A Comedy of Errors

What was the first character that you ever wrote ? These days it is in vogue to start children off with a foreign alphabet – English in particular. Some argue that a language is merely a medium of communication and with rapid globalization, English will predominate as the language of future monoculture.

Arguably it is India’s large English-speaking population that facilitated her Information Technology and outsourcing boom. But in reality English has dismantled the landscape of Indian society, literature, music and knowledge systems. As a language of India’s slavery its propagation is a direct consequence of academic imperialism by the British. Generations of Indian students post-independence were indoctrinated into western thought due to perceived cultural and scientific superiority of the colonial west – a shallow, misguided belief that still persists.

India now has a society that fails to articulate even moderately complex ideas in any single language. Thus have evolved unintelligent, bastardized forms of speech such as Hinglish, which have made their way into public dialogue, movies and even mainstream news. The educated elite cannot get through a mundane conversation without diluting their mother tongues. They may be well-versed in “The Wealth of Nations”, “A Brief History of Time” or “The Merchant of Venice” but are hardly acquainted with Indian masterpieces such as Arthashaastra, Yogasutras and Geetanjali. Shakespeare – the overrated 17th century playwright, is still widely appreciated – albeit by rote – in the tragic Indian school system while several indigenous authors and poets – Aurobindo, Bhavabhuti, Naidu, Patanjali, Tagore, Tulsidas, Vyasa, to name a few, go unrecognized.

Some of India’s lackluster English writers and newscasters would not be so popular had they not been obnoxious mouthpieces of our infatuation with a foreign language. It is easy to forget that English it is a lot more foreign than our very own Manipuri, Konkani or Kashmiri. For that matter, many Indians would rather learn French or Spanish for their perceived aesthetic appeal, than anything that sounds remotely Indian. Even soaps and toothpaste don’t sell if they have Indian names. Non English speakers are ridiculed by elitists for their “desi” accent. Haven’t we all at some point mocked people – sometimes our own parents – for their lack of English fluency ?

In a parallel universe, millions of Indian villagers and farmers cannot seek justice from courts in their own local languages. Students from native language schools are looked down upon and find it challenging to compete for jobs and higher education. Tragically, English is one of the only two official languages of the Indian Parliament.

English was not deliberately designed to be logical nor phonetically accurate. Try and explain to a child why “put” and “but” or “director” and “direction” do not sound similar; or why “The bandage was wound around the wound”. The pronunciation of each word has to be recalled from memory due to the lack of consistent structural rules. This becomes a daunting task for children trying to learn the language.

It is far easier to program text-to-speech or voice recognition software for languages with well defined rules and a larger set of consonants such as Oriya or Marathi. The structure of Sanskrit grammar makes it suitable for Natural Language Processing and other applications in Artificial Intelligence. We owe this to ancient grammar pundits like Panini, who in the Ashtadhyayi has elaborated in depth on the precision of linguistics. Sankrit is known as the “Language of the Gods” for its poetic beauty and rich vocabulary. Ironically, despite their phonetic simplicity, there is a serious lack of professional software for Indian languages.

A language is much more than a tool of communication; it embodies beliefs, culture and philosophy of a people; it transmits stories of past generations, their art, spirituality and knowledge. There are no English equivalents for words such as Namaste, Chitta, Ashish or Dharma. The true meanings of these words are often misinterpreted or simply lost in translation.

Furthermore, when relying explicitly on borrowed words and phrases, the Indian psyche is bombarded with notions contrary to its philosophy. Sometimes these concepts are unintelligent, unnecessary or outright unscientific. Following are a few examples: “bullshit”, “devil in the details”, “go to hell”, “cast the first stone”, “secularism”, “religion” etc.

With the decline of Indian languages, our true history is lost, our symbolism contorted, our mythologies forgotten and our sciences cast aside as superstition. English, far from stimulating India’s prosperity, has in fact disrupted it. It has bruised national pride and precipitated the fragmentation of contemporary Indian society in yet another dimension.

Admittedly, knowledge of foreign languages to some extent facilitates economic progress and global participation. To that effect the Chinese have introduced English courses in their school curriculum. But that English be made a mandatory medium of education at the expense of our mother tongues is a travesty; that schools should flaunt their “international syllabus” to enroll students is self-deprecating. That Japan and Germany became economic giants without English crutches, is a testimony to the power of the mother tongue and the determination of a people. Over generations, English must be pushed out of the mainstream and duly designated an optional foreign language.

My apologizes for blogging in the very language I critique. To do otherwise demands a degree of proficiency in Hindi, Oriya or Tamil on both our parts. Also, support for Indic based dialogue is fairly limited on the World Wide Web. I do however wish to make a sincere request – the next time you are asked for a signature, choose any one of the dozen or so round and curvy Indic scripts. This may not dissolve India’s problems, but it just might connect you back in some strange way to the earth beneath your feet.