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“Excuse me, are you English-medium?”

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on June 9, 2011 1 Comment

The late afternoons-when my husband and I play badminton in a park in a Delhi suburb-are a 100-and-something degree Fahrenheit here, extremely hot and dry. All day, we wait anxiously for the mercury to dip just a little so we can go out and play. The park is fun not just because it’s a lush green space, but because it immerses us in the vibrancy of our neighborhood in a way nothing else can. Soon as the sun’s rays become a tad more merciful, around 5 pm, the park begins to fill up with young ayahs (the loudest group, emitting stern warnings in Hindi, Punjabi, and/or Bengali), assorted mothers and fathers (usually the quietest bunch), tired laborers from construction sites in the area, maids, young couples (very rarely), and several groups of kids, ranging from first graders to tweens. Some kids enjoy themselves on swings, the slide and the merry-go-round; others play cricket constructing makeshift fields; and some others, like us, play badminton.

It is difficult staking out territory on this limited space; when kids play cricket, most of the ground is consumed. However, on our first day there, we managed to find a small, dry patch which seems perfect for playing badminton, to the left of a massive concrete block which serves to anchor an electrical unit for the area. We noticed four young girls (around 6 years of age) sitting on the block, their legs dangling in the air. They seemed immersed in a rapid conversation in Hindi, their singsong voices soaring excitedly, as we put down our water flask and cellphone not too far from them. They acknowledged us with smiles. We started playing, and chatting as we played, the shuttlecock whizzing through the air, punctuating our sentences. I started to sense we were being watched, and I glanced over at the girls. I figured they were taking in the strangers, particularly the unusual sight of my husband, an American, in the midst of people who looked nothing like him.

The girls had gone quiet. I continued to chat with my husband. Suddenly, one of them looked squarely at me, and piped up (in English): “Excuse me, are you English-medium?”  I burst out laughing. “No!” (More laughter). I began to explain in Hindi, “My husband, he’s American, so he knows only English, that’s why I speak to him in English-.” My husband yelled out in English: “What?” I hadn’t realized that the use of words such as “husband,” “American,” and “English,” and the vigorous shake of my head, had led my husband to easily grasp my explanation. I had been unprepared to give a too detailed answer-the shuttlecock was heading my way-and of course, I had not expected to be understood by him. It suddenly dawned on me; for the purpose of expediency I not only stereotyped an entire nation, I also just called my husband a monolingual, which does great injustice to his multilingual skills. I stammered out: “I mean he speaks French, and Arabic, and Turkish, and…Bengali…just not Hindi.” The girls turned away, furiously discussing this surprising piece of information. American man? English-speaking? In this park?

A Glimpse of the Park from our Balcony

A Glimpse of the Park from our Balcony

I keep going back to the fascinating question the girl asked: “Excuse me, are you English-medium?” In my own research, I explore the question of medium of instruction, which is of crucial importance in the developing Indian context (see also LaDousa, 2000). I have been collecting data at a private school in a village nearby, and I know that parents think the principal draw of the school is that it is an English-medium school (to what extent it is an English-medium school, however, is a separate question). But I’d never thought the term could be applied to a person, in the same way it applies to language of instruction. I found the question deeply unsettling, ridiculous, and profound. I don’t think it was a question of whether there is a language I know that “mediates” me; it was whether I could convincingly say there was a “me” that could be mediated.

It’s been a few weeks since that day. Two days ago, one of the girls asked me if I am Christian-which, she probably thinks, must be the case if I speak English. She spoke to my husband at length in Hindi today, as he taught her badminton (using some English and some of the Hindi he has learned watching Bollywood movies). She seems to forget he doesn’t know Hindi: there are times, I think, she assumes he’s just a strong, silent type.

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One Response to ““Excuse me, are you English-medium?””

  1. daveski on: 13 December 2011 at 7:51 pm

    For some reason, this question, “Are you English-medium?”, was bouncing around in my mind this morning, months after I read about your experience in the park. I’ve been thinking about what kinds of interactions are possible in the different spaces we move through in our daily lives, and have myself had several experiences in parks where people people may feel less inhibited about asking questions of those who look or sound like they come from somewhere else. Of course, it may just be that younger girls and boys have the gift of being lovably blunt while unwittingly (?) giving voice to the discourses, ideologies etc. that might not reach our ears and eyes otherwise. Still I can’t help but wonder, are places like parks…intercultural encounter-medium?

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