In its July 2008 issue, Reader’s Digest published an article which concerns an issue very close to my heart, and invited readers to write in their comments. I have just emailed a long comment to them. They might publish it in full (they sometimes do), or they might not, or they might cut it short to the bare essentials (in their opinion, not necessarily mine!) I thought I should post the whole thing I wrote here, for the benefit of the blog readers. I shall be glad for all the sensible comments that I get. Here goes…
I am writing this in response to your invitation to comment on the article titled 'The Americanization of Indish' written by Mohan Sivanand in your July 2008 issue. As someone who adores the English language, and has been making a living teaching it not only to high-school children but also those appearing for tests like the CAT, the UPSC, the GRE and TOEFL for more than 25 years, I thought this was a chance I should not miss.
I have no problems with Indians adapting from both British and American English, nor with Indians, including Indian writers, who boldly experiment with Indian images, metaphors, allusions, special/untranslateable local expressions, and peculiarly Indian themes/concerns as they work with English: in that sense I am no rigid purist; I know that any rich and vigorous language does and must keep evolving, for the benefit of all concerned. I am proud of the works of the whole long tradition of Indian writers in English from the time of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Toru Dutt to Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu to Kamala Das, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai right down to the contemporary tribe of writers for what they have done and are doing with English literature. No one will be happier if because of their efforts, along with the contributions of millions of ordinary Indian users of English, a genuine 'Indian English' evolves and is recognised as such by the whole world someday.
What I object to, and cannot help lamenting over, is the fact that vast numbers of today's nominally educated adult Indians - and that includes millions of successful professionals (alas, even teachers!) - think nothing of mutilating the language for no rhyme or reason, or rather because they have simply never bothered to learn the language well, and are quite blase about passing off whole pages and speeches of bad, clumsy, unidiomatic, misspelt, mispronounced and just plain wrong English as 'our kind' of English, or simply shrugging it off as a matter of no consequence. Semi-literate poster writers (the kind who have been mocked at in the caption accompanying the photograph at the end of your article) can be easily forgiven for wretched spelling; should you do the same with editors with postgraduate degrees who cannot remove bad spelling from books they supposedly go through with a fine-toothed comb (and probably using the MS-Word spell-check facility, too!), and college graduates who apparently have so pathetic a grasp of the fundamentals of the language that they have to be tested for not just spelling but punctuation, correct syntax, proper use of tenses, gender, number, articles and punctuation, besides vocabulary? - witness the contents of the typical CAT conducted by the IIMs. This is a basic literacy test, albeit conducted at very high speed, and yet these institutes ask such questions of those who are supposed to be the cream of our student population! What does that say about the quality of English education given in even the best schools in our country these days?
I am compelled to deal, day in and day out, with 'highly educated' adults who can neither read and speak their native tongues without continuously (unconsciously and unashamedly) interspersing them with English words and phrases, nor can speak or write English for any length of time without lapsing into gross errors of the sorts mentioned above, besides caricaturing the language with silly and ugly Indianisms, most of which are too familiar to mention ('We are like that only'/'Please pull my photo'/'He won't leave me unless I say sorry'/ What is your good name please?'/ 'Open your shoes here'/ 'We charge Rs 500 a day for fooding and lodging'/'My cousin brother is coming'...!) What does it say about our national psyche? Do the Chinese or the Russians or the Japanese or the French habitually do the same, or indeed the British and the Americans?
And have you surveyed the kind of rude, crude sms text they write instead of English on forums such as are provided by social-networking sites like orkut on the Net? Given that the average orkuter is in his or her early 20s, what does that augur for the standards of English that are going to prevail over the coming decades? I heard once that a New York politician who could spell 'cat' was called talented. Is that what the new generation of adult Indian users of English is going to be like?
I believe that this is not a facile question lightly to be ignored. Language is not merely the vehicle of communication and the bedrock of culture; it is the very framework of thought. A whole nation which has become so frivolous, so disrespectful of standards, so callous with language, whose citizens have nearly forgotten their native tongues and made a hash of English at the same time, is not likely to prosper rapidly and robustly in any other walk of life. I can vouch from personal experience that someone who matriculated from a Bangla-medium school 75 years ago (my own grandfather) could write at least more grammatically and idiomatically-correct English than 95% of postgraduates I meet today, though he could not have spoken with a pseudo-American twang, and flavoured his speech with so much currently-'in' slang as the young do these days. This development is certainly something to ponder about!
July 21, 2008