Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Reign of Error -- or, Rule of Flaw ?

(Published in The Camellia, April-June 2007. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

The number of people who speak bad English with ease never ceases to amaze me. They are often as fluent as their language is flawed; they are confident and completely unselfconscious. Many of them are on television and FM radio, addressing thousands and thousands of listeners, and they are either unaware of the mistakes they're making, or they just don’t care. This is in contrast to the many who still bother to check up with a reliable source every time they're in doubt over the meaning, pronunciation or usage of a word, or have to use some new or unfamiliar word.

And then, there is the amount of badly written English that is all around us. Our newspapers and magazines provide scores of examples every day. Do you grit your teeth or wince every time you read the words ‘Whole Seller' , 'inspite', 'despite of'', 'as because’, ‘ more better' or 'Wel-come'? I even came across ‘the latter of the three'. Sometimes the repeated instances of wrong usage confuse me and make me wonder if I'm the one who's in the wrong. The most recent example of this that I've come across is 'calling it quits' which now seems to be used to mean quitting. Doesn't it mean the same as 'bury the hatchet'? But when errors abound around you, it is easier to assume that you are mistaken and that everyone else is right. And eventually, the mistake which irked us at one time simply passes into daily usage and nitpickers like me carry on collecting new examples to share with fellow sufferers!

Whatever anyone's response to the incorrect use of the language, there is a question which comes up : how important is it to speak and write perfect English ? Secondly, what is perfect English? Is it-- or isn’t it -- enough to make yourself understood, to communicate facts and convey information correctly? Must we condemn Hinglish or Punglish, and then Japlish, Chinglish and Spanglish as well? Purists are a tiny minority and the English language has relaxed its rules so as to become more inclusive. It wouldn’t proliferate or evolve if it didn’t. It is a most democratic language today.

English is everywhere around us, not only in recorded forms of speech and in print, but on shop and road signs and packets of products of soap, salt and biscuits. So even people who have never been taught to read English identify these products with ease and learn to read these names, at least. It is quite a remarkable thing when you think of it. Suppose one of the by products of the Freedom movement had been an eradication of all the signs written in the coloniser's language?

There was a time when English was only for the privileged classes. Members of the privileged set received a good education and a good deal of exposure to the culture of England. They developed to some extent an English outlook arising from their familiarity with English books and ideas. So there was this Indian self, and an English sensibility that many people developed. In British India, and for some decades after, there was much confusion in the minds of educated, thinking, individuals. V.S.Naipaul has made this conflict of dual identities one of the key issues in his wonderful novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, which I read again and again in my youth. I would have died before I read a Tamil magazine, however. An entire world is now shut out for me because of this refusal to learn to read my mother tongue. As youngsters we were dedicated enthusiasts of Western Music as well. (And that is where America displaced England in our hearts.) It shocked me when I realised some years ago that this post colonial conflict of identities is a complete non issue in today's world. By the time my children grew to the age when I wanted them to read A House for Mr. Biswas, I realised there was nothing there that they could relate to or find relevant.

Besides, it is America, and not England, the country of our former rulers, that has become the centre of the English speaking world.

The use of English, correct or incorrect, doesn’t interfere with anyone's sense of ethnic or national identity any longer anywhere in the world.

We Indians have a very deep love for this language. There's a sense of national pride in the numbers of English speaking people in the country, as opposed to countries where the majority of people speak only their own language. People who speak in English in our country are still a privileged lot, in a way. They are trusted and respected. They command instant attention when they speak. They’re considered 'smart'. Knowledge of English is seen as the gateway to a better life, generally.
That is why there are generations of children of uneducated parents who attend English medium schools. They receive instruction in English not only as a subject of study, but as the sole medium for learning about and understanding the mysteries of the universe. I have taught children like these and they often submit essays where every sentence is a set of correct words strung together incorrectly. At every step, the child thinks in the language which is spoken at home, and then translates. It is a laborious process and it makes for laborious reading. It is foolish to try and teach them the Queen's English. We must hope for simpler and more functional versions of the language for the sake of children like these.

I wish I could forget my days of English Language teaching and completely ignore all the mistakes that just leap out and scream for my attention every day.

P.S.
16th March, 2007
I was happy to read the piece below in today's 'TheStatesman'. It makes an appeal for an easy to learn brand of the English language based on the needs of the students. Here it is :

‘Teach Hinglish & Chinglish’
Press Trust of India LONDON, March 15: Newcomers to Britain should not be taught English but cultural mixes such as Hinglish, Chinglish and Spanlish which should be part of the curriculum, a think tank suggested today. The Demos think-tank considered “Imperial” English out-dated and believed it should adapt to the global reach of the language. It said the English taught in schools should have a much more global flavour. It said the government’s call for newcomers to learn standard English are misplaced. “Instead, they should be encouraged to learn blends such as Hinglish (Hindi/Punjabi/ Urdu-English), Chinglish (Chinese-English) and Spanglish (Spanish-English) which is widespread in America, where it is also called Tex-Mex.” Earlier this week, Commons leader Mr Jack Straw said Asian women should learn English before being allowed to settle in the UK. Without it, he said, they would find it impossible to integrate or work. But the Demos report said the language is no longer the preserve of the English, who are “just one of many share-holders in a global asset”.