English is an Indian language

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The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 proposes a three-language formula under which schools must teach at least two languages that are “native to India”. Conspicuous by its absence in this category is English, threatening access to English instruction in public schools. This has played into popular notions that English is no more than a “colonial imposition”, not “native” to Indians. It is time to retire and reject these notions and recognise that English is very much an Indian language. Rather than trying to justify contentious historical criteria for “native”, we must focus on what English is to India today: an aspirational, cosmopolitan, widely spoken language we have made our own.

An inclusive language

The history of language and learning in India has been fraught with problems. Education in traditional knowledge systems has been highly discriminatory, especially along caste lines. English education emerged as an emancipator and equaliser, allowing people across social groups to break away from exclusionary knowledge systems. Dialect and vocabulary in regional languages are still indicators of caste and community, and enable further exclusion. English presents an opportunity to master a language that no one can exclusively claim as their own in India. This has helped sustain its appeal long after the British left. Middle-class Indians, many of whom have never studied English, want their children to attend English-medium schools, not just because of a promise of jobs, but of a respectability that English represents. This has made English a pathway to unique economic and sociocultural mobility that has given us a global advantage.

English is the global lingua franca; it is the world’s preferred language of commerce, science, diplomacy and culture. Competence in English has enabled India to establish itself in these areas and its diaspora to thrive across the world, especially in the field of technology. The association between English and stable, well-paying careers is obvious and apparent.

Today, Indians give shape to new thought through English. Science has relied on it to pool the best minds of the country and create a strong base of research, innovation and teaching in the field. We have drafted a Constitution and given shape to essential rights and ideals in English. Legal processes in India rely heavily on what has become the international language of the law. It is the language of our courts and some of our greatest legal minds such as H.M. Seervai, Nanabhoy Palkhivala and Krishna Iyer. Indian authors have also produced enduring English literature. R.K. Narayan, Khushwant Singh, Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor (who has made big words cool), Aravind Adiga, Chetan Bhagat, Shobhaa De, Arundhati Roy and many others have given us a rich Indian English which is as much our own as any other “native” language.

Part of daily life

Our debates on language are often detached from practical reality; the truth is that in India, the usage of English is already much more pervasive than people acknowledge. Languages borrow from English with abandon. Whatever part of the country we are from, we talk on mobile phones and say “hello”, “thank you” and “happy birthday”. Whatever language one speaks, texting uses the Roman alphabet (in convenient Indian English keyboards), and emailing in any other script is unheard of. We have English words for many parts of daily life, and every Indian language relies on them. Would a car/cycle mechanic, electrician or postal worker be able to conduct tradecraft without some English? Do we have a well-developed and widely known vocabulary of medical jargon in any other Indian language? Every city has its own impressive English slang. How long can people hold a simple conversation on their own without using any English words? The convenience that even a passable knowledge of English lends to general communication is unparalleled.

English is most popular in parts of India where the opposition to the homogenising ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindutva’ agenda is strongest. The NEP’s refusal to consider English as an Indian language is simply a backhanded effort to impose Hindi nationwide, restricting the autonomy of schools and States. In Tamil Nadu, a two-language policy has worked successfully for decades. Children have continued learning Tamil while also benefiting from the practical advantages of English. The NEP threatens this, and will not be acceptable to the people of Tamil Nadu.

The fact is that today, English has become essential to success in India. For an aspirational middle class, knowledge of English is a great emancipator — a path to a better future. In making rich contributions to the country and world through English, we have made it our own. The time has come to recognise it.

Karti P Chidambaram is Member of Parliament for Sivaganga and Member, All India Congress Committee

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 5:19:36 AM |

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