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“[Is] English [Really] Spoken Here[?]” NYT Fail

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 20, 2011 13 Comments

Mr. Manu Joseph, writing “India Faces a Linguistic Truth: English Spoken Here” in a “Letter From India” in the New York Times, makes some incredible claims about the status of English in India, with random bits of “evidence” that wouldn’t pass muster with, I’d wager, most Indians familiar with its linguistic diversity. Indian issues are not showcased too frequently in the New York Times, and, as an Indian reader of the NYT, I feel especially sad that such a superficial piece received prominence (particularly when the topic is close to my heart, incredibly complex, and strongly defies the kind of casual reductions Mr. Joseph indulges in).

The article begins by invoking a currently popular Bollywood number, “Sheila ki Jawani,” saying that Indians find it unremarkable that a Bollywood song utilizes English. Plenty of Bollywood songs comprise of Hinglish lyrics, and that claim is (one of the few that is) easy to agree with. The next set of claims, not so much:

That what has become one of the country’s popular Hindi songs opens with an English sentence is unremarkable for Indians. So is the truth that Hindi films are now written in English — the instructions in the screenplays are in English, and even the Hindi dialogue is transcribed in the Latin alphabet. Mumbai’s film stars, like most educated Indians, find it easier to read Hindi if it is written this way.

As someone who falls into the category of “most educated Indians,” I find this a stunning claim. I grew up in New Delhi, immersed in the Hindi belt, and have never found it “easier” to read Romanized Hindi. I don’t know anyone from Delhi who has ever confessed it’s easier to read Romanized Hindi-we learn the language in Devanagari, and trying to shift it into a different script entails difficulty for those of us who are naturalized to experiencing the language in its original script. Not that it isn’t done, but I’d wager “most educated Indians” who had studied the language in the Hindi belt would agree with me. Mr. Joseph’s argument lacks nuance because he forgets (or deliberately decides to leave out, for the sake of his argument) the major differences that would exist for those growing up in the Hindi belt and for those outside of it.

In fact, the first few claims he makes are correct, until he gets to the phrase “most educated Indians.” The problem is that Bollywood scripts are written in English for a complex set of reasons: screenplay writers, for example, may not be proficient enough (originally they were primarily Hindi or Urdu poets or writers, but now they draw from many walks of life) and also, people working in Bollywood come from diverse linguistic areas of the country (where Hindi may or may not be spoken). In fact, Ms. Katrina Kaif, the star performer of “Sheila ki Jawani,” has had many of her dialogues dubbed in Hindi films because she was raised primarily by an English mother, and grew up outside of India. The shift, then, in contradiction to Mr. Joseph’s claims, is not merely because “most educated Indians” prefer to do so, but because of the alteration in the demography of Bollywood.

katrina-kaif-sheila-ki-jawani

Then, Mr. Joseph goes on to tell us:

Almost all advertising billboards in India are in English. There is not a single well-paying job in the country that does not require a good understanding of the language. Higher education here is conducted entirely in English. When Hindustan Pencils makes cheap pencils, which its sells to rural children for a rupee apiece (about 2 cents), the company prints the brand name, “Jobber,” in English. “A villager has more respect for a brand that is written in English,” said Dhruman Sanghvi, a company director.

English is the de facto national language of India. It is a bitter truth.

The problem here again is that Mr. Joseph confuses whatever pockets he is exposed to for “India,” an entity much more complicated than in his reductive imaginings. In Delhi, yes, many billboards are in English (though I would be a little more careful than saying “almost all”); but in the village areas on the outskirts of New Delhi where I am conducting my dissertation, many billboards and posters are in Hindi, the local language. Last December, I went on a trip through inner Tamil Nadu and other southern states, and there were many rural towns and villages in which I didn’t find any English billboards-the scripts were unfamiliar to me. Mr. Joseph’s “India” is not one, apparently, that encompasses rurality or recognizes the tremendous linguistic forces at play here. He concludes that “English is the de facto national language of India,” directly after noting that a company director thinks English commands more respect in rural areas. Mr. Joseph seems unconcerned about the pivotal question of whether the villagers have any idea what “Jobber” means, if it actually has any meaning (which itself would be a fascinating point for analysis). It doesn’t make English a “national language,” unfortunately, just if there is “respect” for it; one must interrogate the on-the-ground realities of English. What happens in rural areas, where there is more limited access to English? After all, the rural sector makes up 69% of India. The “bitter truth,” alas, is other than Mr. Joseph finds it: it is that the Indian linguistic landscape escapes being painted with such broad strokes.

Another crucial paragraph from the article:

The other official language was English, which has long been considered a default language, a foreign language. But this is no longer true. Since independence, the influence and reach of English have grown immensely. It is impossible to arrive at a credible figure for the number of Indians who understand English (a lot), who can read it (many) or who can write it (very few). But what is indisputable is that in India today, English has the force and quality of a national language.

If it is impossible to arrive at those numbers, I am not sure where exactly Mr. Joseph pulls those figures from. Who are those “many” who understand English? In cities? In the suburbs? In villages? What socio-economic statuses do those people have? Who are those “many” who can read it? Why can many people read but not write? How many people speak English? Why the silence on speaking skills? And as far as I am concerned, it is very much open to dispute what exactly India’s national language is. And as far as “quality” and “force” of English in India are concerned, Mr. Joseph’s falling back on such vague terms does not help him make a better case.

The next paragraph is confusing:

Alarmed at the power of English, India’s cultural elite and politicians have tried, through public policy and sometimes violence, to promote Indian languages. In Mumbai, for instance, every shop is required to announce its name in Marathi even though most of the people in the city can read English but not Marathi. In the recent past, thugs have beaten up shopkeepers who did not comply with the requirement.

Is “India’s cultural elite” different from “most educated Indians” he invoked earlier, who were writing Hindi in English script because it is easier? Again, to make a claim about English’s status in India on the basis of what happens in a city where the majority of the population are migrants from other states (and hence linguistic areas), is poor journalism. I haven’t encountered such overt linguistic violence in the 22 years I lived in New Delhi, and while violence over language issues is not entirely unusual, I’m not sure how Mr. Joseph attempts such broad generalizations on the basis of what transpires in a particular city, however populous.

After a short discussive foray into the story of a man who built a temple to Goddess English, Mr. Joseph claims

The chief beneficiaries if English attained this status [of a national language] would be the children who attend the free schools run by the central and the state governments. An overwhelming majority of such schools are not taught in English. Indian politicians, whose own children attend private English-language schools in India and abroad, want their constituents to marinate in their mother tongues.

Now, it is unclear how Mr. Joseph can claim that English is pervasive, when he says that the overwhelming majority of state sponsored schools-making up the bulk of schools in the country-don’t teach in English. How is English everywhere if it’s not the medium of instruction? Is it taught really well as a subject? Finally, Mr. Joseph’s biting comment, that politicians “want their constituents to marinate in their mother tongues,” suggests more than the hypocrisy of politicians at work-it also showcases Mr. Joseph’s own biases. The term “marinated” appears to be used as if being immersed in one’s vernacular leads to some kind of terrible stagnation.

I know I’ve been going on for a while, but if I haven’t lost you yet, a few more words. In my own dissertation work in suburban New Delhi, I have been following young boys, immersed in Bengali, Hindi, English, and Sanskrit at an orphanage and in their village school. The question of how different languages are valued, used, and negotiated is incredibly complex, as I am witnessing in my own ethnographic work, and there are no easy answers to be had, and no broad reductions that can meaningfully sum up what is happening on the ground.

Yes, there is more English than there was in previous decades, though I am not sure we have begun to understand what the spread of English means for people with different socio-economic realities, and in different regional and linguistic pockets. It’s kind of like drawing conclusions about the spread of English through the naming of the “Jobber” pencil: whose power lies more in script than in use.

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13 Responses to ““[Is] English [Really] Spoken Here[?]” NYT Fail”

  1. Filmi Girl on: 20 February 2011 at 9:57 am

    Very nice analysis!

    Sadly, this kind of nonsense is exactly the thing the NYTimes always publishes when it comes to India – reductive, simplistic, hand-wringing nonsense.

    English is used in pop songs from all over the world. In that respect, “Sheila Ki Jawani” is no different from something like Mighty Mouth’s “Saranghae” (Korean) which opens with an English rap. I wonder if the NYTimes thinks South Korea is having an English identity crisis, too.

    And I agree that his understanding of how Bollywood scripts are written is really simplistic. While the story and other parts may be written in English – the DIALOGUES, the words people will hear, are always done in Hindi. And Mr. NYTimes had bothered to watch or listen to any Bollywood Hinglish, he would find that a lot times when English is used, it is to repeat crucial plot information – for non-Hindi speakers in the audience – or it’s just nonsense exclamations or used to make a character look snobby and out of touch. It all depends on the film and the audience.

    Mr. NYTimes didn’t even bother to mention all the regional cinemas, which use very little English.

  2. ss on: 20 February 2011 at 12:08 pm

    You are setting up a straw man and proceeding to knock him down.

    The main thrust of Joseph’s article lies in this sentence:

    “There is not a single well-paying job in the country that does not require a good understanding of the language”

    You have wisely avoided trying to refute this argument, knowing very well that it is true.
    Did you ever go to a village and ask the kids whether they want to learn English or not? They should decide what they want to learn, not some academic.

    Jonathan Reply:

    I am having trouble understanding what you mean by “straw man”, an expression that seems to be at odds with an argument that is built on a consistent quotation-and-rebuttal format. Reading the piece by Manu Joseph, I understood that the thrust of his argument was: “English is the de facto national language of India.” That is a question of identity, not economics.

    In North Africa, a place not traditionally associated with English imperialism, I have also heard the claim made that one has to learn English to get a good job. The actual “truth” is that this is an ideological claim that has not been the subject of statistical evaluation, partly because it is perpetuated by powerful and entrenched interests who benefit greatly by the propagation of this axiom.

    Further, unless I misunderstand the gist of the author’s research, she is actually listening to what the kids are saying, and not deciding anything. You apparently already know what they say and have already decided. But, are the economic consequences of a legacy of colonization now supposed to determine what children should want to learn?

    ss Reply:

    “But, are the economic consequences of a legacy of colonization now supposed to determine what children should want to learn?”

    They are already determining what people want to learn. Who are we (those who are fortunate enough to be acquainted with English) to say they should not.
    I know that a single example won’t indicate anything, but for what it’s worth here is a conversation I observed in a small South Indian town in 2008:
    A passenger asks a young bus driver in Delhi accented English (because evidently she cannot speak the local language), “Will you be starting within half an hour?”
    The driver replies in Kannada that if he knew English he wouldn’t be doing this job.

    And what has North Africa got to do with this. Context matters. In India “powerful and entrenched interests” benefit by keeping English out, not the other way around.

    “That is a question of identity, not economics”

    Identity is fluid, and a hungry person would rather lose her identity (Most Indians’ identities anyway lie in suffering economic and social oppression) if it assured her two square meals.

    English may not yet be the de-facto national language, but most Indians want it to be.

    Jonathan Reply:

    These are interesting points. I think that, looking at other contexts serves to frame the specific claims made about India and English within a global discourse that is related, in part, to an agenda to develop a cheap labor force for multinational corporations. Whether this is overall a good or a bad thing — often, again, related to people’s ideological leanings — the fact that this contention is accepted uncritically with a kind of “World is Flat” triumphalism is problematic. The fact that the same claim was never made about Japan or Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, nor about China today, is also curious. Why do Americans believe that learning Chinese is critical, but learning Hindi or other Indian languages isn’t? The concern for the status of English in India says to me that there is a paternalistic fear of somehow losing control and the desire to maintain a debt that India, whatever the future holds, will always owe to the West.

    In addition, the notion that “a hungry person would rather lose her identity (Most Indians’ identities anyway lie in suffering economic and social oppression) if it assured her two square meals” resembles the other arguments that we make about hungry people, that they’d prefer giving up their religion, that they’d prefer living under authoritarian rule, if it meant food on the table. It would be interesting to have a sense of the price that people really put on self-determination, and it would be even more helpful to emphasize that these trade-offs are not automatic.

    I don’t believe anyone in this forum is saying that Indians should not learn English. Rather, the economic claims made about English education should not be confused with political claims about the language’s benefit to society.

  3. sd268 on: 20 February 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Very nicely done: I also had the urge to tear my hair out when reading that tripe, and considered doing a line-by-line rebuttal, but a) didn’t and b) would not have done as thorough and thoughtful a job as this.

  4. Jonathan on: 20 February 2011 at 1:46 pm

    This is an excellent and much needed piece that highlights the challenges inherent to turning local journalism into grist for the fantasies of an international, anglophone readership. The article, originally published in the International Herald Tribune, is actually another entry into the, now hackneyed, Munni-Sheila genre of journalism, that has transformed the juxtaposition of the two most popular Bollywood numbers of the past year into a total social fact that can be used to explain anything in Indian society. For an audience that has not been privy to the Munni-Sheila style of writing, the shocking spectacle of English lip-synched by Katrina Kaif can seem indeed endowed with weighty significance.

    Another point that is troubling in Manu Joseph’s article, is the way he flatters the imagination of the international business and U.S. foreign policy enthusiasts who are operating within an environment long-conditioned by the belief that English education (for the purposes of creating a “new middle class”) will set the world’s downtrodden free: an English-language liberation theology. This is one of the central tenets of the Peace Corps, for example, that offers English education as a source of development. It is further troubling that he seeks to gain his journalistic cred by exploiting the nuanced Western concern for the welfare of the Dalits. Perhaps he could have thrown in a reference to sati for good measure.

    Again, great job in revealing the mythical assumptions of this article!

    ss Reply:

    “resembles the other arguments that we make about hungry people, that they’d prefer giving up their religion, that they’d prefer living under authoritarian rule, if it meant food on the table.”

    This is not a notion, there is empirical evidence. A lot of people in the South and North-East have converted to Christianity, not because they were convinced by the theological arguments, but because of pecuniary incentives, including access to English. Those that have not, have decided that the benefits provided by reservation outweigh this. Some have a foot in both camps. Of course India’s huge population does not make this fact immediately apparent.

    “Rather, the economic claims made about English education should not be confused with political claims about the language’s benefit to society.”
    The advance of technology, specifically the internet, has ensured that by knowing English, we can broaden our horizons in a way that was beyond the ken of earlier generations, and thus take informed decisions.

  5. J Sheerin on: 21 February 2011 at 6:45 am

    I recently blogged about this, including the Dalit temple to Goddess English!
    http://www.write-well.co.uk/?p=39

  6. Prayog on: 21 February 2011 at 12:26 pm

    http://www.campaignindia.in/Article/240511,irs-q3-2010-dainik-jagran-dainik-bhaskar-maintain-lead-among-publications.aspx/0

    Manu Joseph runs a magazine, even if his article is unworthy of a hack on hte dole, so he should have known better. Ask any advertising executive in India and he will tell you that the English media lost their clutch on th eadvertiser’s rupee about 35 years ago. Follow the link above and you will be surprised. India’s top 10 dailies include only one in English. India’s top 10 magazines are all in Indian languages. English language readership has been stagnant or shown anemic growth at best. It is the Indian language publications that have grown and grown.Which is why some English language publishers have for a long time hedged their business bets very wisely by investing in Indian language publications. The Indian Express has done it for years, The Times of India too has been at it for a while. Publishers who have gone the other way, to enter the English market from an Indian language base have done very well. The Malayala Manorama group, which publishes the weekly “The Week” and the ABP group with The Telegraph, have done extremely well.

    Manu Joseph also is weasel-like in talking about the cultural elite of Maharashtra and forgetting the cultural elite of Tamil Nadu, probably because he doesn’t want to criticise a “rationalist/secular/social justice” friendly party that rules the state. The Dravida Munnnetra Kazhagam (Party for the Progress of Dravidians) is a hardened Tamizh chauvinistic organization. Its intolerance of Hindi is legendary and would put Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena to shame. DMK bigots are known for thrashing Hindi teachers and vandalizing Hindi schools (Chennai’s Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha), and Tamil Nadu too requires all business establishments to have signs in Tamizh.

  7. Prayog on: 21 February 2011 at 2:33 pm

    http://www.hindu.com/2011/02/22/stories/2011022251230500.htm

    One more from the news, that tells you how utterly ignorant Manu Joseph is, and how little NYT cares for its readers in turning to hacks like Manu. To quote from the report,

    KRISHNAGIRI: Officials and employees of the State government should write their notes in files only in Tamil, C. Prakasam, District Revenue Officer, said here on Monday.

    Inaugurating the first batch of the training programme for officials on Official Language, at the Collectorate, Mr. Prakasam said the officials and employees would be given training for two days in different batches.

    They would be taught to write notes in Tamil in all the files.

    They would be asked to write official letters and issue orders and circulars in Tamil and also sign in Tamil.

    Mr. Prakasam said that speaking in Tamil with the public would help the officials reach out to them.

    It would bridge the gap between the government and people.

    The official notes written on important files should be legible and quick to understand.

    Honour

    The government was honouring officials, who wrote notes in Tamil, with cash prizes and merit certificates, he added.

    The programme is being organised by the Tamil Development Department.

    T. Manoharan, Public Relations Officer, Department of Information and Public Relations, and Arulmozhi Devan, Assistant Director, Department of Animal Husbandry, among others participated.

  8. CarsaOrlong on: 23 February 2011 at 1:53 am

    “screenplay writers, for example, may not be proficient enough (originally they were primarily Hindi or Urdu poets or writers, but now they draw from many walks of life) and also, people working in Bollywood come from diverse linguistic areas of the country”

    The fact that English is what connects people from diverse Indian backgrounds is quite telling.
    I live in Bangalore and looking at the corporate culture that is such a big part of this city i see everyday how important English is in terms of what work you can be assigned, and how much money you make.
    The BPOs in Bangalore and other city’s are largely responsible for the economic boom we have been experiencing. We are seen as a massive resource for skilled and semi skilled labour, but we are still struggling to harness these same skills in non english speaking sections of the populace. Imagine the force we could be if our government schools focused on English instead of Hindi.
    Though a large part of the population speaks Hindi, it is still not enough to be convincing as ‘the language of India’. Given the economic and social advantages that come with knowing English, i believe that we should be putting more emphasis on English over Hindi. An Indians other language should be his regional one.
    Someone also mentioned that a focus on English is another example of an India that ‘holds a debt to the west’. I got the same impression from your article, that English does not belong as an Indian language. this is just not true. Yes it was introduced by conquerors. But given the cultural diversity of India the same can be said of most languages spoken here. you just have to go far enough back. Throw in the massive part that English language played in the creation of the republic India, as well is the growing number of people speaking it, and the idea of English being an Indian language is easier to swallow.

  9. Nenad on: 25 August 2011 at 6:10 am

    Language evolves and it is always alive. You con not even claim that “same” English is spoken in the various parts of the same city. IMHO the most important thing is that people can communicate and understand each other. English or no English

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