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English language in India

English language in India
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We must understand that as there are many Indians, there are also many varieties of English the world over, including in India. To understand the...

We must understand that as there are many Indians, there are also many varieties of English the world over, including in India. To understand the presence of English in India in the multilingual context, we must turn the pages of history briefly to familiarise ourselves with the current situation

dr csachidanndhaIn my last English Language Note, I had underlined the importance of acquiring English language skills for facing the challenges of life and the increasingly global world. Our understanding of this need has to be grounded in India. For, we must understand that as there are many Indians, there are also many varieties of English the world over, including in India. To understand the presence of English in India in the multilingual context, we must turn the pages of history briefly to familiarize ourselves with the current situation.

When Sir Thomas Roe, the British envoy came to the Court of the Moghal emperor Jehangir, for seeking trade monopolies in the prosperous province of Bengal, little did he realise that he would soon trigger off changes momentous in nature! Among the sweeping changes would be the wholesale recasting of India's past, its institutions, social and economic and political structures, its Religion and Education. The last is perhaps the most significant and the least understood of them all.

The East India Company, or the John Company, as it was popularly known, was registered in London in 1700 in order to carry out trade activities in India and in the Far East. Primarily meant for trade, the company soon acquired a host of auxiliary administrative, political and military powers. However, two areas in which the Company was reticent to get involved were Education and Missionary/evangelical activities.

The reluctance of the Company officials was understandable. For, no business enterprise would like to get embroiled in controversial activities that would affect its commercial interests.Indeded, both Education and Missionary activities were minefields for the Company that were best avoided. Both would generate a fair deal of resistance and disquiet among the natives.

The Woods Despatch and the Minutes of Macaulay would soon change all that. The debates in the British Parliament over the Company's activities in India underscored the need, in the eyes of Company officials, for spearheading quickly a set of reformatory measures in the domain of both Religion and Education.

Beginning with the Baptist Missionary Sir William Carey's coming to the Danish settlement of Serampore, near Calcutta, India under the Company's rule saw a series of activities in the field of Bible translations and educational activities. Missionary colleges took up the education of natives in various branches of learning increasingly secular in character. Further, the debates between the Anglicists (those who advocated the use of English for education and official purposes) and the Orientalists (those who urged the use of the classical Indian languages such as Persian, Sanskrit and Arabic)gathered momentum.

Finally, it was Macaulay's Minutes that paved the way for the adoption of English for education and official purposes. a practice that continues till today despite the many legislative changes in language policies. Macaulay's decisions would change wholesale the linguistic and cultural landscape of India; the subject perhaps for another column. Under the Indian Constitution, all Indian languages have been accorded the national status. While Hindi is the official language, English has an associate status, as the link language.

Notwithstanding the official safeguards for the Indian languages and the use of English, the various Indian states have spoken in different tongues at different times. The problem over Hindi, English or the Indian languages has continued unabated over the years, sadly to the detriment of all. While there has been a growing need for English, there has not been a commensurate effort in that direction. The result is that a kind of step motherly treatment has been meted out officially to English.

However, beginning with the 90's of the last Century, thanks to primarily economic globalisation, various constituencies in India, primarily those in the city and regional centres, have spearheaded efforts for the acquisition of English, a trend that is manifest in other developing countries such as China.

That is where we stand today. Will and must English language learning supplant Indian languages? What about our regional languages, aptly called the Bhasha languages, and our innumerable dialects? I shall address this issue in a separate note. I shall suggest here that it is possible to combine English language learning with the acquisition of the Indian tongues. In other words, we can safeguard the interest of both at the same time.

Next time someone admonishes you that by reading this column, you are harming the interest of your mother tongues; you would know what to say! Purity in life and in languages is a myth! We are as concerned about the mother tongues as we are with the other tongue, at times aptly called the 'auntie's tongue! The founding fathers of our nation did not see this antagonism when they advocated the adoption of both, and we must see none!

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