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State of the Nation: English, a way of life for Indians

Aug 12, 2009 08:12 AM IST India India
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At the end of this week, India will celebrate Independence Day. All through this Independence Day week, CNN-IBN and Hindustan Times present a survey on how Indian society has changed since Independence. On Tuesday, the topic of discussion was what Indians feel about the English language.

The Supreme Court recently expressed annoynace at how states are insisting on teaching children their mother tongue. In a world where English is dominant, these students are unable to get even clerical posts, and cannot survive in the world. The Karnataka government had tried to make all primary schools in Karnataka Kannada medium, in Maharashtra and Karnataka there are also demands for job reservations for local language speakers.

On the panel of experts to debate the issue were Samajwadi Party MP, Virendra Bhatia; Historian, Ramachandra Guha; and Dalit rights activist, scholar and author, Kancha Ilaiah.

METHODOLOGY OF THE SURVEY

The CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times poll was conducted by GfK Mode in street corners and homes in 16 cities (metros, large towns and small towns) spread across the four zones of the country. 3,506 people were interviewed between July 19 and 23 for the survey.

SURVEY REACTIONS

Is speaking English important for succeeding in life?

87% or nearly 9 out of 10 feel that knowledge of English is important to succeed in life

13% feel that speaking English is not a passport to success

Are those who can speak fluent English superior than you?

54% feel those who can speak fluent English are superior

46% don't feel inferior to those who can speak better English

Is the English speaking community concerned about themselves only?

38% feel the English speaking community is only concerned about themselves

62% feel the English speaking community is not concerned only about themselves

Is the influence of the English language making us forget our mother-tongue?

57% or nearly 6 out of 10 feel that English is making us forget our mother tongue

43% feel that English is not threatening our mother tongue

How important is it for you to know the language of the state you live in?

82% feel that knowing the state language is very important

17% say knowing the state language is somewhat important

1% say it is not important at all

Should jobs be reserved for people who speak the state language?

63% feel jobs should be reserved for those who speak the state language

37% don't feel the need to reserve jobs for those who speak the state language

1% say it is not important at all

STATE-WISE BREAK UP

  • 55 per cent in the North want jobs reserved for those who speak the state language
  • 73 per cent in the East want jobs reserved for those who speak the state language
  • 77 per cent in the West want jobs reserved for those who speak the state language
  • 55 per cent in the South want jobs reserved for those who speak the state language

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THE IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING ENGLISH

Ram Manohar Lohia had once said: 'The use of English is a hindrance to original thinking, it's a progenitor of inferiority feeling and it creates a gap between the educated and the uneducated public. Come let us restore Hindi to its original glory.'

The CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times survey shows that a majority of Indians want to learn English language so it seems as if Lohia and his angrezi hatao (remove English from India) are irrelevant in this day and age.

To this Ramachandra Guha said, "The survey actually shows an overwhelming preference for bilingualism. People want to learn English because it means opportunity, access to more jobs in the organised sector, but people also want to learn their mother tongue and I think that is what we as Indians should aim for - not a worship of English or a demonisation of English but an ability to learn it along with other languages. I think schools should be bilingual from the beginning. I think the Karnataka government's efforts to ban English as early as at the primary level is misguided as are the efforts of other groups to do away with the language. At the same time in many of our elite schools, there is a contempt for Indian languages, which is equally mistaken," he added.

Virendra Bhatia of the Samajwadi Party - a party which has taken a stand to drive English out of the country - responded to this saying, "As a party we have been misunderstood. We are never against the learning of anything. We don't want to drive English out of the country but we feel that Hindi and other national and regional languages should be given their due weightage."

He said that the SP had never opposed the learning of English, but instead wanted that it should be optional, not imposed.

"Take for example Tamil Nadu. Tamil is a very rich language and children in the state should learn it, so schools should use the language. We are only opposed to the imposition of English language on students," he stated.

The problem with the English language, many of the same mind as Virendra Bhatia felt, was that that the class which spoke it considered themselves superior, that speaking English implied a superiority of class, a class which was snobbish about other classes and which is a class which lives in its own world. People felt that English was continuing to perpetuate a class divide.

Kancha Ilaiah, agreeing with what Guha had earlier stated, said, "What we need to evolve is an even medium both for private as well as government-run education institutions. I feel 50 per cent of the syllabus should be taught in English in all schools across the country and 50 per cent in the regional language. Then the problem of the Samajwadi party and other parties and state governments will be solved. Also, the private and public educational institution conflict can also be resolved through this means."
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ENGLISH VS MOTHER TONGUE

What Ilaiah said sounded like a Utopian idea simply because the trend noticed in the country was that children usually slipped out of their mother tongue mode and had better command over English even at a very primary level.

However, Guha said that it was important to follow what Ilaiah had stated because India was a country where many languages were spoken and articulated. "This will help strengthen English language teaching in government-run schools. Take for example Gujarat and West Bengal. Both the Narendra Modi government as well as the Left front made the misguided decision of abolishing English from government-run schools, thus creating a wider gap between the English-speaking and the non English-speaking class."

He added that at the same time, Ilaiah's idea would help strengthen people's the command over regional languages and temper down the arrogance which is associated with the English-speaking class.

"Over the last 30-40 years, a bilingual society has sadly become monolingual. There are some people who are only comfortable in English and there are others who are only comfortable in their regional languages. I think it's possible to correct this," he stated.

He said that English should not be seen as a vehicle for colonialism but a tool which would make it easier to get better jobs, which would help people acquire better skills and enhance people's ability to compete in the job market place.

"Mulayam Singh's own son studied in an English-medium school and then went to Australia to study further, so why should Mulayam Singh's party deny English to other people?" Guha wanted to know.

Outside observers were of the view that parties like Samajwadi Party were actually compounding the problem by not admitting to the fact that English was not being taught well in government run institutions and that was the reason for the huge dichotomy between students from private schools who spoke good English and those from government-run schools who did not.

HINDI IMPERIALISM?

Observers also say that there is a snobbery also in the Hindi position. Those who speak Hindi very well feel that those who do not have a good command over the language are not patriotic and can't feel the pulse of the nation, which seems xenophobic and backward-looking.
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However, there have been examples of people demanding that Hindi be spoken. Mulayam Singh Yadav in Parliament had asked Union Minister of Forest and Environment, Jairam Ramesh, to speak in Hindi not English.

Bhatia defended Mulayam Singh saying that the common man should understand what was happening in Parliament and in India, where there are scores who are uneducated, English was incomprehensible.

However, the point was that there were again scores of people who would not understand Hindi as well. To this Virendra Bhatia said that half of the country understood Hindi. He also narrated the incident of a Rajya Sabha MP speaking in Tamil and the House applauding her, because she spoke in her mother tongue.

"A person can best express oneself in their mother tongue. Take for example courts where judgements are being delivered in English. How many of the litigants can understand the judgement?" he wanted to know.

Ilaiah interrupted Bhatia saying that if Samajwadi Party advanced this kind of an argument, it simply chose not to elevate its own state and its own people.

"I have a lot of respect for Mulayam Singh Yadav and for his party, but this is a very bad policy of the party. There is at least 7-8 per cent of the country which can understand English, English newspapers have become national newspapers and a survey in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka shows that every illiterate person in these states have a vocabulary of 250 English words. Words such as glass, bus, ticket are commonplace," Ilaiah said.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND WESTERNISATION

Are western values increasingly replacing Indian values?

84% feel western values are replacing Indian values

16% feel Indian values are not being replaced by western values

Is the young generation of today blindly following western style and culture?

62% agree that the young generation is blindly aping the west

35% agree that the young generation is somewhat blindly aping the west

3% don't feel that the young generation is blindly following the west

Guha said that Indian culture was not rigid, not frozen or xenophobic and that if we could accept foods like chilli, coconut and banana which did not originate in India, then we could certainly accept English.

Ilaiah added that there were other things associated with westernisation like trousers and jeans. "If being Indian means not being westernised at all, then we should shift to clothes that Mahatma Gandhi wore, we should start wearing dhotis all the time. More than 90 per cent of Indians - literate, semi-literate and illiterate - where pants and shirts today. The point is, west or east, whatever is convinient, communicable, good for acquiring knowlege is important. We need not be afraid of whatever comes from west to east and we must remember that a lot of things go from east to west as well. Whatever we learn, we learn for being more productive," he stated.

The point he was making was the westernisation has lived with us for centuries and that we should not fear it.

Guha said that it was less westernisation and more a process of cultural accommodation.

"We have taken things from the English, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Sikhs. Things like pants and shirts are worn because they are comfortable. There are girls who have shifted to wearing salwar kameez - which originates from Pakistan - so that they can go to school, instead of the nine-yard sari. This kind of paranoia, xenophobia and insecurity has been rejected by the majority of people in the country. Similarly, they are taking to English because it helps them in their daily life," he concluded the debate by saying.

Watch this space for Wednesday's State of the Nation: What urban Indians think about bold women? What are their attitudes towards aggressive women?