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The English Speaking Curse

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 7, 2009 2 Comments

Soiled burlap sacks and old, foot worn carpets coat the dark cement floor. Tear-shaped mildew patches stain most of the wallspace, and the paint is peeling, crumbly to the touch. There is a hastily constructed altar housing a few Hindu idols on one end of the room, and a Bisleri mineral water bottle stands oddly next to it. Cheap boys’ briefs and dark green gamchhas hang from nylon clothes lines. The beds look warm, though even at a distance I can tell that the sheets haven’t been washed in a while. Pairs of Keds and Hawaii chappals lie in disarray at the foot of the stairs. The fragrance of sandalwood agarbattis competes with the mildew smell and the stench of something I refrain from identifying. Two tubelights flicker from the ceiling, and are arranged so that less than half the room is illuminated. The “Happy New Year” sign is still up on the wall, as are the festive balloons and multi-colored streamers.

The tutor sits at the grand sunmica desk, and the children sit in rows on the carpet. Every now and then a child will get up and go to the tutor to clarify a concept, or to find out the meaning of a Sanskrit, English, or Hindi word.

Lately, I had begun noticing that the kids sneak in some of their own books during the sessions. One child, a tiny little boy of 7, brought an advanced Hindu astrological text in Sanskrit entitled “Jantri Rashiphal,” and another a short mythological comic on the adventures of Prahlad from the famed Amar Chitra Katha comic series. Another child brought in short stories from the life of Birbal.

What intrigued me most, I must admit, were two books a couple of kids brought, one entitled Easy and Perfect English Speaking Course and another Perfect English Speaking Course, both costing around US 31¢. The former presents two saree-clad Indian women and a “professional” Indian man on the cover, while the latter presents a collage of fair-skinned, “foreign-looking” people on the cover. The Easy and Perfect English Speaking Course claims to teach readers how to speak English in 30 days, and claims to have already helped millions speak better English. I’m a little skeptical of its claims, and you’ll see why. One of the common English expressions listed in the book is: “pack one’s nose into” (to interfere, apparently). Some extracts from conversations: “Any other service?” (almost a literal translation of the Hindi)-for “Can I help you with anything else?”; “These potato are of inferior quality”; and some interesting conversation around the “cualiflower.” The little (and mostly atrocious) English in the book literally drowns in the Hindi it’s immersed in. The Perfect English Speaking Course begins with the critical “Alphabates.” Here’s an extract from the grammar section:“Mother loves mer chilldred, A sentence is the expression of a perfect thought throught a group of words…” Huh?????? And oh, want to learn the English past tense? Here’s an example: “We slepy there.”

As I took pictures of the pages from the books, I kept thinking of the fraud these authors are perpetrating on eager, unsuspecting, and unwitting second/foreign language learners buying their books. There are no accompanying CDs or audiotapes, no mention of how to work on conversational skills at all-just regurgitation of archaic grammar rules, some sample formal and informal letters, and examples of atypical English conversational exchanges. The language errors in the books, I can personally guarantee, will make any reasonably proficient English teacher weep.

The guardians of these children, I kept thinking, are desperate that these kids learn to speak the language of success in India, learn the language that opens the doors to a bigger world…and they buy these books for the kids thinking of the kids’ futures. And what they end up with…is “We slepy there.” The guardians, mostly slum-dwellers in the suburbs of New Delhi, cannot read nor write much in Hindi or English, if at all, and would not know that the books they are buying for these kids are literally linguistic poison. I realize I am being really harsh here, it makes me really angry that the authors and the publishers of these books make fools of unsuspecting people wanting to learn English. What’s heartbreaking is that for the kids, these books are highly prized….they handle them reverently, telling me they love reading them in their spare time. Why? One child offers: “अँग्रेज़ी बोलने से ही सब कुछ हो सकता है!” (Hindi: By speaking in English only can everything happen!”

I stifle a scream.

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2 Responses to “The English Speaking Curse”

  1. paul on: 8 January 2009 at 8:50 am

    great post! i wonder why those books even got published.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 10 January 2009 at 9:31 am

    Thanks for your comment…it’s money, money, money, and it’s reprehensible.

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