Meaningful bilingualism

Ram Guha on the English question:

A century after Gandhi and Polak debated the question in Johannesburg, arguments about the relevance of English to India and Indians continues. The debate has moved on, of course, since society and history have moved on too. One might foreground three significant changes since Gandhi’s time. First, there are now far more inter-community marriages, particularly among the middle and upper classes. And if a Gujarati marries a Tamil, or a Bengali weds a Malayali, then the default language of their children, and of the family as a whole, tends to become English. Second, although Britannia no longer rules the waves, English continues to be the major global language, its pre-eminence a consequence of America having replaced Great Britain as the great imperial power of the age. Whether spoken in the queen’s diction or in its American or other variants, over most of the world English thus remains the language of choice for communication between people of different nationalities.

The third change is, in the Indian context, arguably the most significant. This is that there is now a real hunger for English among the poor. As many readers of this column will know, from their own experience, domestic servants are determined that their children will not follow them into their profession. They recognize that the best way to escape hereditary servitude is for their children to learn the language of mobility and opportunity, which of course is English. The desire to learn English thus runs deep among all castes and communities. Poor Muslims are as keen to learn the language as are poor Dalits or adivasis.

Whether one approves of it or not, this rush to learn English is unstoppable. Rammanohar Lohia and his followers have lost the battle to banish English from the imagination or learning experience of the Indian child. That said, one might still wish for a sort of historic compromise between the positions articulated by Gandhi and Polak. We live in a land of a quite extraordinary diversity of linguistic and literary traditions. And yet in practice we tend to privilege one language at the expense of all the others. That so many middle- and upper-class Indians speak only English is a shame; that so many subaltern and working class Indians do not have access to decent education in English is equally a shame.

A nice piece. Take a look!


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