Independent India’s bilingualism carries heavy societal connotations that have been visible to the naked eye for decades. Over years, English has become a symbol of superiority in India with its deep roots in a colonial mindset and complex. Let us delve into the cause and effects of this colonial hangover on India’s vernacular languages
By Barish Raman
- There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, and each is unique in a number of ways
as they all hold different cultures
- English in modern-day India is a still complicated and paradoxical phenomenon
- English may become the first language but, it is often not the ‘mother tongue’ as, it is learnt through formal education
- The English language set foot in India with the granting of the East India Company charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600
Language is a crucial and central part of cultural identity. It is seen as a means of communicating values, beliefs, and customs, it plays an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity, as it conveys and, consequently, preserves shared beliefs and values, and traditions. Some might also call it the very first thing we can call our ‘own’. There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, and each is unique in a number of ways as they all hold different cultures within them. Every language evolves and is enriched by different events of history, every word’s source may have a story behind it. Each language has nuances that represent its origin, which is why a language holds a lot of meaning for a social being.
Mohammad Khosravi Shakib, a professor of Persian languages in Iran, sheds light upon this in his research paper, “The position of language in development of colonization”
“Most of the people believe that “language” is the basic tool used to give
identity to a national culture. Language relationships with mind, soul, identity and thoughts of those who speak in their mother tongue, make most of colonialist societies colonizing other societies focus on language and language identity of those societies. Being aware of importance of language and cultural domination, during their colonialism, colonialists try to convey their thought, beliefs and their customs through language as a cultural tool in an invisible and imperceptible way.”
INDIA’S COMPLICATED LINGUISTIC BACKGROUND
However, in a country like India, where more than 150 languages are spoken and 22 are officially recognized by the constitution, the language, English, reigns supremacy in a manner even unlike countries where it may be the mother tongue and first language. The way one dons a Gucci belt, or Prada shoes to ‘show off’ their luxurious indulgences and capability of being able to afford such elevated luxuries is always accompanied by a necessary, over even fashionable, accessory, which is English. Independent India’s bilingualism carries heavy societal connotations that have been visible to the naked eye for decades and to keep up with the fast pace of a developing and global India, we had to leave the languages of our mothers behind. Ironically, it is now the mothers who instill the importance of our language choices starting from a young and tender age when young children are told a phrase we are all extremely familiar with, “Beta, speak in English”. English in modern-day India is a complicated and paradoxical phenomenon that is at ours yet not. Its complex and nuanced narratives defy categorization into a single field or genre.
The English language set foot in India with the granting of the East India Company charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 and the following status quo of buying and selling ports in coastal towns including Surat, Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. English language public coaching commenced in India withinside the 1830s through the guideline of the thumb of the East India Company (India became then, and is today, one of the most linguistically diverse areas of the world). In 1835, English replaced Persian because of it being the official language of the Company. Lord Macaulay performed a chief function in introducing English and western standards to schooling in India. He supported the substitute of Persian through English as the official language, the usage of English as the medium of instruction in all schools, and the education of English-speaking Indians as teachers. Not to mention that these people were cherry picked by the British and the language itself was gatekept heavily along with education for the common masses, further reinstating the association of the language with education and ultimately with class.
Our vernacular languages did not get the chance to evolve with time as other countries with homogenous and untouched cultures did. The intervention of English was so in-tune with globalization that they worked hand in hand, further establishing the significance of the language
COLONIAL MENTALITY WE DIDN’T BECOME INDEPENDENT FROM
Due to this colonial background, it can be conjectured that since the British colonisers and colonists implemented a sense of superiority in the dimension of colour, religion, and culture, including language has led to English being a badge of honour and a class certificate. Even after years of independence, it sheds light upon the ugly truth of entitlement and class disparity present in ‘New’ India. English may become the first language to a person but it is often not the ‘mother tongue’ as, unlike the mother tongue, it is not learned through social conditioning but rather through formal education for many. For a vast majority of Indians, they only pick up English in their surroundings after reaching a certain age, especially because it is taught in schools. This brings us to the ubiquitous concern of gentrification in India which is so strong that you can see it manifest itself in almost every facet of life, and this isn’t dissimilar for education. The quality of education in schools differs so greatly that it is almost impossible to blur the lines of these differences even for educated people in the working class. The English spoken, learned, and taught in public or governmental schools differs immensely from that of private international schools. Since our relationship with English also builds from our households, the question comes down to the type of English our parents speak and pass down to us, strengthening the gentrification in our society through generational cycles. This, in turn, affects the type of language we use to communicate, the people we associate ourselves with, and even the type of media we consume, ultimately, shaping our worldview and thinking.
CONUNDRUMS OF THE PARADOXICAL RELATIONSHIP
At the end of the day, our society has taken such a shape that without the English language, not only are opportunities limited but every aspect of our consumerist lives. It limits a lot of aspects of our lives. Hence, if one thinks that in its true rebellious and revolutionary manner, the solution to escape the clutches of this seemingly perpetual Colonial influence, then, they are wrong. It is neither possible nor sensible to change the very fabric of society, English became a part of our lives long before us and goes beyond our own choices. True emancipation lies in its acceptance, it might be paradoxical but that doesn’t negate its truth. The paradoxical relationship between Indians and liberalization from colonial roots is not limited to just language. We can also see it appear most evidently from mass immigrations, especially and ironically to Britain. People try to escape the lack of opportunities in a dwindling economy of a third-world country immigrating to the country that was the cause of it or didn’t have the same fate at another country’s expense. However, it feels like a dead end since India loses capable assets in human resources, further contributing to the lack of growth in our country, which in turn compels more people to seek out opportunities elsewhere, leading to an inescapable cycle.
Over time, as globalization and consumerism kept introducing new objects, concepts, and systems, rather than accustoming them to our language, we accustomed our language to them. Even while typing/texting people write Hindi in English romanization rather than the original Devanagari script. It is also noticeable how our fluency in the ability to read Devanagari has been significantly decreasing with generation
Just like each and everything in the world, the language has also been commodified. Along with groceries or clothes, in the same market, we can buy the opportunity to learn English from eccentric coaching centers which can even guarantee you to be fluent in 30 days. It might be raw capitalism but it might be a redeeming chance for the working class that either did not have the same class privileges to attend a posh, private school or more importantly, people who escaped the venomous influence of caste prejudices and did not generationally get the same influence to learn as others.
We encounter a colossal question about Indian English and its implications on classism, elitism, and still existing effects of Colonialism. Throughout our lives, we witness numerous instances where a person is shamed for not knowing English or a person is glorified for or seen as superior for having a good command of English. People find it embarrassing to not know English in India but English is just a language, then why is it that we don’t feel embarrassed for not knowing or having a commendable command on Hindi or Tamil or Punjabi, or any regional language whose community a person may be a part of. This represents the hierarchy we create subconsciously in our minds when it comes to our language.
We see this sense of entitlement regarding English everywhere from our daily lives to our place of work or even in the media and Bollywood, we see instances of scenes or dialogues that further reinstate this linguistically generated class gap. A woman is supposed to be mesmerized by a guy who is rich, intelligent, and speaks great English or a ‘comedic’ scene that mocks a person’s incapability to speak English. This sense of entitlement really makes us think about the colonial mentality that Independent India is yet to gain freedom from. More importantly, we can see influencers or celebrities convey this through their actions. For instance, on a show like ‘Kofee with Karan’ where the ambiance is luxurious and candid and the interviewer speaks with rather, augmented articulation, a celebrity reciprocates that same energy. However, when they need to promote their own projects they take the stage of a show like ‘The Kapil Sharma Show’, a cable channel, family-friendly comedy show with a silliness to it, that is targeted to the family-laden middle class, one can see the difference in their conversation, language, and energy.
STUNTED GROWTH OF VERNACULAR LANGUAGES
It is evident that colonialism has led to the implementation of English as the prime language and replaced vernacular languages, especially regional languages. It should be noted that historically, there has also been a compulsion of using another language in independent India that could be a neutral playing field that can accommodate the linguistic diversity of the Indian states without causing conflicts. English just happened to be the perfect candidate to qualify as the Lingua Franca for a country as diverse as Independent India. Language also evolves with time, however, the evolution of Indian vernacular languages was stunted due to the incorporation of English in it which has also led to today’s common tongue being ‘Hinglish’. Our vernacular languages did not get the chance to evolve with time as other countries with homogenous and untouched cultures did. The intervention of English was so in-tune with globalization that they worked hand in hand, further establishing the significance of the language. Take for example, the fact that a separate word for ‘pencil’ and mechanical pencil ‘exist’ in Japanese. In Hindi or most regional languages, we call pencil, ‘pencil’. Over time, as globalization and consumerism kept introducing new objects, concepts, and systems, rather than accustoming them to our language, we accustomed our language to them. Even while typing/texting people write Hindi in English romanization rather than the original Devanagari script. It is also noticeable how our fluency in the ability to read Devanagari has been significantly decreasing with generations. This only intertwined our languages and English more, however, after such a long history, there is no denying that English is just as much ours now.
This phenomenon gave birth to Hinglish, a portmanteau or linguistic combination of Hindi and English, which refers to the macaronic hybrid use of English and notably Hindi and Urdu, involving code-switching or translanguaging between these languages wherein they are freely interchanged within a sentence or between sentences. This can be seen in our daily lives as even while speaking Hindi, often, people incorporate English words or fillers in between sentences of Hindi.
The colonial connotations of the English language in India are undeniable and the language might be invincible in our society. A lot of people accept it as their first language and prefer it and there is nothing wrong with that. We accept English, however still not as ours but as theirs. All we need to do is de-stigmatise linguistic differences in our diverse country and let go of these classist undertones and hierarchical implications.
Even after years of independence, it sheds light upon the ugly truth of entitlement and class disparity present in ‘New’ India. English may become the first language to a person but it is often not the ‘mother tongue’ as, unlike the mother tongue, it is not learned through social conditioning but rather through formal education for many