An apologia for English

I think I am well placed to write an apologia in defence of the English language which has come under fire in recent days. Courtesy my sometimes quirky parents I barely spoke English as a child as Kamala, my unique mom, wanted her child to speak Hindi which thus became my mother tongue in the true sense of the term, and Papa's love for the French language and culture made French the language I would be educated in. On the other hand I spoke Hindi like a native and French to perfection, and as a toddler perfect Mandarin as being posted in Beijing I had a Nanny who only spoke Chinese. Sadly I lost my Chinese as there was no one to speak it with.

English did enter my life as not only was it spoken at home but was the second language I took in school and the brand of English I did speak was the kind spoken by any school kid going to a French school and having taken English as a second language. We were often taught by non native speakers and the abundance of the sound zeee was proof of that: Ze book iz on ze table! . I guess the fact that English was sort of spoken in my entourage made me a tad better than my school friends but just about. My parents thumb rule was that I would learn English somewhere along the way and I guess I did as is proof of the fact of me banging these words in English and having been a bilingual booth interpreter in more conferences that I can remember. However were you to ask me whether I have learnt English in a structured manner, the answer is NO!

After school I was hoping to be sent to the Sorbonne but again my unconventional parents decided to send me to a all  girl college in Delhi where speaking Hindi was infra-dig, and a strange social stratification based on which 'school' you came from conferred gave your status. Strangely it all boiled down to how well you spoke the colonial language. My friend corrected my atrocious pronunciation and an old friend of my father's told me that the only way to improve your language was to read as much as you could. I did. Books were my saviour. You would be amused to know that a few years later I realised my French had become wanting and remembering the old man's advice I embarked upon reading the complete works of Balzac. Now I make sure to read both languages regularly.

My grandson who barely writes though he is 5+, speaks 4 languages: English, French, Hindi and Italian and navigates from one to the other with utmost ease depending who he is talking to. We Hindi speakers have an extraordinary talent to master languages and can speak them as natives. This is not the case with many other populations who can never lose the accent and lilt of their mother tongue. We have one such example in our political firmament.

Today I feel saddened when misguided youngsters are bent upon removing basic English comprehension questions in a examination that will make them senior administrators and decision makers should they succeed. I feel outraged at our politicians who are supporting them to pursue their own agendas where the success of these kids is not even a minuscule footnote. I wish someone realised that in our quest of becoming a super power one of the big advantage we have is English. Today English is being taught in China in a frenzied manner and we are busy undoing our asset with impunity.

When I sat for the IAS in the seventies there were no preliminaries and we had a compulsory English paper where the most difficult question was the (in)famous précis. You had to condense a passage to a third of its size using your won words and not repeating any idea. That was definitely something that made the grey cells work overtime. The aspirants who will succeed in their examination will need English if not to write reports but certainly to access information and interact with the world. English should be taught properly in every single school, more so in State run ones. And to amuse you a little and end my tryst with the IAS, I must share what happened in my viva. I sat for the IAS with a 2 year old baby and had little time to mug statistics that anyway would change by the time I would need them. I also found the idea of mugging statistics of coal production, and so on totally futile. So unlike others who were waiting for their turn with yearbooks and last minute revision and went in without a stat in my head. The interview began with the eminent Chairman asking me a slew of statistics and hearing a slew of ' I do not know Sir'! He finally looked up and asked me what I knew. I told him that by the time I would finish my training and get a posting all the figures would have changed but I knew where to get the information and would make sure to have all the yearbooks etc on my office shelf. Everyone burst laughing and that was the end of my interview for which I got the highest mark of my batch.

But let us some back to this English comprehension question that is dividing India. If you can read the passage in the picture you will see that it is so simple that a class 6 kid can do it. Does it mean that we will have officers that will be unable to answer such a simple question.

The first thing I was asked by both parents and kids of the first slum I began work in was: teach our kid/us English. Even the most illiterate parent knows how important it is for his child to speak English. No one looks at it as a colonial legacy or a diminishing of ones Indianness. It is again politicians who want to nurture vote banks and do not care about anything else.

A language is not limiting in anyway. On the contrary it opens endless doors and avenues and when we have been blessed with a palate that catches unknown sounds without problems then we should make the most of it.