Do you speak English?

PARADOXICAL, IS it not, that Daler Mehndi who set the entire world foot-tapping to his balle, balle Bhangra numbers is facing the music? The charge? He extracted vast sums of money from unsuspecting villagers, promising to help them make the `phoren' their home.

The ultimate ambition of the average Punjabi is to migrate to `Ken-da' (Canada, for us) or settle in Southall, London. It is this dream that several wheeler-dealers cash upon. Even in small towns in Punjab such as Moga, Khanna and Doraha, you find holes-in-the-wall outfits offering courses in spoken English - an evidence of the dream being capitalised on. The USP of some teaching centres is that their English teachers belong to Kerala. `South Indian (sic) English taught here', proclaim the signs displayed in some others.

They believe that Keralites are good at English. And with good reason: sometime ago, Malayalis comprised the majority of typists and stenographers working in north India. Proficiency in the language was the key factor in the success of several senior executives who started out as `writers' and clerks. Not for nothing that the north Indians look up to Keralites for success in scaling the ladder of hierarchy.

This is why, at the beginning of every academic year, the Joginder Singhs and the Anita Bhallas of Punjab come in droves to convents and schools run by nuns and missionaries from Kerala. The Punjabi would give his right arm to get the young sardar admitted to any of these hallowed institutions. The parents believe that it would make the child speak the white man's language with enviable fluency and proper diction.

All this awe for the Keralite and his ability is totally misplaced, discovered the UP-born honcho of a prominent firm in Technopark during a group discussion that formed part of the process of recruitment of young engineers. When the topic was announced, most of the participants hemmed and hawed and none spoke up.

He observes, "Fresh graduates from the most prestigious engineering colleges find it difficult to make a cogent presentation even on technical topics they are familiar with."

They are technically sound, can explain it all in Malayalam to their colleagues, but are tongue-tied when it comes to English.

In another group discussion, the subject, `The rights of the tribals', had topical relevance, coming as it did close on the heels of the Muthanga episode. A participant, not stuck for words, broke the ice and began, "The gonemend should be serious about imblemending the promises and providing the fundamendal needs of the tribal people." If some cannot speak, some speak atrocious English.

The written expression is worse. "I give them a simple test. I ask them to spell the word `vacuum', which they would have studied in high school physics. Nine out of ten come up with `vaccum'," says the head of the Technopark firm. Ditto for `certainty' (spelt as `certainity') and `enmity' (`enemity' or, worse still, `enimity').

There is an eternal battle between `extend' and `extent', `send' and `sent', `remainder' and `reminder'. The list is endless, points out Colonel Pillai who had spotted a `loadge' that offers accommodation. Veteran journalist Pani says, "We are very creative when it comes to words such as `recordical', `feminity' and `palacious', which convey the intended sense but do not find a place in the dictionary."

At an interview with the Railways, a candidate was asked what she knew about pyramid. She responded confidently, "A huge triangular cube found in Egypt." Though she was a little short on exactitude, the scholars on the panel thought she had to be awarded full marks for creativity!

If the receptionist-cum-telephone operator at a hotel in the city finds that the guest you want to speak to is not in, she might want to know who called so that a message can be passed on to him. Her query, "May I know your good name, please", in a bid to be polite, would appear to be particularly north Indian. An extension of this is the extra polite request for one's "good number".

Talking of telephone calls, a well-known journalist wanted to speak to a Minister. The Minister's personal assistant identified the voice of the scribe and informed him, "The Minister is on the sofa with a foreigner." And he tentatively queried, "Should I disturb him?"

"Any lesser pressman would have come up with the scoop splashed on the next day's paper, but I had greater confidence in the Minister's moral fibre than in the proficiency of the assistant in English!" chuckles the journalist.

Even newspapers, which, the earlier generations of teachers would recommend to their students as a means of improving their command over the language, contain glaring errors. Referring to the controversy over the non-inclusion of a film in the competition section of the forthcoming International Film Festival of Kerala, a newspaper had said that the film, made on a shoestring, had failed when released theatrically. "Theatrically indeed!" scoffs Professor Vijayalakshmi. She refers to another hilarious statement she came across in her long career, "Shakespeare lived in Windsor with his merry wives, writing tragedies, comedies and errors."

English, as everyone knows, is a little illogical in spelling, pronunciation and usage. It is these nuances that make the language charming, says a logophile.

Karavadia, a Gujarati businessman, says a similar situation was faced by his State. Though Gujarat is advanced in several industries such as textiles, cement, petroleum, chemicals and fertilisers, the sunrise industry, Information Technology, has eluded it. Puzzled, the Government commissioned a study a few years ago. It traced the contradiction to the lack of working knowledge of, leave alone proficiency in, English, among job-seekers. This immediately set off an alarm and English was introduced as a subject from Class III. It is too early to assess the impact, but everyone is optimistic.

Recall the recent reports that West Bengal proposes to introduce English in Class I. `Capitalist' Gujarat and `socialist' West Bengal have learnt the lesson the hard way - that English can be ignored only at one's own peril. We, in Kerala, still believe that xenophobia is another word for patriotism.


Graphics: Manoj

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