India and English language

We need to question our approaches to English and know what suits our thought process and way of life best

By   |  Prof Suresh Kumar Erpula  |  Published: 8th Nov 2020  12:07 amUpdated: 7th Nov 2020  11:46 pm

An entire mythology is stored within our language – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

All human civilisations, however “primitive”, share three features in common: a belief in the supernatural, the use of fire, and language — a rich, complex and dynamic cultural artifact. Language, perhaps, is as old as humanity itself and there is evidence to show that humans are hardwired to learn and speak it. It is also a matter of pride and glory for a civilisation in its richness, wisdom, musicality, accuracy, and a host of other qualities. It is for these reasons that people are willing to go to any lengths to preserve and propagate their language.

Land and Language

Perhaps the most extreme example of a linguistic state would be Germany. When this nation was formed in the 10th century, it had a unique origin. In the rest of Europe, it was the land that gave its name to the language that was spoken on it — for example Italy gave its name to the language its people speak — Italian. But in Germany, the language gave its name to the land — Germany is the land where German is spoken.

But large sections of the German-speaking people remained in other lands — in Austria, Switzerland, the former Czechoslovakia, and so on. This was to lead, in a major way, to two World Wars, and innumerable smaller wars. The basic reason was that the German Project remained incomplete.

Put differently, language can arouse lethal emotions anywhere in the world. In our own country, there are whole States formed exclusively along linguistic lines beginning with the then State of Andhra Pradesh. The point is that the languages for which people fought and tried to preserve were native to the soil. They grew up absorbing the culture, of course, through the language, along with the geographical (such as the weather), historical, economic, social, and cultural experiences of the people. Their words, idioms, proverbs, and weltanschauung became embodied in the language. Perhaps, it is possible to say that people may adopt a language, and may love it as much as they love the native languages.

English in India

India is the most continuous ancient civilisation, and we can safely assume that language has been central to the preservation and propagation of its history, culture and society. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most ancient languages in the world are Tamil followed by Sanskrit. Indeed, there are other Indian languages that may be very ancient, but their records are not completely available. On this basis, it is fair to consider these ancient languages and their derivatives and relatives as being truly native to India.

And then came the English language. We might ask: When did English itself enter India precisely? On the 31st of December 1600, Queen Elizabeth signed a Charter establishing the East India Company (EIC). Ironically, an Indian now owns this Company. The traders of the EIC brought the language with them and established “factories” or trading centres where the businessmen, called “factors”, lived and kept mostly to themselves.

It was only after large swathes of the land were conquered by the British that the English language slowly began to achieve prominence. This was mostly on the demand of the Indians themselves, of whom the most prominent was Raja Rammohan Roy. Roy and his fellow-champions of English wished for Western science and technology, to be taught to Indians. They averred that teaching Sanskrit or Arabic and Persian would be to teach Indians what they already knew.

Thus, for the Indian pioneers of English, it was purely a utilitarian issue. It was never a linguistic or cultural or civilisational issue to begin with. In the debate between the Orientalists (who included British intellectuals unwilling to interfere in an Eastern country’s affairs) and the Occidentalists (who included both British and Indian intellectuals supporting Western education), the latter won.  Unlike the French who wanted to Gallicise their colonies, the British did not have an explicit desire to Anglicise their colonies.

Loan from Sanskrit

Countless words in English we use every day are of Sanskrit origin, ie, loan words from Sanskrit. Some of these are is, inter, read, man, teach. Originally, English was spoken by a tribal people one of whom went by the name of the Angles, of which English is the genitive form — the language of the Angles. It borrowed words from innumerable languages with Sanskrit being one of the most important. Now we have an Indian English, unique to India, thanks to the long colonial heritage. (see The English language family tree)

Link Language

The British introduced English into India for their own purposes, and not to advance the welfare of Indians. A case in point is Michael West’s General Service List (1953), which was designed to help Indians in the civil services such as the officers of the ICS, Superintendents and Clerks, to read and write — speaking and listening was not considered necessary for them. For they were only expected to process files, and not to converse or communicate in the language.

It is the Indians themselves who gave importance to English and made it the shibboleth to high positions and society. As writers such as Raja Rao had pointed out, English had created a new caste of English-speakers who thought they are superior to those who are not so fluent in it. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it in his Phenomenology of Perception, “The full meaning of a language is never translatable into another. We may speak several languages, but one of them always remains the one in which we live. In order completely to assimilate a language, it would be necessary to make the world it expresses one’s own, and one never does belong to two worlds at once”.

Today we talk about English as the lingua franca, the “link language”. At the centre is the “link language”, in our case, English — and by implication, the native or local languages are referred to as the vernaculars, a word which is connected to the Sanskrit Varna, meaning “colour”; and “pertaining to home-born slaves”. Indeed this hostility, implicit in vernacular, towards non-English-origin words continues. As recently as 2012, there was a controversy when words of foreign origin, that is, of words originating in other languages, were sought to be expunged from the Oxford English Dictionary but were restored after some controversy.


Three Worlds

English is not our native language, and that is why it is inadequate to express many of our experiences and feelings accurately in this language. English simply does not capture many of our ways of life. Not surprisingly, literature in Indian languages is richer than that written in English.

Braj Kachru, an Indian linguist, in his ‘Three Circle Model of World Englishes’ classified the English speaking world into the inner, outer and expanding circles. The inner circle includes the native or born speakers of English, such as in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. The outer circle includes those countries where English is considered as a second language, such as in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The third circle is expanding circle, which includes countries such as China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia where English is considered as a foreign language.

Approaches to Teaching

Now let us consider the methods and approaches to the teaching of English in India. General English, as it is called, is distinct from the study of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). For most students, English is taught during the regular hours on a timetable. Beyond this, there is English that is useful in code switching — when speakers mix English with other Indian languages mid-sentence. For a few elite speakers, English is taught as a Second Language approaching bilingualism.

What happens in the Indian English classroom itself is more in the nature of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Thus there is Business English, and courses specifically designed for specific professions such as air traffic controllers or diplomats. This is further evident from the kind of dictionaries that we use. Most Indian readers, including teachers of English, use an advanced dictionary. Relatively few venture beyond it to refer to a native speaker’s dictionary. In a context in which most students of English are learners, it would be hardly appropriate to say that English is a native language.

The British linguist Sir Randolph Quirk proposes the idea of a Nuclear English — an English that is freed of its difficulties in acquisition, and the language is adapted rather than adopted. This would provide “a core of structure and vocabulary” as the academic and author David Crystal summarises it.

English languageNo Regrets

Yet, in all this, we need not feel any regret. Indians have mastered the English language, and writers from yesteryears such as RK Narayan, Raja Rao, and modern writers such as Vikram Seth, Sir Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and a host of others have been acclaimed as masters of English, and their works are taught in the West.

However, some problems persist. We have consciously modelled ourselves after the Western mode of writing and speaking English. We are asked to write “essays”, from our school days, and this is a European genre, not suited to our ways of thinking and organising ideas. This has come into our examination systems: question papers such as those of the Civil Services Examinations are first conceived in English and then translated into Indian languages. The answers of Indians are forced to conform to the Western mould of thinking.

We need to question our approaches to English consistently and regularly. We need to know what suits our way of life and thought process. Long usage does not make something native, however much we may excel at it. Indians have been at the forefront in information technology; yet no one ever claims that any hardware and software are native to us. We do it well, and it brings us benefits. Similarly, we can grant English an honoured place and enshrine it in our Constitution, but to claim it to be our native tongue, would be going too far.

We must welcome English as long as the people want it in the country. It can take over our newspapers, journals, and books. But our hearts belong to Indian languages.

[The author is Member, UGC and Vice Chancellor of The English & Foreign Languages University (EFLU)]

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