It is my first day at the call centre. My eyes gaze through the room with an intention to befriend someone. I feel comfortable approaching a middle-aged Indian gentleman and so I do. While conversing with him, I found out that he was from Mumbai, India and had been living in New Zealand for the past couple of years. However, his knowledge of Hindi language was limited to—as he put it—“speaking to the rickshaw driver, vegetable vendor, or saving my life.”
I found it odd. The man had lived in India for the most part of life, yet his understanding of Hindi was limited. The encounter made me think how much importance the society has given to people to English. Has aping Western manners, habits, and language created a new caste system? It seems that the extent of one’s fluency in English is directly proportionate to their higher status in the society. While English helps one connect better at a universal level, it becomes problematic when attached to the notion of elitism.
Life in an English predominant city is different from its small-town counterparts. I picture a day in my grandmother's life who lives in a small town called Jabalpur. Imagine living in a place where everything is written in an incomprehensive language—the name of your medicine, government official pension papers, mobile phone, road directions, food labels and ingredients, TV channels, and even movie tickets. She is and hugely dependent on others for her basic necessities, as she can’t read or write in English. There are several others leading a similar life.
How did English become synonymous with class, power, and status? In a country of 22 official and 1,652 spoken languages, English is rarely spoken in households. Due to lack of access and a growing demand by multinationals to employ English-speaking employees, the majority has come to believe that our national and personal prosperity is highly dependent on learning English as the first language causing a major class divide. For instance, private schools impart education in English giving major access to upper and middle-class children while the lower class studies in a government school with Hindi as their medium of instruction. Education stems from language and hence is key at a foundational level since it influences the ideas one is exposed to, the books one reads, their movie preferences, career, and their overall identities.
Another part of the problem is a sub-cast within the English-speaking community also known as the ‘accented community’. As a class-conscious community, people would make assumptions about one if they speak in an accented English, which is apparently indicative of their refined and polished self. Do you have a friend who seemingly swears by Hollywood cinema, avidly watches English series, scowls at the sound of Hindi music, ardently follows FIFA because cricket is passé and categorises Bollywood as some tawdry representation of cinema on celluloid? Yes, we are talking about that one.
The politics of language and accents sometimes goes on to build perceptions, credibility, mockery, or biased attitude. Amidst the linguistic variation, I wonder how Latin, Mexican, Italian, Canadian, British, or French accents are cool while Desi remains uncool. Has it got anything to do with the portrayal of the Desi Appu accent in the western cinema? Maybe.
There are myriad advantages of being fluent in English. Indians have an immaculate edge over the Chinese when it comes to our economies simply because we are competent with the language. We smash it when it comes to IELTS and have it rather easily as immigrants when it comes to settling overseas. But let’s keep a language to its purpose at core, which is communication and not be digressed by social stature. Let’s not create castes and communities of English favouritism and scowl upon the other native speakers.