Friday, 14 June 2013

In Defence of the English Language, and my Son


First, an un-quotable quote – 

‘I don’t understand why when it comes to speaking with waiters, dogs and children people insist on speaking in English.’

Tragically, offensive as this statement in Hindi directed at me was, I silently agreed with this observation. And then I wanted to ask myself why – why the offence taken then, and why this defence, now.

This article is not about why English as a language is important or mandatory (it is to me, truly, but I understand if it is not to you). This article is about why me and my husband, as parents, don’t mind a linguistic arrangement where our 2.3 year old speaks in this tongue and no other, with a fluency that made his doctor sit up and pronounce “genius” nearly a year back. I will defend the use of English as an everyday language in my life, as well as stand up for my toddler who for now knows no better since his parents don’t.

We all are born into a language. Apparently, we hear words even before we are born into them. And gradually, after we emerge, we move from monosyllables to twin words to a string of words defying syntax but communicating our baby needs to those around us nonetheless. In short, we hear what is predominantly spoken and learn it by way of nature and nurture. So our first words are picked up from our mother tongue. Now, mother tongue is not the language that a nation, a state or a community speaks in. It stands for that native language which is spoken at home, your home and mine separately, and passed on from one generation to the next, in our respective homes.      

Then, as we step into our schools promising a certain “medium”, we gather and learn threads of various other languages – sometimes willingly other times simply out of academic compulsions. So, we are, in a way, bred in multiple languages. Hindi period’s paryaywachi shabd make way for their English counterparts just 30 minutes and a bell ring later. The next day is Sanskrit and the ECA says pick between French, German or Spanish. And this being an example from just one school! Really speaking, we acquire multiple tongues and fluctuate between one which best fits the situation and the other which we are most comfortable communicating in. 

This has been my husband’s and my shared linguistic experience – bilingual family settings, the same school, similar medium of college teaching and then a shared predominant language going from courtship and love to wedding and now.  That being, English, and hence my oft-called angrez bachcha!

The colours of language

Now here’s what I think:

1. By no means is English as a language necessary, just like no other language is compulsory either. The only language essential is that which helps you to communicate, effectively, with those who you want to communicate with.  That is the primary purpose of the language you use. The point of the communication is to understand and get understood in return – be it at home or in the world outside. No matter what the language, what suits you best will express you the best too. And if you really think about it, the language you communicate in is the language you think in, be it Hindi, English, Japanese, Bengali or any other. The language you think in is your language, and it will come to your rescue in good times and bad.  Hence, an English-speaking house hold is just that, a household that thinks in English and speaks it too. No crime, no harm there, or so some of us believe!

2. English is no longer an exotic import. In 1913 it was, in 2013 it cannot be. It is neither the possession of a few, nor an asset if acquired. Speaking this language is also no longer to be seen as the colonial anglicization of an otherwise Indian mind. There are tens of languages being spoken in the country right this minute, including English, with most perhaps as ‘foreign’ to another’s mind as maybe Kannada is to a Punjabi or Andamanese to a Manipuri. And as I see it, even Mother Dairy and Safal are advertising in English. Turning for help to a cliché and calling it a link-language here, English for me connects me to the trending spinning world – the world my son was born into, and has to grow-up in.   

3. Fear that a child raised in a predominantly English speaking environment will not understand our family traditions and sanskars is unfounded. Really speaking, how many of us understand what our pandit ji says every passing Diwali puja, hawan or wedding ritual? To pass on family values and age-old traditions does not require age-old methods. It requires a language you trust fully for carrying the messages across to another generation. And that language can only be the language you assimilate and assess your thoughts in. Best expressed is best understood. Even the Bhagwad Gita is generous enough to give us a multi-lingual translation of each verse, helping spread our boundless traditional wisdom to shores far and sunder. Point is not to forget our roots or root languages, but to understand them better - even if that means through a different language system. For me and my family, that’s English!

I do agree. My son should know Hindi too, and not just Hindi but Punjabi too. For now, I can only promise that soon as his teething is over, his toilet training complete and his pronunciation of ‘Frog’ no more like a British ‘Fock’, we will introduce him to Hindi and much more. Until then, all I can say is, perhaps waiters, dogs and children are not as dumb as we like to believe. I think they are smart enough to know what language the world will be spinning around when their tomorrow comes. 

I should go. My son just asked me – ‘What are you thinking, mamma. Do you have an idea?’ and I need to think of the right answer, in English, of course!

[First published on CNN-IBN ]

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