‘English language learning must go hand in hand with multilingualism’

WITHIN THE BOARD: English language and literature must be brought into the fold of the literatures and habitat of postcolonial India.   | Photo Credit: M_A_SRIRAM

In the classic Odia short story of the late 19th Century called “ Daka Munshi,” Fakir Mohan Senapati’s memorable character, Gopal Babu, the English educated postmaster, treats his father Hari Singh as a “fool” and an “imbecile,” showering upon him gratuitous “English blows” for his ignorance of English. It is an iconic tale that is marked by the debate over the English language and its selective appropriation by the emerging bourgeoisie in the colonial State. While education is strongly upheld by the author as a major objective, westernisation, primarily seen propelled through the English language, is often equated with the colonising agenda of the British.

Colonial tropes

Fakir Mohan’s dark foreboding about the “menace of English,” recurrently found in his works, would appear outright apocalyptic in the context of the language scene in the globalised world today. Consider the following statistics: English is used by about 750 million people, only half of whom speak it as a mother tongue. More than half the world’s technical and scientific periodicals are in English; English is the medium for 80 per cent of the information stored in the world’s computers. Three quarters of the world’s mail, telexes and cables are in English. As McCrum and McNeil (1986) state, “Whatever the total, English at the end of the 20th Century is more widely scattered, more widely spoken and written than any other language has ever been. It has become the language of the planet, the first truly global language. (Peirce, Bronwyn Norton, 1989).

Sumanyu Satpathy’s article in The Hindu, >“Let a hundred tongues be heard” (editorial page, September 27, 2012), draws our attention to the baneful dominance of English (and Hindi) at the expense of the Indian languages. In my response, primarily focusing on English, I shall try and map out an alternative scenario to the one Professor Satpathy has outlined.


I shall, in the first instance, acknowledge the importance of the widespread desire for English in India, Second, I shall argue that this desire, traditionally seen as antagonistic to the interests of indigenous languages and literatures, need not be so if we were to frame the debate differently, (our postcolonial location offers such a possibility!) and finally, I shall suggest that new techniques and practices must be found urgently to combine English language learning with multilingualism.

The globalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s seemed to signal the need for a globalised workforce. Academic and ideologue Kancha Illiah notes that since the backward class people of India “had no entry to the colonial English world,” the new move to teach English in all government schools becomes a welcome one. Illiah disagrees with the upper caste contention that “English will destroy the culture of the soil.” “Logically speaking,” he says, “the next step would be the abolition of the gap between the prevalent English medium schools and the government school in terms of both teaching and infrastructure.” (“Dalit and English,” Deccan Herald, September 27, 2012)

New expertise

How can we fulfil the widespread demand for English learning? Could this perhaps be done by the introduction of new variants of English, say of the “basic kind” that the English critic I.A. Richards had spoken of? Additionally, I would argue that in the given scenario, we must have a national policy for English language learning with matching resources and increased institutional support.

“Indian English” has come of age, and has been accepted as a legitimate category the world over. Consequently, we must develop our own expertise suitable to our own conditions. English language and literature must be brought into the fold of the literatures and habitat of postcolonial India. It is here that the teachers of English must address their task in an innovative and professional manner.


And finally, the question of English and multilingualism: we must develop new paradigms and tools for the teaching of English in India. Instead of an approach that upholds a cordon sanitaire between English and Indian languages, English teaching must not be “context neutral.” To be effective, “it has to take into account factors like learner position, textual implication, assumptions underlying teaching methodology, etc.” (Mishra and Murali Krishna, 2007).This could also be furthered by “critical bilingualism”: “the ability to not just speak two languages but to be conscious of the socio-cultural, political and ideological contexts in which the Languages operate” (Walsh, 1991).


What then is our vision of the global English of “the brave new world”? It is to indigenise and localise the teaching of English language and literatures even as we aspire to play our legitimate role in the global turf. English language learning in India must go hand in hand with multilingualism. By such actions, we will be sensitive to plurality in the classroom situation and relate to the varied language/caste/class backgrounds the students come from. This must be as true of our cultural politics as of English teaching in the classroom.

(Sachidananda Mohanty is professor and former head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad.)

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 3:13:06 PM |

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