ENGLISH CAN (AND CANNOT) DO FOR OUR YOUNG
What can a language, any language, do for anyone?
It can do for someone any of these three things. Language can be a
tool for coping with life, for making a home and wresting a living
from the environment. It helps one to share experience with others
for better coordination of activity, to get another to do things for
oneself. The environment to be controlled may be natural or human,
as in a commonplace utterance like ‘Is it raining outside? If it is,
get my umbrella, will you. I’m going out’, which illustrates the utilitarian
function of language. Language can also be a tool of quite another
sort, a tool for sharing life, throwing out bridges of intimacy and
loyalty or for maintaining distances and hostilities. (Think of Aesop’s
parable of the tongues, which join or sunder man and man.) Social
classes and ethnic groups, axes and sexes, regions and periods – all
these get reflected in the sociative function of language.
Finally, as language grows on them, speakers may begin to look upon
it as more than a tool. To a child it may take on the aspect of a
fascinating toy in the shape of a nursery rhyme or a homely riddle,
for instance. Some never grow out of this language play, we call them
poets. Others turn it into their life – work and keep clarifying the
riddles of concepts and ideas in a search for philosophical maturity.
Poets and thinkers in their quite different ways exemplify the spiritual
function of language – the adjective is unfashionable but quite precise
here, I should think.
These three functions of language are
to be seen at various levels of sophistication. In each of these three
ways, language helps man to become conscious of his consciousness.
This self consciousness transforms language. The mute skill and craftsmanship
becomes modern technology, and utilitarian language becomes technical
language. The neighbourliness and home-spun wisdom turn into widening
horizons and social ideology, and sociative language becomes the language
of mass media and the medium of education. Folk poetry and common
sense philosophy become dense poetries and abstract philosophies.
Poetic and discursive language now seeks to articulate the individual
departure from the shared tradition.
We have been talking so far about the
function of language in the life of Man. In relation to the life of
any specific society, we don’t speak of language in the abstract but
speak either of the language repertory at the disposal of a small
relatively homogeneous social group such as an Indian village or of
the language network spread over a wide area such as France or Western
Europe. Naturally, the mother tongue has a special place in a language
repertory and the area language (or languages) in a language network.
But the other tongue or tongues present in the repertory or the local
tongues or the foreign tongues present in the network will also count.
In the course of human history we have seen many examples of diversified
repertories and networks. In India bilingualism is almost a way of
life, not the curious exception as it may be in some predominantly
monolingual tribe or nation-state.
English came to India as the language
of the British rulers in the 19th century and has remained
with us in this fourth decade of Independence to the delight of some
and the chagrin of others, to be sure – the large mass of people couldn’t
care less, or could they? What sort of things has English been doing
for Indians and to them?
Utilitarian function: English has been and is being used in
the private letters and memoranda; university and (in a limited way)
school education; travel beyond local confines; trade, commerce, industry
at the State and all-India levels and related to book-keeping, correspondence,
and technology transfer; Indian newspapers and magazines; books for
Indian and (in a limited way) foreign consumption; reading foreign
magazines and books; radio, film, and television; Christian and Hindu
proselytization; public bodies and their regulation and administration;
government and law; the platform and the round-table; advertisement,
publicity, and propaganda; higher defence establishments; higher learning,
education, and research.
Sociative function: English has been the all-India link language
along with Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit right from the days of freedom
movement and the Enlightenment (this last is often misnamed the Indian
Renaissance). The centuries-old isolation of the Indian-society (ten
centuries old approximately) from the rest of human civilization came
to an abrupt end in the 18th-19th centuries
and English has served as the chief link. Indians who know the English
language and perhaps some literary and discurasive writings feel some
mutual propinquity: two English-Knowing Indians sharing a mother tongue
may even find themselves talking in English and the non-English-knowing
Indian in his turn looks up to them as angla-vidya-vibhushita
(English-adorned) or ancer’s at them as angresi-parast (English-worshipping)
as the occasion demands.
Indeed Indian life appears to be split
down the middle between a deshi (native) segment of English
and of Western models and a videshi (foreign) segment suffused
with the language and with Western influence. Dress and living style,
games and sports, the fine arts (music and dance are deshi and the
visual arts videshi), medicine, trade and commerce (commodity and
handicraft are deshi, manufactured goods videshi), and so on. At the
first blush this is a strange and even comic situation, on a closer
look it is depressing if not disturbing.
(3) Spiritual function: English has
opened quite a few vistas of experience to Indians – this opening
up of possible forms of life has affected every Indian at some point.
Again we shall resort to a bald listing: humour (as distinct from
farce or wit); love (as distinct from desire); history (as distinct
from mere legend); secular philosophy ; secular and impersonal law;
science, discussion (as distinct from instruction or polemics), skepticism,
and experiment; the individual departure in creativity of any kind;
large-scale use of prose; mathematics and logic; individual responsibility
and contract (as opposed to the appointed station in life and custom);
methodical and brisk handling of affairs (for example, punctuality,
reporting illness to the physician).
In all the three functions English
has been a vehicle of modernization and Westernization – to be sure
a British version of modernization and Westernization. The peculiar
genius of the English has flowered especially in the area of poetry,
drama, humour, and an on-going critique of society and culture. At
the same time English has also been a vehicle not only of colonial
domination – political, economic, and intellectual – but even at this
late date one of an internal colonialism as it were. You have either
to belong to the English-knowing educated minority or to be in a position
to hire people from that minority to get a head in the world and possibly
reach the top. There are no signs of this picture changing in the
near future. Anybody who wants to get ahead or wants to see his children
get ahead tries his best to master or get his children to master the
English language at least in its utilitarian functions. Since the
quality of teaching is poor (you only get the what-you-want? –
feel- homely-here- only kind of English at best), you try the
English-medium school (where you get the tell-me-this-thing-man-what-man-this-thing
kind of English; if you are choosy and can afford it, you get a slightly
higher you-know-what-I-mean variety complete with a sprinkling
of mixed American-British slang and an Indian-RP accent). In the English-medium
school the regional languages and even Hindi tend to get short shrift.
What happens to the three functions
then? It is either the bare utilitarian function (if at all) or the
utilitarian and sociative functions – English literary and discursive
writings, English as a vehicle of a sensibility and an intellectual
curiosity make their impact on the very few in spite of and not by
virtue of the schooling. Whether the medium of instruction is English
or not makes very little difference to this. Indeed being in an English-medium
school with its Victorian-British-Raj-ambiance and in an exclusive
undergraduate college with its all-too-mod coffee-house intellectualism
is a distinct handicap. Indian literary artistic, intellectual and
sociopolitical events are of course strictly for the native birds
unless any of them get a particularly good or bad press in the West
– Ravishankar is in, but who is Gangubai Hangal? Even Western artists
and thinkers and scientists out-side the Anglo-Saxon circle get a
hearing only if the Anglo Americans value them – Wittgenstein is in,
but Husserl was out until recently. Indeed English becomes a channel
for the collective Philistinism and cynicism of the West rather than
its ideas and ideals.
Well, there just are certain things
that English cannot do for our young. Only an Indian language – typically
the mother tongue in the language repertory or the link language of
the regional network – will fill the need.
Utilitarian function: Communication between the professional
and his client or his subordinate, the extension work of a welfare
department like health or agriculture, the shoptalk in the work shed,
the worksite, or the field camp – indeed the whole information transfer
from the videshi to the deshi segment, dissemination,
popularization, and above all Indianization of the ideas of modernization.
Our long-term goal must indeed be the pulling down of the wall between
the two segments and ensuring free flow of ideas in either direction.
An Indian allopath doesn’t have to wait for his Western colleague
to make a new break through or to reclaim some drug or insight and
to confine his rôle to being a mere camp-follower of the West and
an exploiter of his country men.
Sociative function: The Indian identity is a complex identity
– being an Indian, being a Gujarati or a kannadiga or What ever, being
a Hindu or a Muslim or Whatever, being an inheritor of all that is
best in Ancient and Medieval India, or of course being a contemporary
man. The question is whether this complex identity is going to be
a rich one or merely a fragmented one, simply a split personality
typified recently by many an Indian scientist simultaneously manning
the sophisticated eclipse-watching teams and joining the superstitious
eclipse-shaken herd. Another version of this split personality is
the alienated Westernized Indian who will indeed be better off as
an émigré in the West. (Whether to call an émigré professional
a brain-drainee or not is always a moot question.)
function: India is no longer a stable closed society, so the normal
controls of moral and intellectual maturation. Don’t work. The bombardment
of the rewards and temptations, the value and threats, the ideas and
facts of the contemporary world continues and will continue. How is
the contemporary Indian going to hold his or her own in its face rather
than being swept off the feet? The educated young Indian should really
become educated and not merely get trained in his trade or profession
and fed on the media pap. And it is here that one becomes extremely
doubtful of what good an exposure to English literary artists and
thinkers could do if they remain embalmed in quotation marks in the
young Indian’s head without making friends with Indian literary artists
and thinkers, both ancient and contemporary. The springs of creativity
will remain dry.
Ram Manohar Lohia and F. R. Leavis were right in their animadversions
against rootless cosmopolitanism. As Goethe once said, one must make
one’s own what one has what one has inherited and in the present context
this applies as much a to the contemporary Indian’s Western heritage
as it does to his classical Indian heritage.
English can of course open a window for our young, but it
cannot give them eyes to look through that window.
It remains to sketch without detailed argument some of the
implications of this argument in two areas of some concern to Indian
students and teachers of English language and literature – namely,
the teaching of this language and creative writing in English by Indians.
To take up the teaching of the English language first, two
questions need to be asked and faced squarely: (i) Who needs how much
English? How to tackle the problem created by the large number of
students and the excessively small number of teachers with adequate
competence in the use of English and in second language pedagogy?
(ii) What is the relation between teaching language and teaching literature?
How much English indeed? It will be useful to define the
following five levels of competence: (1) Elementary I: hesitant, not
wholly correct use for meeting travel and everyday necessities and
courtesies and for handling specially simplified material, public
signs, addresses, and the like. (2) Elementary II: halting use, listening
to slowed and reading glossed material for meeting common everyday
needs, consulting with co-workers on work needs, taking message, reading
simple material (like notices, daily news, dialogues, stories), writing
a simple note or complaint, relating an incident. (3) Intermediate:
using the language without too many mistakes or too great a hesitation
though in some delimited area – within which to describe a situation,
narrate an incident, follow or urge a simple point, discuss a simple
matter, indulge in small talk extending beyond the work experience,
read a simple discussion or exposition, narrate a problem or an incident
in writing, fill a form, apply for a job or for leave. (4) Advanced
I: handling non-specialized (joking, advising, arguing) and specialized
(pros and cons of a point) situations at varied levels and with any
of the four skills, informal interpretership or working translations
giving and obtaining an interview, the language should be practically
error-free, cover subtleties with some precision, though style is
not expected. (5) Advanced II: communication at any level in one’s
own specialization and at least to an intermediate level in another’s
specialization, acting as an interpreter or a translator, using language
with the confidence and skill of an educated adult.
How can we dovetail the teaching of the Mother Tongue, the
regional language, and English and their use as media of the classroom,
the library, and the examination hall? The broad plan suggested is
presented in Table 1.
(a less ambitious program)
(a less ambitious program)
(where a mother tongue)
as a second language
E i, ii
E I, ii (opt)
E I, ii, I
Abbreviations: E i, E ii, I, Ai, A ii, refer to five levels
of proficiency described in the text; (opt) optional; MT, RL, Eng
refer to Mother Tongue, Regional Language/ Hindi, and English respectively.
A glance at Table1 will show that a more flexible attitude
is advocated to the whole problem by recognizing different degrees
of proficiency in the languages concerned for different students at
the same educational level. The indications about the medium of teaching
are only broad – what type of student will learn in the classroom
or read books or face the examination in what subject in what language
need not be spelt out here beyond saying that the same flexibility
of approach will be desirable here. One should emphasize that, for
a proper acquisition of the skills spelled out earlier, a programme
tied down too much (as is the case now) to a book of readings will
not be adequate. Exposure to literary as well as discursive readings
in English (original as well as translated from other languages) is
certainly useful for Intermediate and Advanced Levels, but not sufficient.
In teaching English literature at the Junior and Senior
College Levels, a clear distinction should be made between General
English and special English. In the Special courses to be offered
for English as an optional, subsidiary, or principal subject, the
emphasis will be belles letters, and the prose of ideas will play
a supplementary role. The selection of readings will be balanced between
different periods and will be such as s to offer a challenge to a
student with a literary aptitude and with at least Advanced i Level
of English behind him. The general courses on the other hand will
place equal emphasis on belles letters and the prose of ideas. The
selections will give much more weightage to the literature of the
last 100-200 years and offer windows on other faculties (for example,
social philosophy for science students). The classroom treatment will
bear more on content than on form. The selection of discursive pieces
will chiefly aim at presenting the total context of life, problems
facing man today, especially the contemporary Indian, and
inducing a social consciousness. The selection of more literary
pieces will be designed to nurture a standard taste and a moral sensibility.
Our young, at any rate a small minority of them, are also
looking to English in another way- as a medium of their own creative
writing. For some of them there is no choice really in that English
is the only language that they are at all comfortable with. This is
bad enough, but not so bad as predicament of those of our young, a
larger number of them, who are not comfortable with any language,
English or Indian.
I have a serious reservations about an Indian doing creative
writing in English; and these are not based on the cold shouldered
reception such writing has meet with on the whole and will do so from
the Anglo-American reading public and critical forums. After all a
writer for his own pleasure and the pleasure of the fellow members
of his own cultural group. Too many of our writers in English are
overly worried about what ‘they’ will say. Let Indian creative writing
in English and English translation of creative writings in Indian
languages be primarily meant for English-knowing Indians.
My reservations about Indian creative writing in English
(which don’t extend to English translations of Indian creative
writings in Indian languages) are rather based on two other considerations:
(i) The lowered potential for good performance; (ii) The lowered potential
for a creative grip on the material. It is as if one is running a
race against a handicap and I am not sure it is the sort of handicap
that only spurs creativity. This is especially true of lyric poetry which seems to be the most popular form.
What lowers the potential for good performance is either
or both of these factors. The Indian writer often embarks upon writing
having become fully at home in English, with out establishing an inwardness
even in his own reading of English poetry or fiction or drama. If
he has not been inward to creative writing in his mother tongue (as
is often the case), this is even more difficult. The other factor
is that the conditions of literary communication are doubtfully fulfilled.
Does he share this inwardness to the language with a body or readers?
Does he stand firmly on a base of normal, ordinary language to launch
his piece from or land it on? One has only to ask these awkward questions.
Should the Indian writer be aware of them? Won’t this awareness cramp
What lowers the potential for a creative grip on the material
are: (i) the uncertainty of inheritance, the uncertain warrant
of authenticity; (ii) the danger of realm of
language being out of touch with the world of the author’s
own experience. Can our writer count upon a shared body of conventions,
images, allusions to draw upon or rebel against? An answer to this
question will limit the authenticity of what he writes. I have already
spoken of the bane of a rootless coffee-house cosmopolitanism when
invoking names of the very Indian Lohia the very English Leavis. The
other factor actually has been with us Indian ever since the decline
of classical Sanskrit. In the realm of ideas, words have been peeled
away from thought- witness the plethora of synonyms in Sanskrit of
the sort that do not serve any purpose. In the realm of images, words
and images have patted company, Indian women have a variety of beautiful
lips-but only the bimbadhara makes the poetic grade. Are we
going to replace an ossified Sanskrit by an ossified English and replace
do we like or fishlike eyes by blue? The task of modern poetry in
Indian language is formidable enough. In English we are led down the
garden path even without realizing that a big boulder is shutting
off the view.
We have been talking about Indian adventures in literary
writing in English –especially in poetry writing in English. Some
of these considerations also apply, admittedly with lesser force,
to Indian adventures in discursive writing in English in so far as
they lay any claim to creativity.
Valid and limited claims can certainly be made as to what
English can do for our young;
but the unexamined and spurious claims have to be resolutely set aside
first. For bad money has a way of driving out good money.
This was presented at a seminar on the role of English as
a complimentary Language at Mysore, November 1981 and published in
the Literary Criterion 17:1:46:55, Jan 1982 and also
in English: its complemantery role in India, Mysore 1982.