English As a Foreign (or not) Language

-Sep 30, 2005

In an article titled “Inglish, as she is spoke”, published sometime ago in Outlook magazine, the writer Gurcharan Das talks about the evolution of English in India into a pan-Indian language. He discusses why he believes its dominance will grow, despite efforts by some to reverse this process.

This set me thinking about my own experiences with English.

I remember the first time I realized that while I have always taken my ease with the language for granted, there are those to whom this can be a perplexing phenomenon. I was playing scrabble with three friends- two Canadians and one American – and I won three successive games. This caused one of the Canadians to exclaim, in a very vexed manner, “But English isn’t even your first language! So how come you beat us each time?”

So I told her what to me is self-evident. That English is indeed my first language, as it is for many Indians. I think in it, I speak in it, I write in it; and so on.

I want to say here that claiming a foreign language as my own fails to convey my regret about not being able to read, though I speak them to a limited extent, the languages my parents grew up with – namely, Punjabi and Urdu. There are whole worlds that are lost to me because of this. My inability to read or communicate fluently in these languages means that I will never appreciate the nuances of the cultures that they inhabit. But that is another story. As is my inability to speak English like an Englishman, or Canadian, or American. I have noticed that English speakers from these countries often feel free to correct my pronunciation. I, on the other hand, am sometimes constrained by the Indian curse of excessive politeness from questioning both their failure to speak the Queen’s English, as well as their refusal to make the effort to get even our names right. Some of my acquaintances took a while to grasp that my younger daughter’s name – Noor – rhymes not with the “door” but with “moor.”

We encounter the same puzzlement in most of the people around us, both French and Anglo-Saxon. They are very surprised to hear my husband and I speak to each other and our daughters in English, instead of “Indian.”

We explain to them that India is like a United States of Europe, with several regions, each with its own language. My husband – a Maharashtrian – and I can only really communicate in English since I have no Marathi and his Hindi is often inadequate. He has been known to call a bua a chaachi on more than one occasion, thereby hurting the sentiments of both esteemed relatives. So Hindi is not the best or the most natural choice for us.

We are of course just part of a well-established trend. According to a statistic that Mr. Das quotes in his article, English speakers in India will outnumber the population of Britain by 2010.

I enjoy the irony here. For it would seem that sixty years after the sun set over the British Empire, their chickens are finally coming home to roost. The prevalence of English in the former colonies, and the advantage this confers on their citizens in a global economy where they are taking jobs that the former colonizers are either unwilling or unequipped to take, makes me – well – glad. I like to think of it as a sort of empire strikes back. To quote just one example – my heart swells with pride when I see Britain’s National Health Service, unable to cope with its overload, refer patients to hospitals in India. (There has been a take -over of another sort too. So popular is curry now in England that in the last few years it has been declared the national dish of the country. “Gandhi’s revenge,” they call it, referring to the effect that a spicy curry can have on tender English stomachs).

But there is one claim Mr. Das makes that has me worried. He suggests that it is essential to learn the nuances of a language before the age of ten; else, one never really masters it. Well, then I worry for my daughters. The older one is a talkative four year old who mixes up her English, Hindi and French with typical childish abandon. When her balloon burst at Pizza Hut the other day she cried out anxiously, “Maman, le ballon is futted!”

What would they call this particular dialect, I wonder – Fringlish?

Older Indians are also prone to lapses of linguistic nicety. I was telling a Mumbaikar friend some time ago about a serious incident but drifted momentarily into recounting some mundane details of an unrelated event. In her anxiety to hear the rest of the original story, she said in an exasperated voice,”Arre Aunty, keep to the point!” The hominess of the remark, coming from someone who usually speaks faultless English, had me grinning at the other end of the telephone despite the gravity of the matter we had been discussing.

The use of colloquialism is epitomized in advertising slogans such as “dil maange more” and “apun ki choice ka maamla hai” that reflect just how much we have made the language our own. But while the marketing man is wise to bow to current culture, I do find myself wishing sometimes that we spoke a purer form of the language. But then again, this assimilation works in reverse too, and it is the readiness to absorb local influences that makes English so rich in idiom. Like this very interesting expression I came across – “going doolally”. It implies peculiar behavior and was first used by British soldiers stationed at the transit camp at Deolali. They coined the phrase to describe the actions of those of their men who were driven out of their minds by their tedium as they waited to go home.

Given the advantages that accrue from an ease with English, it is obvious that the continuing popularity of this language in India is a trend that can only go in one direction. The fuss made by those opposed to it seems akin to the futility of the French railing against the spread of English. In France, these days, it is not just ordinary people who want to learn the language to be able to participate in the global economy. Government ministers, too, are now under official diktat to learn the language of the traditional enemy. This is because in an expanded EU, English is the only bridge between the various member countries.

These portents of change do not sit well with everyone though, since the French are, as is well documented, fiercely proud of their language. There’s even a government department- the Academie Francaise, established 300 years ago – whose raison d’etre is to protect the sanctity of the language. It rules from time to time on how a new idea from popular culture is to be expressed in French. The ubiquitous walkman is thus “le baladeur”, a computer is “l’ordinateur”, spam is “arrosage” and even Google is under fire- they want an alternate French-based search engine to challenge the hegemony of English on the internet.

But the writing on the wall is clear. Classical French often gives way to Franglais these days. A fax is “le fax”, though officially a telecopie, an e-mail is “un e-mail”, shopping is “le shopping”, a sandwich is “le sandwich” (actually, saundweech) and the weekend, a sacrosanct pillar of French life, is “le weekend”.

More power, then, to Inglish too.

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