An ode to English

Macaulay had the foresight to make English the real common language of this country

January 26, 2016 12:09 am | Updated September 23, 2016 03:05 am IST

There is a statement attributed to Lord Macaulay by some people in order to prove the evil colonialist designs behind his education policy. It is a deliberate misquotation:

“I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

This was supposed to be from a speech given to the British Parliament in 1835, when Macaulay was actually in India. In addition, it is completely out of character with British imperialists, who liked to think of themselves as harbingers of light to the darkness of the primitive societies that they were to rule — the white man’s burden — whereas Macaulay calls for the destruction of a civilisation he acknowledges as being superior to Britain’s.

The real intentions of Macaulay in making English the medium of instruction become clear from the following (correct) statement:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

The bogus quotation has been used mainly by some leaders to whip up anti-colonial sentiment among the gullible voters. They use this fact to legislate that only the local languages (and not English) should be used as the medium of instruction in government schools, while at the same time sending their children to private English-medium schools. This hypocrisy aside, consider the advantages of knowing the English language.

While it is now accepted that children studying in the local language — when it is not English — do better in school, knowing English can be a big boon in the scientific community. This is because English has become the lingua franca of science. Just a century ago, Europe was the centre of international science. The top journals were published, apart from English, in German, French, Italian, Russian, and so on, and one could not access papers in these journals unless one spoke the particular language. In addition, new scientific terms had to be developed in all languages, which was no easy task.

Nowadays, the centre of science has shifted to the U.S., and journals have to be in English if they are to be competitive. This has also made all scientific papers accessible to researchers worldwide.

The same felicity with English presents a huge advantage to Indian students when they go to the U.S. for higher studies. English may be a foreign language for students from other countries, but not those from India. Not surprisingly, Indian students ace TOEFL, and generally have no problem following lectures in U.S. classrooms.

Apart from its obvious advantages in following the scientific literature — a stated goal of Macaulay’s policy — knowing English can be an advantage for general literature as well. India, with its multitude of languages, has well-developed literature in all of these languages. But they remain inaccessible to anyone who does not read the particular language, unless it is translated into a common language such as English.

For example, there is a Bengali poem ‘Meghnad Badh Kabya’ (poem on Meghnad’s killing), written by Michael Madhusudan Dutta. This important piece of literature was unavailable to non-Bengali readers until recently, until an English translation by a professor in the U.S. — William Radice, fluent in Bengali and English — was published by Penguin. Despite Macaulay’s obvious disdain for Indian literature — a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India, he wrote — we must stand up and applaud his foresight in making English India’s real common language.

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