Thursday, June 17, 2004

Lingua Fracas

I wish people were a little more serious and dedicated to languages. Here is a piece I wrote for Chaya, a bilingual (English and Hindi) magazine that my friends from the American Institute of Indian Studies and me put out. It is straight from the heart, this piece on the English language and me:

It never was my birthright. Neither was it my mother tongue. But fate would have it that I would be born in a former British colony, one that was in many ways colonised to the soul, and that my parents would be affluent enough to send me to an English-medium school.

Circumstance has made the English language inseparable from me. It has intimately bonded the two of us. But am I less of an Indian if I choose to pray in English and not Bengali—my mother tongue? Does it make me a foreigner that I penned my first love letter in English? And would I feel more at home in Pembrokeshire than in Jaipur, just because most of the books on my shelf are in English? I think not.

A language, like one’s faith, must be a personal choice; like faith, it is unfortunately also a platform for prejudice. Nothing hurts me more than to see “privileged” English-speaking Indians denigrate vernacular languages.

Lately, many young Indians have begun looking at accented-English speakers as “cool”, as the guys who are “in”. This attitude is especially flawed and offensive since for most of these speakers the language remains largely a professional acquisition; although they speak the language, many of them have not even sampled the rich body of Indian writing in English.

English is shaped by its daily usage in the mushrooming nouveau-riche corporate offices of India’s large cities, and is deemed only a passport to professional and financial stardom. English is treated impersonally and abused, learnt not for the love of the language but for the financial gain it entails. Worse, many of these English speakers are no longer comfortable reading and writing in their mother tongue, whatever that may be.

How many students actually “choose” to study English Literature at universities in India? Only a handful. And not only English—other language and literature courses as well are calling out for attention, with only uninterested and apathetic students on their rolls. On most students’ lists of priorities, these courses appear far below other, more “career-oriented” subjects; in India, the Humanities have always been overshadowed by scientific and engineering programmes.

Few youngsters are in love with languages today. How many, for instance, would care to find out the various words from South Asian languages that have been officially included in the English language? And how many are interested in the etymology of any of the words that they use daily? For them language is still, unfortunately, only a survival kit.

As a journalist I use English as more than a mere instrument or simple medium of communication. All my ideas and expressions stem from this language. It has been my childhood friend and is now my life partner. Nothing gives me such a thrill as browsing through a list of unknown words, or delineating the nuances of a set of synonyms.

English words still hold a certain magic — one I have yet to fully discover — and they have made me the writer I am today. What I admire in English is the way it continues to grow on me. As much as I would now feel orphaned, unable to share anything in my heart without this language, my attachment to it can only grow stronger with the passage of time. English remains in my heart, embedded in myself, irreplaceable.


Blogger Nitesh said...

Great post Debs! I've always admired your love for languages. Do you still remmeber the short story you wrote which won you the first prize?

Keep it up...

9:29 PM  

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