Some years ago I read a very interesting essay in Prospect magazine. Under the title Let them learn English, the article focused on the division that existed in the teaching of the English language in India and how the poorest were, as usual, the ones faring worse.
That the language of Shakespeare, Alice Munro and James Baldwin remains the lingua franca worldwide should come as no surprise to anyone. I’ve written before about English natural ability to adapt to the modern world. Its malleability means that anyone can learn the language; even if its phonetic and spelling systems remain a mystery (there are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet to represent its forty-four phonemes!). And I’m talking from the point of view of someone whose job is to teach the language.
This resilience and flexibility benefit people in countries like India where, according to Zareer Massani, the author of the Prospect piece, there’s no truly national language. He states that
Hindi, the central government’s official language, is an artificial, 20th century construct created by purging Hindustani, the colloquial language of the north, of most of its Islam-derived Persian and Arabic words. Now, 65 years after independence, Hindi is still a little spoken officialese one grapples with government forms.
If Zareer is right and this is the linguistic panorama in India, it then makes sense to default to a language with which the rest of the world is at least acquainted. But of course, there is the small problem of the British Empire. India was a prized possession of it. And not everyone agrees that the imperial legacy was benign and beneficial. In fact opinions have always been divided on the matter. This is the reason why many in the Asian nation are opposed to English becoming the de facto language. Plus, English apparently carries with it a whiff of privilege and elitism in the subcontinent. It’s still mainly used by those occupying the upper echelons of education, media and the judiciary. By contrast outside this mini-world, there’s a whole Babel of dialects nationwide that merit as much attention as or maybe more attention than the language of the former conquistadores.
It’s a dilemma with which I can sympathise from a personal perspective, even if it is to a lesser degree. When I moved to the UK my accent was still heavily American, with a North-eastern lilt. This was the consequence of having had three or four postgraduate teachers hailing from or living in Boston and New York. Over here in the UK, people were at a loss as to why a Cuban would choose to speak like an American when we were supposed to be at loggerheads with them.
The answer is that first of all, it’s our two governments that have locked horns for six decades. When it comes to common, ordinary folk from both the US and Cuba, we leave our political differences aside and get on pretty well most of the time. And the second element is that most schools, further and higher education institutions in Cuba teach American English as opposed to the British standard. The latter is seen as distant, not just geographically, but also practically. But what is non-practical for a Cuban can become very useful to an Indian. So, when our compadres and comadres from the subcontinent use (chiefly British) English as a way out of poverty and deprivation, they’re being neither anti-nationalist nor pro-empire, but resourceful. In order to explain this approach, Massani quotes Mumbai-based businessman and journalist Jerry Rao:
Even if you flunk your schools finals, if you can speak decent English, today you can get a nice job. But even if you have a master’s degree and your English is poor, you’re likely to end up in a labour market where salaries are significantly lower.
I witnessed a similar situation in Cuba in the early to mid-90s when many professionals, including doctors and teachers, defected to the tourism sector. Their motivation? The green Yankee dollar. Whilst their hard-earned salaries in Cuban pesos were getting more and more devalued, those working at hotels and tourist resorts were minting it. And that was just from tips. There was a problem, however. Many of these highly trained professionals had been educated either in the old socialist bloc or in Cuba but with socialist ideals. The language they’d learnt, used and were used to, was Russian. Russian. In a globalised world trading in English. Yes, you can imagine the rest. Scrapheap doesn’t even begin to cover it.
That’s how in my first paid job as a teacher I faced a classroom full of people coming from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. There were mechanics, lawyers, journalists, ballet dancers (in fact, Lorna Feijóo, prima ballerina at the National Ballet of Cuba, was one of my students). You name it; they were there, trying to do the same thing their Indian counterparts are doing now: getting at least one foot on the first rung of the social and economic ladder.
The irony is that despite the strong presence the Brits had on Indian soil, the influence the empire had on Indian life and the ubiquity and usefulness of the English language in the world, Gandhi’s sons and daughters are headed in the wrong direction. It is said that in ten or fifteen years’ time Hispanics will be the largest minority ethnic group in the US, replacing African-American in the process. And in probably ten more years after that, Spanish will replace English as the official language of the States. And where the US goes, the UK oftentimes follows. Spanish is, then, the way to go, my lovely Indian chums. And here’s the first word for you to learn: ¡Bienvenidos!