What’s in a Language? Ask the ‘Uneducated’

5000 primary government schools in UP have decided to operate as English-medium schools.

This statement tells us that development comes in various shapes and sizes and perhaps various numbers. There are certain statistics that stand as a pillar between the numbers and thousands of students who are to avail the benefits of the schemes introduced for government schools. In a country that was divided on the basis of language, linguistic freedom and diversity still continues to be of significance. Yet, this statement tells a story that needs to be heard. India is the second-largest English speaking country in the world. The politics of language is older than the history of independent India and English still continues to be a language that is associated with power and intellect. It would be unfair to question the importance of English as it provides an alternative when uniformity is a convenient option especially in situations when it is the only common language.

English is a language that opens up new possibilities for certain parts of the underprivileged sections yet the implementation of such a large scale scheme requires an infrastructure that is largely absent. The fate of the government schools that have become or are on the verge of becoming English-medium depends on its teachers who aren’t sufficiently trained. The numbers talk about development and tell us about a plan to make sure more children enroll in the government schools around them. Another side of this story is what happens when these children enroll in an English medium school that doesn’t have the teachers who are trained to teach a foreign language that we have accepted as our own.

For a country that is sitting on a powder keg of youth below 25, we spend 3.48 % of our GDP on education as opposed to 3.69% for the last economic year. The education cess is now the education and health cess. In addition to that the allotment for education happens to be the lowest in five years. Yet schools are getting converted into English-medium literally by the minute and the numbers reach up to thousands. Do they have the infrastructural framework? This was about the so called underprivileged children of our country.

Let’s talk about the intellectuals and academicians in our country who are known are respected by hundreds. When India talks about linguistic diversity,much of the conversation is centred around linguistic diversity yet relatively few Indians are capable of using more than one language equally efficiently. This is something that Ramachandra Guha pointed out in his essay that talks about ‘Bilingual Dexterity’. This seemingly complicated term can be used for intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi who were functionally bilingual and spoke and wrote in two languages. Most intellectuals in India who have gained fame as writers can write well in one language like English yet not be functionally well versed with another language.

There are many exceptions to this rule yet this phenomena continues to be the reality for an overwhelming majority of the young population that is adept at using English as the primary language of conveying their thoughts. What does this create and why should we care? This creates a binary, a problematic binary that tells you to believe that English is superior to any other vernacular language and though the first reaction of a lot of people would be to refute this statement, it can be supported by two simple examples. Firstly, the discrimination against those who are not proficient at English bestowed by self-anointed knights of grammar and literally everyone who speaks ‘decent’ english and secondly, the unbelievable surge of literary texts and translations to the language of ‘superior intellectuals’, English.

This binary can possibly be defended as an ideological entity that doesn’t harm anybody by virtue of its mere existence. So let’s talk about other languages, what happens to an entire generation of Bengalis who can’t write in their mother tongue but are proficient at speaking the language or a generation of North Indians who are skilled at speaking in Hindi, laugh at the right hindi puns, can even read poetry and recite proverbs apt for situations but can’t write in Hindi as much as they can in English. They simply aren’t bilingually dexterous and while that isn’t a sin at all it just happens to be something that leads to the loss of valuable potential for creating literary texts, for creating an alternate discourse in another language and perhaps promotes the freedom of ‘choosing’ a language to be our own the way we want it to be.

This bilingual dexterity isn’t just a complicated term mentioned in one of the books on our coffee table but it’s a way of ensuring that one of those books are an acclaimed literary text that we adore or perhaps respect despite the fact that it’s in a vernacular language and is not in English.

Picture Credits: Franchise India



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