The useful disease of English

English needs to be used along with other Indian languages, and vice versa. We will deprive ourselves if we turn this into an ‘either-or’ issue
In India, English is like one of those damp squib crackers that tend to explode in your face. Sometimes, the faces are literary, as in the exchange between Salman Rushdie and the renowned Marathi writer, Bhalchandra Nemade, in 2015. More often, the faces are political, such as that of Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, who was recently in the news for castigating English as a “disease” left behind by the British. Actually, Mr. Naidu was misrepresented by many. Even though he was speaking on the occasion of Hindi Divas at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi and he espoused the cause of Hindi as a national language, he had in mind other Indian languages too. Mr. Naidu reportedly said that “all Indian languages” are “vibrant” and there are many other Indian languages which “are older and more vibrant than Hindi”. So, it was not, as his critics made it sound, a question of Hindi triumphalism. He was talking of Indian mother tongues in general, and excluding English from that category. To an extent, he had a point, though one can object that English is the mother tongue of at least some Anglo-Indians all over the country, and probably some other Indians in the far eastern States. Still, the fact remains that English is rarely a mother tongue in India, though it is often a first language. Indians have an edge The Chinese have realised a basic fact. There is always a first language of specialised communication. In the ancient Indian past, it was Sanskrit, though other languages — often referred to as Prakrit — were spoken by the masses. In medieval Europe, it was Latin; in much of medieval Asia, it was Persian. These ‘proto-global’ languages did not lead to the death of other languages. Instead, they enabled the exchange of knowledge, thought, ideas. Today English is the global language, for better and for worse, and the British inadvertently gave Indians an edge here. Unfortunately, we are more busy diagnosing the diseases of the past than taking advantage of their after-effects in the present. Not just the Chinese, but various other peoples are catching up, even as we Indians consciously weaken our head start in English. In Denmark, for instance, English is compulsory from the primary classes onwards, and Denmark is an affluent, one-language country that can easily afford translations in Danish. This is the case in most of Europe, even in countries with strong linguistic nationalisms. Some educationists in Europe even argue that learning English will soon not give you an advantage, as every educated world citizen will be reasonably fluent in it. They propose that ambitious schools should teach other major languages — Arabic, Spanish, French, Hindi, Chinese — along with English, and, of course, the national or regional language. As I said, this is not an ‘either-or’ matter. English needs to be used along with other Indian languages, and vice versa. We will deprive only ourselves if we turn it into an ‘either-or’ issue.

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