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Foreign to the foibles of an ‘Indian’ language

As an English teacher, what I have found most challenging is teaching grammar to second-language learners who are more than willing to be irreverent to the vagaries and inconsistencies of the language. I have generally failed to instil in them a feeling of reverence towards a language that, as none other than Noam Chomsky himself put it, has just two tense forms — the present and the past. What, they ask me, is the future of a language that has no real future tense?

To save face, I launched into a rather complicated explanation, without daring to mention the name of the American linguist again to avoid another bout of laughter. I used examples from Malayalam, which has three solid tense forms. But, I suspect, I only succeeded in convincing my students of the paucity of the English brain in using the present continuous also to express something that is to happen in the future. Didn’t I see any inconsistency, they asked me, in someone saying, “I am going to London tomorrow”? And yes, we’re still going to London. The British haven’t quite left! I explained the tense rules, and all was well — till I came to the exceptions.

Another day, I took up prepositions, explaining that it would be good English to say, “The train will be arriving on platform No. 1,” just as you say, “I put the books on the table.” Laughter broke out. I continued: “You can even say ‘in trouble’, ‘in an hour’, ‘in Kerala’, or ‘look up’, ‘look into’, ‘look up to’, etc.,” happily wandering through the magical grassy lanes of idiomatic English. No light of wisdom, still.

I tried explaining (without mentioning Ferdinand de Saussure, the revered Father of modern linguistics) that each language had its own spin, and should be accepted for what it is worth. My zealous students now wanted to know why in heaven’s name English had to be so complicated. “Historical reasons,” I said tamely, thinking of all the “influences” of Latin, Germanic and French that went into the making of English. My students lost their zeal at the very mention of “history”.

I continued with the phonetics lessons, which I had stopped midway a few weeks earlier, faced by all the laughter in the class. Not very wise, one would think, but I was not thinking when I decided to become an English teacher. Besides, defence was the best form of offence.

English, I blandly declared, is a rather poor language, with only 26 letters for 44 sounds; so one letter has to stand in for many sounds. So we have five pronunciations for the letter ‘c’, as in ‘city’, ‘car’, ‘chair’, ‘chorus’ and ‘champagne’. And five for ‘a’ as in ‘apple’, ‘ball’, ‘father’, ‘away’ and ‘paper’! And while most Indian languages have two diphthongs, English has eight! Students’ eyes begin to pop at this point, and I get on the wrong side of the teacher’s dharma and mock the Romans, the Celts, the Germanic tribes and the French, for their collective role in complicating English spelling and pronunciation.

Then I pull out the ace. The Angles, whose land was called England (Angle-land) and whose language was called English, was a Germanic tribe, and not British at all, I declare with a glint in my eyes. The look of absolute confusion and defeat in their eyes never fails to satisfy the teacher in me. I begin to feel sorry for my poor second-language learners, forced to come to terms with such profound historical complexity.

I declare that you cannot teach vowels and verbs to people who do not know any English. How can we learn English then, they ask with sheepish expressions. “Well,” I say, “if you tried to accept the language as it is, and pick up usage, you might manage to learn the most current global language, to your advantage.”

I then lecture them, in typical English-teacher fashion, on how languages are symbolic systems that humans created for communication in particular social and geographical contexts. Languages also underwent changes over time, as everything else. English enjoys global status, and if they knew what was good for them, they would learn to use it, instead of laughing at it. So, the English teacher wins the day!

bindukpnair@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 4:56:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/foreign-to-the-foibles-of-an-indian-language/article8268336.ece

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