“Talk English, Walk English”: Will We Ever Stop Considering the Language a Benchmark of Success?

Social Commentary

“Talk English, Walk English”: Will We Ever Stop Considering the Language a Benchmark of Success?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

M

y mother and father both studied in Gujarati-medium schools, but made it their life’s mission to enroll me in a private English-medium school. The end product of that is a Gujarati who can neither read nor write in his mother tongue, and is labelled “angrez ki aulaad” every time he has to read a signboard in the language of his forefathers.

I can never forget the image of my father beaming with pride after my application to the prestigious Holy Cross Convent School in Mira Road was accepted, in the mid ’90s. Even in that era, when an English education would seem routine to most of my peers, I was the first in our family to go to an English-medium school and everyone was excited. They couldn’t wait to hear all the fancy English words, phrases, and sentences I would be speaking at home soon – my parents might have been more excited when I said “A for Apple” than they were when I said my first words.

My English education was the equivalent of a showpiece held up for display for guests. Each time a relative visited from Gujarat, I was asked to say something, anything in English. Over time, bored with this routine, I wouldn’t even bother narrating a poem; I’d merely mutter a few random words and they’d all applaud, like some sasta Shakespeare of the Rajgor parivaar.

Not much has changed since. I am showered with more attention than many of my cousins at family dos, not because I’m more successful or intelligent but only because I am fluent in English. A couple of years ago, I asked my mom what the fuss was about, and why they insisted that I go to an English-medium school. “Jo taqleef hume hui, wo tumhe nahi honi chahiye,” was her reply. To my ears, it sounded straight out of an old Bollywood film.

As a society, we have come to define English as a measure of intelligence than merely a language of communication.

But my parents’ obsession with English started in the ’80s. A chartered accountant and a B Com graduate, my dad and mum faced obstacles in their careers – promotions were delayed, job opportunities missed – only because they couldn’t communicate in the language of the workplace. They’d made their decision about sending me to an English-medium school long before I came around.  

Two years ago, Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar starred as a beleaguered couple that goes to great lengths to admit their daughter in a good school, in the sleeper hit dramedy Hindi Medium. One dialogue from the film has stayed with me: “Angrezi sirf zubaan nahi, class hai class.” English is not merely a language – it is a separate class.

My parents understood that 20 years ago. They knew it was a necessity. Even today, when my father talks to the house help or driver about his children, he asks, “Bachchon ko ‘English-medium’ mein padha rahe ho na?” They’re all aware that the language is a rung on the ladder of upward social mobility.

My mother struggles with English but when a salesperson at the mall, a waiter at a fine-dine restaurant, or an insurance agent on call initiates a conversation, she feels compelled to reply in English, fearing that she will be judged if she didn’t. My father is embarrassed to ask about the plot of an English movie even when he can’t follow the dialogue. After all, how can an educated person admit that he can’t understand the language?

I know of highly qualified friends who travelled from the interiors of Gujarat and Rajasthan but have failed to crack interviews at MNCs, not because they lack the technical skillset but because they don’t have command over a language. I have worked in companies where the client is comfortable in regional language, the employees are locals, yet we put on a farce and speak in English.  

As a society, we have come to define English as a measure of intelligence than merely a language of communication. We make fun of people who mispronounce an English word but find it extremely cute when foreigners screw up when attempting to speak Hindi. Indian and Pakistani cricketers are constantly mocked for goofing up English in the post-match presentation, even though it has nothing to do with on-field performance. Even Prime Minister Modi’s Gujju-English accented “May be phorce be with you” is a topic of constant ridicule.  

English is a globally accepted language and the knowledge of an additional language will always be an added bonus. However, it can’t be at the cost of everything else. A Quartz report on how “India’s obsession with English is depriving many children of a real education” points to a research collated by the UNESCO. “Children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language,” the research says.

“The obsession with English determinedly ignores what is impossible to ignore: A majority of Indian children leave school without the basics of old-fashioned reading, writing and arithmetic, in any language. This cannot be fixed by teaching them English or in English with, among other things, teachers who themselves are unskilled in the language,” the report says.

Yet we continue to obsess over English, so much so that it has now become a tool to discriminate against our own selves. In a country as vibrant and diverse as ours, why should people lose job prospects or be looked down upon, if they can’t speak one particular language? We are now in a race to join the “English class of people”. But we probably need to stop and take a breath: It’s not all about English Vinglish.

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