What If I Didn’t Speak English?

Your language is a key to your fate. And your native language is determined purely by chance

Your language is a key to your fate. And your native language is determined purely by chance.
Creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by TobiasMik · WhatWeDo: http://flickr.com/photos/tobiasmik/3809460658

I’ve taken up French classes 5 days a week for 2 hrs a day. It’s great fun and an excellent hobby into which I can pour my copious amounts of free time. Learning a new language inevitably brings up comparisons to my native tongue – English. While French isn’t easy, I’m struck by the complexities of English as I navigate my way through subjunctives, relative pronouns, prepositions, conjugations, and tenses. I wonder if I will ever speak French like a native – who knows?

But what about the millions of people who have to learn English the same way? I have a new appreciation for those who struggle to master the nuances of a language that I take for granted. I’m never confused about whether to use “a” or “the” or “from” or “for”. It all comes naturally. And what a coincidence that my native tongue is also the lingua franca of the world!

It sure makes things easy for me. When Anupa and I were in Greece, we met a girl who said she was from Georgia. Naturally we assumed she was talking about the state in the US, but it didn’t compute since she didn’t have an American accent. Only later did we find out that it wasn’t the State of Georgia, but the country of Georgia in Eastern Europe. It has it’s own language – Georgian, which I presume she speaks fluently. I’m certain that mastering Georgian is every bit as difficult as mastering English or French. It can take you a lifetime to learn all the nuances of Georgian. And yet…how unfortunate that no one speaks it outside her country!

With English being the common tongue of the world, I was born with a bit fat platinum ingot in my mouth. English enables me to earn my living in relative comfort and opens doors for me that would otherwise have been slammed in my face. I have done nothing to earn this privilege. It simply exists. Neither can it be taken away by the government. In every sense, it’s as close to “fate” as one can get.

It almost makes me sympathize with the protests across India demanding that regional languages be given priority over English. Almost. I mean, there’s nothing that can be done about the situation. Learning English is simply the smart thing to do. It’s sad that network effects determine the value of a language, but that’s the way it is. The purpose of a language is to communicate and the more people who speak it, the more people you can communicate with. Therefore English has a better utility than just about every other language in the world right now.

But I admit that it sucks donkey balls. As far as innate value goes, English, Hindi, Tamil, Swahili, and all other languages out there are on an equal footing. It doesn’t matter. English outstrips them all as far as demand and utility goes. And there’s no solution to this. Not unless other languages die out and just one prevails, which isn’t going to happen. Those fluent in a tongue will pass it on to their children regardless of greater or lesser utility. It’s kind of a depressing thought really.

Without language equality, there can be no real equality in a globalized world. If businesses were all local, then it probably wouldn’t matter. If the people of India spoke just Hindi, it wouldn’t matter. But we speak so many languages that English is the default used to communicate between people from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, MP, or the North East. And the more people who mingle across the world and cross state and country borders, the greater the influence of English.

I benefit from it. I’m grateful. But I also wish the fruits of speaking the “right” language were available to all.

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  1. Sraboney says:

    “…sucks like donkey balls” Ha! Ha! Ha!

    I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have studied in English medium schools/colleges till a few years…Growing up, I thought everybody went to English medium schools because everybody in my minuscule universe did…

    I tried learning French in Gr. 7 – it was a horrible! Just didn’t get it…Always wondered why it wasn’t as easy as English…My French friend (who learnt the Queen’s language as an adult) insists French is easier because the rules hold true all the time – not like English…


    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Sraboney

      Wow – from what I can see, French breaks the rules quite often. Because it has syntax similarities to English, it keeps tripping you up when the differences show themselves. And that happens all the time.


      • Sraboney says:

        In reply to bhagwad

        Probably true…I guess everybody is a bit chauvinistic…Also, people don’t realize the complexities of a language when they’ve spoken it since birth…


  2. RenKiss says:

    I never looked at being able to speak English in terms of it being a privilege, now that you wrote this post it makes sense. If you were to dig deeper in this regard, I wonder would you have to look at which groups are more likely to have that privilege (upper castes people, upper income, etc.) Especially when you come from a background you have access to it, when you come from a background where it was “forced” upon, not so much. Even if English were to become the dominant language, what will happen is there’s going to be even more variations of English. :)


    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to RenKiss

      I think in the US, just about everyone has enough of a command of English for small variations to make no difference. The purpose is to be understood clearly and speak and write without grammatical errors. Ditto for the UK.

      But being born elsewhere in the world usually means you have to work for it.


  3. Abhishek Oza says:

    Just adding my two cents.

    Once^ Vishwanath Sachdev* gave an interview to Sabrang**, and he said something very important. He was talking to a native of Tamil Nadu, both sitting in a London underground train, and both were speaking in English. A British woman sitting on the opposite seat smiled and said: “Had British never arrived India, in which language would you be talking to him?”

    A.R.Kanangi, ex-editor of ADH^^ wrote once: “Stop demanding to make Hindi the national language. It is an unofficial national language already. As, a Hindi film has a chance in West Bengal, a Telugu film doesn’t.”
    Well, I don’t think I can buy that stupid argument, because I don’t think that makes Hindi an unofficial national language. Also, with increasing educated mass, within a few years more people will know English than the number of people who know Hindi. And with Kanangi’s logic, we must see English become unofficial national language soon.

    When China’s prime minster meets the prime minister of Ethiopia, or Mongolian prime minister meets the president of Russia; they issue joint-statements in English!

    -Abhishek Oza

    ^If I remember correctly, I think the interview was sometime during October 1994.
    *Vishwanath Sachdev, for a very long time was editor of Navbharat Times, a Hindi newspaper.
    **Sabrang was a Sunday-to-Sunday supplementary magazine with Janasatta, a Hindi newspaper.
    ^^ADH: Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, an English tabloid in Mumbai.


    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Abhishek Oza

      It’s odd to think of the British as providing us with the binding glue to make our country stick together!


    • Abhishek says:

      In reply to Abhishek Oza

      The answer : Had the British never arrived in India, the Navbharat Times Editor, the TamilNad guy and the British woman would have been speaking to each other in German. Without the Indian Empire, Britain would have lost WW-1.


  4. Abhishek says:

    First of all, are you taking the French classes in Bangalore? If so, we are probably running into each other in the corridors of the Alliance Francaise.

    The problem isn’t English as a language, but English as a caste in India. The English speaking caste treats the others as human beings of lesser worth. I am sure the Japanese are learning a lot of English for business purposes, but English speaking Japanese wouldn’t treat someone as inferior for speaking only Japanese. Similarly, many Israelis and Germans and nowadays many French speak English. But an Israeli wouldn’t denigrate another for speaking just Hebrew. And Japan, Israel, Germany and France are global hubs of business, innovation and cutting edge technology.

    If you really want an eye opener about what ails India, travel to Morocco (Maroc) or any other country in “Francafrique” (i.e., the former French colonies in North Africa, for example, Algerie, Tunisie, etc.). Morocco has no sense of self worth, only things that are French are prized: if you want to be considered educated, you show off your polished French. If you want to show off your status, you serve typical French desserts to your guests. Getting a French visa is the dream of a lifetime. Sound familiar? This is what happens when you let a foreign language become a caste.

    Here is where the problem is: on my first day in French classes, the instructor asked all of us by turn why we were interested in French. Here is one interaction with a certain Macaulayputri in the class:

    Teacher: Why are you learning French?

    Macaulayputri: Because English is my only language, I wanted to acquire another…

    T: Oh, so you don’t speak another? Not Kannada?

    MP: No.

    T: Oh, so you are not from Bangalore.

    MP: No, no…I am from Bangalore. Just that English is the only language I know.

    T: Ok, I thought everyone from Bangalore knew Kannada.

    MP: I can speak little Kannada, but for auto drivers, you know.

    See the attitude problem? In our land of a zillion languages, this Macaulayputri felt that her world was too constricted because of knowing only one language: English. So she felt the need to acquire another. And she picked: French!!!


  5. tp says:

    What a coincidence ! i read your post and happened to watch ” English Vinglish ” that night on TV….this movie says it all….i do hope that you watch it if you havent already…


  6. Nice post! Although not my mother tongue, English is the language closest to my heart due to my love of reading and writing in it. I too, have taken it for granted since I started learning it at age three or four and had not given much thought to the struggles that must go into learning it. On a somewhat related note, I had written this blog post in the past about the hilarity that sometimes ensues when certain words mean something else in different languages: http://dfsk.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/mind-your-language/


  7. rana says:

    ” tanSEN was bengali my dear friend, so were a lot of other people! want to see the entire list as it stands today? so was subash chandra bose and sri aurobindo :)

    and i can name a million others and i am proud to say our greateness can be exerted beyond our national borders.
we are the fifth largest speakers!

    we bengalis have won pretty much every award in the world stage
you name it we have it and we are damn proud of what we have :)
its the only country in the world which took rebellion because it couldn’t speak its mother tongue and it won! and won so hard that the UN had to adopt that day as the international language day, which celebrates languages from all over the world. ”

    MBA (2013), IMT Bhaziabad
    Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
    hometown: Kolkata


  8. Priya says:

    I think to the non-English or learning English person, the language must seem so frustrating. The exceptions to every grammatical rule, the non-phonetic spellings, different words from different roots for the same thing.
    I love English because it has absorbed so many other-language words and so it is constantly evolving and growing. I also love how we have so many synonyms for every word – so helpful to convey nuances. I also feel more on an equal footing when talking to someone in English (partly because of the universal ‘you’ rather than the many forms of ‘you’ but also for other reasons). My native language Telugu feels more hierarchical. Also when I argue in Telugu, I come off sounding more confrontational. English allows me to sound and feel more objective. I think another problem with some Indian languages (going based on my own here – not trying to offend other Indian languages) is – they borrow heavily from Sanskrit when you have to express deep thoughts. If you are NOT well-versed in Sanskrit, you may find yourself unable to express more subtle thoughts. It’s as if you have to choose between 2 extremes – speak a highly Sanskritized version of your language (not within reach of many) or speak a much more basic, limited, functional version. Again, English comes to the rescue – all forms of English, from the most sophisticated to the most street-like version are easily accessible to all because of it’s wide use of many forms.
    – Priya at wordssetmefreee.wordpress.com


    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Priya

      I personally don’t think English is inherently more capable than any other language – except perhaps in the field of science and technology where its lead is immense. So many inventions and new nouns are created first in English, that other languages tend to borrow heavily from it.


  9. Roshni says:

    I have so many people wondering how I speak English so well, so of course, I am grateful at least now to my overpriced private school back in Calcutta! I think there is more value in learning Mandarin and Spanish now than any of the Indian regional languages!


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