and ontological expressions. When I recently engaged in a discussion on this topic with my spiritual mentor Dr.Sankara Bhagavadpada, he said that besides one’s native vernacular and English, I should’ve included Hindi and Sanskrit to make an Indian feel completely empowered.
      What follows is intended to answer your question about Kannada or any other language being a threat to Tulu.
      When my grandmother was alive, I once curiously questioned her on why she didn’t care to learn Kannada. She couldn’t give a convincing reason but very soon I found out that she had lead a fearless life because her survival, future or destiny was not determined by her knowledge of languages or ability as a multilinguist. Contrary to this, just as you’ve rightly said, we are attached to our nativity but cannot survive without English today, if we intend to connect globally. You’re absolutely right in saying English is inevitable.
      The necessity to communicate better forces people to learn languages of their environment. However, I believe that native speakers of any dying language are more concerned about keeping their own language alive by looking for ways to use it whenever and wherever possible rather than perceiving other languages as threats or preventing them from creeping into their lives. If more and more native speakers stop using a language, death of that language is imminent.

  2. savita panhotra

    Language was developed as a means of communication. Knowing our regional languages along with English gives us a wider network in India and abroad. So I genuinely feel that English should just be treated as one more language that you know and get on with life, instead of breaking into a sweat about identity. Our identity is not because of the ability to converse in a few languages but with the ability to be a useful member of human community. So don’t give any language credit – learn as much as possible to be an integral part of society, wherever you are.

  3. Shailini

    Savita, your views are welcome.

    Admittedly, there’s no denying that India is home to a lot of achievers like Mansukh Prajapati who cannot converse in English but whose solar powered clay refrigerator, Mitticool is sold all over the country. Mumbai’s Dabbawalas have been able to make a living for decades despite most of them being illiterate. The Barefoot College in Tilonia by Bunker Roy is a standing testimonial to the fact that one need not be a learned scholar to make a big difference to one’s environment.
    Furthermore, when I came face to face with a lot of people in the rural areas of our country, I was amazed to find they had a rich repertoire of geographical awareness and a surfeit of ideas for the growth of the nation. But soon their struggle became evident when they tried very hard to make themselves clearly and completely understood. Most of us want to be a useful member of the community but I doubt if identity can be detached from such a desire especially when we don’t want our contributions to go unnoticed. Identity and recognition are as instinctive as communication and love. The language of the masses in India and elsewhere then becomes the key to transcend barriers, make our voices heard and presence felt.
    I’d hate to risk giving any one language credit or discrediting others, but I wish to reiterate that English has become inevitable for a large number of people just to stay ahead of the clan. I’m reminded of Max New York Life Insurance’s advertisement that used to appear on TV with an interesting caption that said ‘Karoge dil zyada ka iradha’ meaning ‘O heart, may there be intent for more’.

  4. john

    hi, is there an issue for ticking english as first language instead of kannada or tulu.. any difference during interview…


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