Sucheta Dasgupta | How not to navigate language chauvinists

The Asian Age.  | Sucheta Dasgupta

Opinion, Columnists

Navigating language chauvinism in India: Unpacking its influence on identity, mobility, and the post-colonial linguistic landscape

In our society, it is the ability to speak English fluently that raises and ruins one’s image. (Image by Arrangement)

Acharya Harinath De, Dr Mohammed Shahidullah, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Aurobindo Ghosh, Suniti Chattopadhyay. Rahul Sankrityayan, also known as Kedarnath Pandey. These are the names of a few Indian polyglots who each knew at least 12, possibly 15, and in that last case, 30, languages. Yet the latest census threw up this shocker: Native Bengali and Hindi speakers are the least multilingual amongst all Indians.

Just four days ago, we marked the International Native Language Day. So my thoughts today are on how language chauvinism is not only robbing us of our talent and flair for language, but also hurting us in so many ways.    

In some societies, accent determines social mobility. In ours, it is the ability to speak English fluently, more than anything else, that raises and ruins one’s image in the eyes of others. Raises and ruins. I use both verbs mindfully. John Baugh first developed the theory of linguistic profiling. Because, having travelled the world, English is old and rich, and also because higher education in our country is still conducted in that language, a little Anglophilia may seem legitimate. While, on the other hand, Anglophobia may seem like an innocuous reaction to historical injustice by exclusive native language speakers and the less educated. But it isn’t.  

Have you ever fallen into the trap of judging others based on their Anglophonia? Here are the pitfalls.

To start with, there are so many words we read and use in the written English language that we never get a chance to hear, utter ourselves or listen to anyone speak them. Thus it is that we become likely to remain innocent of some common elision of sounds, the aphaeresis of letters and whole syllables, sometimes several of them, in the spoken word. The lack of access to an English-speaking population is at the bottom of this difficulty; and for phonetic learners more dependent on auditory stimuli, it is a significant loss. Our default English accent or tongue thus evolves as one that we are obliged to mind as responsible citizens. It has all the vowels and too many consonants, not the wrong ones but ones that we are enjoined to emphasise in order that our hearers might understand.

Next is a psychological phenomenon that, since its discovery in my own behaviour, I have been restive to share. Have you ever suffered from this social Tourette’s syndrome? It possibly stems from the fact that being a good Bengali, or Malayali, or Tamilian, for instance, is not just about knowing the language and the literature of a community or even the customs and history of the place, it means the inheritance of a loss. So when one encounters an Indian exclusive English speaker who is not committed to fulfilling it, the subconscious self revolts and one tends to be overwhelmed by the compulsive urge to move into the native patois. Give in, and it is professional suicide.

Yet the converse, too, is inevitably experienced by the subject. What happens when, rather than language, you stick to ideas and, moved by their energy and accuracy, make the mistake of expressing them in English to the Anglophobe native language speaker? You do so seeing as you also disagree with their anti-English bias. You begin by subconsciously expressing your new native, English-similar, aesthetic, and then start automatically using the smart, new words which are being minted not in the vocabulary that you share with your listener but in the English language. (For, isn’t it because of gatekeepers such as them and of the earlier group that the West is in the forefront of the world of ideas?) Their immoral shock at hearing these words then sets you off thinking in English as a moral reaction.

There are a set of nativists, too, before whom you are not eloquent to begin with. These people are poorly educated and speak only pidgin Bengali/Malayali/Tamil. They baulk at your crisp Bengali/Tamil/Malayalam and mishear you. You finish your sentence and run out of subjects to talk. They resent you for not keeping up the chatter, not participating in their banalities, their doublespeak, their gossip and their small frauds. You feel shy to use formal native language words in their presence even if they might be the only ones that convey your ideas and in their absence are left fumbling to express yourself. Naturally, your listeners will put down your poor articulation to your lack of Bengali/Tamil/Malayalam, and not their own.

Thus they go: It is ‘normal’ to lose your language if you can no longer speak it as much as you did before. And compliment you for still speaking it. The fact is that your language has been learned as much through reading and study (it is potthito) as speech (kothyo), unlike theirs. But you are too embarrassed on their behalf to mention that.

A small measure of well-earned confidence presents a solution, and cure, to the aforementioned problems by making us all more aware and deliberate in our actions, speech and judgements. Besides creating our own native language neologisms, and words.

For the rest of us, it is time to ditch the colonial hangover. Take a couple of policy decisions that we can then lobby for at the political level. (a) It has been scientifically proven that being bilingual increases one’s cognitive abilities rather than harming the child’s ability to imbibe and process information; also, many poorer, working class, native language medium educated people around us have a higher level of knowledge of English than elites even if they speak it imperfectly, thanks to smartphone penetration and the march of literacy, the policymakers simply cannot see this because of their ideological and other biases, not the least of which is vanity; so to improve learning outcomes as well, and not only for a jobs- and business-oriented advantage, is it not time all schools, including in rural India, taught English at the primary level? (b) While it is true that we have our bigotry and our injustices and casual cruelties to be ashamed of; we have glorious lesser traditions and must go into our lives with what we have, expunging our essence means losing our strengths with it, too, and our vital energy; so the New Indian needs must contribute to the evolution of the subnational identity. Aside from writing in English, therefore, let us focus on producing and preserving literature in our native languages, and our histories. Make reparations.