Bringing English Language to the Margins: the Case of Inclusive English Education in India

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When Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit writer, hosted birthday celebrations for Thomas Macaulay on Oct 2006, it was perhaps at one level a rather ironic attentiongetting gimmick, but it also opened up certain important issues.

“English, the Dalit goddess, is a world power today”, claims Prasad. “For complete emancipation Dalit/ Adivasi parents ought to give English education – if necessary, working more hours, borrowing money, selling off jewellery, even mortgaging properties”, he emphasizes, and it is becoming a widely shared sentiment. Over a century ago, Savitribai Phule, wife of social revolutionary Jotirao Phule, had written the same thing, saying in a poem, “shudras and ati-shudras (Dalits) now have the right to education, and through English casteism can be destroyed and Brahmanical teaching can be hurled away”. Dalits still believe this. (Omvedt, 2006)

Dalits are of course, not the only ones to seek entry to the global world that English provides. Street children, rural India as well as the burgeoning middle classes are enthusiastic about learning English. In the middle spread of The Times of India, December 2000, a major industrialist acknowledged the contribution of, not management or computers, but the English language to the emergence of India as an economic power in the global scenario. In  IGNOU, school dropouts who were participating in a nine-month computer literacy programme demanded that a course in English form part of their curriculum. IGNOU had to accede to their demand. Coming to the aid of lacs of children deprived of studying English in school, the PM-appointed National Knowledge Commission (NKC) has recommended teaching of the language as a compulsory subject along with regional language/ mother-tongue from Class I across the country.

Only a few centuries ago, English language was a collection of dialects spoken within the shores of a small island. Now it includes such typologically distinct varieties as pidgins and creoles, ‘new’ Englishes and a range of differing standard and non-standard varieties that are spoken on a more or less regular basis in more than 70 countries around the world. English is now the main language of communication at the international level.

Implications of the Globalization of English

The global spread of English has had interesting sociolinguistic implications. In countries where it has been transplanted (both native and non-native varieties) it has imbibed many features of the indigenous language(s) and culture(s). English has, in turn, enriched the language it has come into contact with. Mixed codes have developed which bring into question the very concept of “language”.

There have also been very serious negative consequences of the development of English as a world language. English has been associated with death or virtual death, of many indigenous languages in those countries where it has been transplanted. North America, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and parts of Africa are examples of the unprecedented rate at which indigenous languages are getting lost. Some estimates suggest that perhaps 80 per cent of nearly 6,000 language of the world will die out by the end of this century.

One of the obvious effects of the global spread of English is the range of variation that exists within English language today and the diverse social contexts in which it is used. In the last fifty years there has been recognition of the new varieties of English that have emerged in countries where English has the status of a second rather than a foreign language. These local varieties of English are distinct from the native varieties of English.

Implication of English on Indian languages

The important status, role and function of English in India is now unquestioned, but what bothers sociolinguists is whether this role of English is leading to additive rather than subtractive bilingualism. Historically, India has been a multilingual country and has never promoted any language to be the dominant language. Even in the Mogul period, Persian could not achieve this status. Twenty years later, Agnihotri and Khanna (1997) are still agonizing over the question of finding a “space” for the English language in India.

Several linguists have traced the advent of English in India. Kachru (1983) suggests that three distinct groups introduced English bilingualism in the Indian subcontinent. The efforts of these groups began as independent phases, but eventually they joined forces. Agnihotri and Khanna (1997) quote from various documents and are convinced that there is very little doubt that the grand design of the imperial forces to intervene in the educational system was to destroy its traditional institutions and instrumentalize the use of English for their ends. In this process it was inevitable that English became associated with the elite and the language of the underprivileged got stigmatized. In pre-Independence India, the freedom fighters coming from different parts of the country initially used the language of the rulers to subvert their rule. However, Gandhi persuaded the Indian National Congress in 1925 to accept Hindustani as its official language for all its proceedings. Besides, people from non-Hindi speaking areas took to learning Hindi voluntarily. In a sense it became a symbol of our national unity in the anti-imperialistic struggle (Majumdar, 1970).

But after Independence, the scenario changed. The Southern and the Eastern States, who feared that it would lead to the political and economic supremacy of the Hindi region over the others, vociferously opposed the popularization and spread of Hindi. The debates of the Constituent Assembly held in 1949 clearly indicated the significance of English in India. A compromise needed to be evolved to satisfy all groups. English was not listed in the Schedule VIII of the Constitution which included fourteen (now twenty two) Indian languages: Hindi was declared to be the official language of the Union and English was given the status of an associate official language for a period of fifteen years. As the appointed day (26 January 1965) for the abolition of English approached, there were widespread riots in several parts of south India. The protagonists of Hindi had failed to persuade the people of India to adopt Hindi as the only official and/or national language. Nehru was forced to alleviate the fears of those who did not know Hindi. In a speech delivered on August 7, 1959, Nehru assured the people of the non-Hindi-speaking areas that English would continue to be an alternative language as long as they wish it to be so.

English now has become even more deeply entrenched in the Indian society. It is the main language of higher education, administration, judiciary and journalism. A high level of proficiency in English will significantly improve one’s chances for easy entry in the corporate sector and ensure quick professional growth.

As Agnihotri and Khanna (1997) state, the anti-Hindi agitation made it abundantly clear that monistic solutions would not work in a plurilingual society and that policy decisions have to be participatory in nature. The association of English with the colonial rule has been de-emphasized and its importance as a language of wider opportunities and international contact is increasingly recognized. On the other hand, more and more minority and tribal languages were claiming their share in the State’s educational and power structure. It is therefore not surprising that the Government of India proposed a three-language formula in 1961 to resolve the language crisis.

The three-language formula, however, while it privileged the Regional language, did not give any importance to the tribal languages or the dialects spoken by the marginalized sections of society. The Regional languages had a ‘high’ status for the marginalized while their dialects were considered ‘low’ by the elite and the powerful. It is not surprising that sociologists like Kancha Illaiah suggest a relooking at the division of India into linguistic states, emphasizing that the second state reorganization commission (SRC) necessitates a larger debate. Linguistic states deserve a re-look at a time when English is developing as a pan– Indian language. He says the rationale behind establishing a linguistic federation of Indian states is questionable, leading to linguistic nations emerging as in Europe and contradiction sharpening. He says in fact we should opt for the American model, developing one national language across the federation and dividing provinces into viable administrative units.

“Within 200 years of its introduction in India it (English) has become the language of easily about 100 million people. Its expansion in future will be several folds faster than earlier. It has become a language of day-to-day use for several million upper middle classes and rich. The poor and the productive masses have a right to learn the language of administration and global communication” (Illaiah, 2007). Due to the pressure on the governments, 9 of the 28 States and three Union Territories in India have introduced English as a compulsory subject from Class 1. However, the quality of English language teaching is simply not good enough.

So, who are most strident voices opposing English for the masses and the deprived sections using the ‘identity’ argument and painting the bleak picture that the culture of India would be lost if this section is exposed to English at too early a stage. It is the elite intellectuals who send their children to English medium schools. English is their status symbol and if it becomes too widespread and democratic, it would lose its elite status and the power and opportunity that this language provides. Notice that it has been reported that the private schools in Delhi have not admitted the required number of SC/STs as per the government stricture.

What is required is liberation of English from its ‘high’ status, with the confidence that Indian bilingualism is both organic and differentiating (Khubchandani, 1983) instead of homogenizing. Indian multilingualism nurtures and celebrates flexibility and variability. It is within this flexibility that English occupies an important space in India. It is definitely another voice added to the Indian multilingual repertoire. It is a voice, which is being noticed today all over the world through our creative writers. Linguists and scholars may assert that it is not a voice that rose from the grassroots. In fact, it has to reach the grassroots, if we are to honestly give equal opportunity to all.

Anju S Gupta is Professor in Linguistics, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi

* Article first published in FORTELL newsletter, issue no. 15

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