Today, 21 February, is International Mother Language Day as declared by the United Nations. In India the dialects and languages spoken change every 20 kms. India is a country of 22 official languages; and a total of 19,500 languages or dialects that are spoken in India as mother tongues — not all of them even have scripts. Around the world, the rural and villages’ folk societies have depended on the oral traditions for centuries for information dissemination from generations to generations. Interestingly, more than 55 per cent of all Web content is in English even though only around 20 per cent of the world’s population speaks English, and just five per cent of the world speaks English as their native language. ( Osama Manzar, “How a Script-Agnostic Media Can Empower The Illiterate“, News Central, 20 Feb 2019).
A conversation that happens over and over again in India is whether English is to be given importance or not. A few days ago in a passionate and well reasoned out Facebook post, Bengali Dalit writer, Manoranjan Byapari wrote saying that he did not quite agree with his fellow writer from Telengana, Kancha Ilaiah with regard to the status English was to be accorded. Apparently at a recent literary festival where the two writers had been invited to a panel discussion together, Kancha Ilaiah asserted that every Dalit should learn English. In fact he said English should be taught along with the regional language in primary school. Kancha Ilaiah’s rationale being that having written in English his books had been published worldwide and the issues he raised, given due hearing. Whereas Manoranjan Byapari disagreed saying that a Dalit is inevitably so impoverished that he is often wondering where his next meal will come from or worried about the roof over his head, he can be least bothered with English, a Gentleman’s language. So he was not in favour of the imposition of a foreign language along with the mother tongue in schools. Ironically Manoranjan Byapari’s original post was written in Bengali but was accessed, circulated and discussed once it had been translated into English by Arunava Sinha and shared on his Facebook wall.
This particular post of Manoranjan Byapari written in Bengali and translated in English has been shared many times. It has become the focus of many animated and fascinating conversations about languages, mother tongue and of course, English. While all the discussions have raised very valid points, it is perhaps advisable to familiarise oneself with the sentiments of the younger generation. Indians below 25 years old constitute nearly 50% of the population. Award-winning journalist Snigdha Poonam’s book Dreamers which profiles the twenty-year-olds in India’s small towns has a chapter entitled “The English Man”. It is about a former cowherd/milkman called Moin Khan who realises that English is the way ahead. At the age of seventeen he had never spoken or read English but a decade later he was conducting “coaching classes” to learn the language. Like Moin, there were many others of his generation, who have recognised the critical importance of learning English, it is the language of socio-economic and legal affairs. So knowing English is acquiring a value-added skill and will be the preferred language of communication as opposed to those who prefer to rely solely upon their mother tongue. And in order for a language to survive, it must be spoken, otherwise it will become endangered and finally die. But as Snigdha Poonam highlights in Dreamers English is rapidly perceived as the language of social aspiration and economic freedom and thus learned by the young adults.
Following is an extract from “English Man”, Dreamers ,quoted with permission of the publishers and author:
English makes a side entry into this universe; all this coaching will come to naught if you can’t answer questions in English. If you are lucky, you can choose to write your answers in a regional language, but you can’t crack an interview in India without explaining to a suited man in English why you deserve the job. So for every five coaching institutes offering proficiency in maths or reasoning, there is one simply selling ‘Spoken English’. Or these days, just ‘Spoken’. And the people who ‘speak’ are ‘The Speaking People’.
That, at least, is what they are termed by the American Academy of Spoken English, a fast-growing chain of coaching centres seizing the market for upward mobility. It’s a branding brainwave the organization is visibly proud of. And going by the rate at which The American is spreading through the interiors of north India—from slums in Delhi to hilltops in Dehradun—the message seems to have worked. The American has four branches in Ranchi alone, the largest of which is suitably perched on Lalpur Road. A big red arrow indicates a turn off the main road. One day in March 2015, I took that left turn. Five youngsters were waiting in a queue at the reception, where a man not much older than them was taking a father and son through the rates for various ‘packages’. I could see his face on a newspaper clipping stuck to the wall behind him. Three youngsters were poring over a pamphlet on a sagging sofa in a corner, the only other piece of furniture. The anxiety level in the room was rising by the second. ‘What can I do for you?’ the man asked me when we came face to face. I asked him about the courses on offer. ‘Basic Communication, Personality Development, Group Discussion, Interview,’ he rattled off, each capital letter loaded with the weight of practice. ‘Why should I join The American?’ I asked him. ‘Because we believe that anyone can speak English.’ From this brief exchange we had in English, Moin Khan knew I wasn’t really there to learn spoken English. Crossing his arms on the table, he asked me what it was I actually wanted from him. I said I was there to understand spoken English as a tool for life improvement. I told him I wanted to attend a course in Basic Communication. We made a deal: He would let me attend his classes for spoken English if I paid the fee (`1800). ‘Come with me then,’ Khan motioned me out of the room and up a flight of stairs, ‘I have been teaching a new batch. It’s a good place for you to watch the process. People who join this course don’t know their ABC.’ What I had to do at my end of the deal was to keep my mouth shut in class.
* * *
Moin Khan didn’t know his ABC himself until ten years ago. He was seventeen years old when he heard about the free English class. He remembers where he was at that point: in the village market, selling balloons. He hadn’t spent much time in a classroom. His family’s income came from their two cows; from the time he could handle a pail, Khan spent most of the day delivering milk from one doorstep to another. In the evenings, he spread a sheet on a pavement and sold things—‘firewood, toys, anything.’ Not in a position to waste precious daylight in a classroom, Khan enrolled in a local college where he had to show up once a year—to sit for the annual exam. He knew a few things for sure: that he would have an undergraduate degree in arts at the end of the three years; and that he had no idea what he was going to do with it. He knew that people could become rich and powerful through education; and also that he didn’t have that option. Moin Khan could neither become a software engineer and join the new elite, nor enter the administrative service and join the old. His father didn’t have the money to hand that Vinay Singhal’s had, which allowed access to a coaching centre in Delhi—or even to one on Lalpur Road.
But there was one respectable job he could land without taking an entrance examination—at a call centre. It was the ultimate cheat’s guide to the white-collar world. All he needed to do to get in was speak English. Not the English of English literature or that of official project reports, but a cut-price version called, simply, Spoken English. It required of its user barely the ability to speak a set of sentences to get through basic communication in a globalizing India. Spoken English was going to be the operative language of the new India, the currency of communication at ‘multi-cuisine restobars’, shopping malls, airport check-ins.
21 February 2019