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Mind Your English

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Last year, when Bollywood’s biggest export to Hollywood thus far, actor Priyanka Chopra, was asked on the Chelsea Handler show if she knew English when she came to the United States as a 12-year-old, Chopra responded that 10 percent of Indians, nearly 1.3 million people, spoke English, which was greater than the population of many nations.

While Chopra may have got her statistics mixed up — 10 percent of the Indian population constitutes nearly 130 million people — her response, nonetheless, captured the scale of the popularity of the language in the country, and the widespread misconception that persists about the English language skills of Indians. For a growing population of high-heeled, well-educated Indians, living in metros, attending elite schools and colleges, English has de-facto become a language of choice, not just for work and study, but also for most social interactions.


Priyanka Chopra

Indeed, as English becomes increasingly pervasive in cosmopolitan circles, regional languages and Hindi are taking a beating.

India is the second largest English-speaking country after the United States with nearly 125 million English speakers. This is particularly astonishing considering that the country has 22 official languages. Hindi is the country’s principal language, but English is recognized as the language for official communications.

Globalization and a colonial hangover have contributed to the growing importance of the language. English language skills are prized in white-collar jobs and are de-riguer to establish one’s place in the nuanced social circle of educated Indians.

Middle and upper class Indians consider it essential to send their kids to English medium schools. Even politicians who rail against the colonial influence of English, often pack their children to elite English boarding schools in Dehradun and Darjeeling. In the crème circles of society, kids are growing up largely monolingual. In urban cities, it’s not uncommon in affluent and educated households for parents to speak to their kids only in English. The elitist school protocol considers it no less than sacrilege to converse with students in any language other than English and increasingly because of peer pressure, kids interact amongst each other only in English. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that children are losing touch with their native language or mother tongue.

Indian Hindi news channels often throw English words in between, many Bollywood songs have a few English lines and colloquial language in big to small cities is often interspersed with a generous sprinkling of English.

Avantika Kukreti, content head at theindusparent.com, a popular parenting website in India, says: “Amongst the recurring queries we get from parents in India remains that how do they ensure their children are fluent in English from a young age. We always advise them to take the process organically, not aggressively. While it is important for kids to know and speak English, what is also equally important is that they do not let go of inherent strengths they are born with — that of growing up in multilingual households.”

While Kukreti takes pride in encouraging native languages in the younger generation, she runs into practical challenges. The expectation to be adept in English comes early. Most private schools in Delhi admitting three to four years old in elementary classes pay special emphasis on their understanding and ability to speak in English. Also, in reputed private schools in India it’s not uncommon for parents to be advised to converse with kids only in English at home.

Prerna Pandey, a Mumbai based science researcher, who has two daughters aged 14 and 4, says: “While I did not consciously send my kids to elite schools as I wanted to give them a more grounded upbringing, but there have been times that I have been advised by my 4-year-old’s teachers to speak with her in English at home.”

She adds: “In our family we give equal emphasis to all the languages and my father-in-law, a Hindi scholar, makes it a point to talk to my daughters in real Hindi,but I do not pressure my kids to pick up anything. They are free to make their choices.” Native languages are increasingly taking a back seat. Pandey says: “My brother-in-law, a Bengali, speaks to his kids in Bengali and we all encourage it, but while kids knowing how to read or write the language will be a topping on the cake, in reality it gets difficult given their already packed school schedules.”

The absence of practical usage of a language also works as a deterrent. Kukrety, who lives in the state of Maharasthra, says: “While Marathi is added as an essential subject in many schools, often students just treat it as a subject to secure passing marks only. The need is to develop that passion.”

A 2013, survey by the Bhasha Research and Publication Center in India revealed that 220 Indian languages disappeared during the past 50 years and another 150 are in danger of fading as their speakers dwindle.

In elite neighborhoods of big Indian cities, children are often left to pick up Hindi through conversations with the household help. Parents often scramble to develop native language skills in their children. Kukrety, who has a five-year-old daughter, says: “We have a rule in the house that one of the parent talks to our daughter in Hindi only. But it’s not about the language alone, I also read her Amar Chitra Katha, the Indian mythologies, and point out the Indian leaders on the chart. It’s about learning the world order while not letting go of what we already have.”

Outside elitist circles in India though, Hindi and regional languages continue to dominate. Bollywood and South India film industry are breaking new box office records. Hindi newspaper subscriptions continue to trump English ones. The top three Indian publications in the 2013 Indian Readership Survey are published in Hindi. Only one English publication made the top 10 list.

Nevertheless, parents recognize that English is the language of commerce and professional success. Academic instructor Shalini Singh says:

“Most of our official documentation and practices are in English, so it is only obvious that the younger lot will get more inclined towards languages more avidly used.”

Pandey concurs: “My 14-year-old finds Sanskrit fascinating and much as I am overwhelmed by her interest, but I know it’s not a language used widely, nonetheless we are doing everything to encourage her interest.”

Correction: The spelling of Avantika Kukreti has been corrected.

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Life | Books | February 2017

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