Thursday, February 17, 2011

Once again, the language question

In an article in the New York Times for Feb. 13, Manu Joseph points to some anomalies pertaining to the status of English in the Republic of India. Powerful politicians urge that Indic languages, especially Hindi, replace English wherever possible--while still sending their children to elite private schools where the instruction is in English. The promotion of indigenous languages is, Mr. Joseph holds, injurious to the interests of poor people, especially the Dalit (Untouchables), who are only instructed, poorly, in languages that will not open to them the path of prosperity.

English is indeed vibrant in India. When I was there I always read The Times of India, which is much better than The Times of London. That New Delhi daily is noteworthy not only for the accuracy of its Engliah, but for the supple use of wit and irony.

The promotion of English in India, though, can reach absurd heights. Here are the money quotes from Mr. Joseph's piece:

"Accepting that English is the national language would have benefits that far outweigh soothing the emotions of Indian nationalism. It is to emphasize this point that Chandra Bhan Prasad has built a temple to the Goddess English in an impoverished village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

"People like Mr. Prasad, who want to liberate the poorest segment of the population, the Dalits, through the extraordinary power of English, view Indian culture and all related sentiments with suspicion. It was that same culture that had once deemed the Dalits “untouchable,” relegating them to the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy.

"In Mr. Prasad’s temple, there is an idol in robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Very soon, Mr. Prasad said, he would encourage young Dalit couples to include a ritual in their wedding ceremony in which they would sign the letters A, B, C and D on a piece of a paper. “That would be a promise they make that they will teach their children English,” he said.

"He also plans to adopt an Islamic tradition and fix a loudspeaker in the temple from which a recorded voice would chant the English alphabet, from A to Z , every day at 5 a.m. All these are just symbolic gestures, he said, and the best he can do in the absence of genuine political support for making English the national language."

If English is so important, how is it that the Japanese have reached such heights without mastering it? To be sure, we have all encountered educated Japanese whose English is fine, but try getting around in Kyoto or Tokyo without having your destination written out in advance in Japanese. As a college professor, I have had a number of good Japanese students. I noticed, though, that it took them about a year to become fluent, as English teaching in Japan is about as efficient as our teaching of foreign languages in the US. That is, it is not effective at all.

A wave of enthusiasm for learning English has swept mainland China. But how necessary it is for economic success there is uncertain. To be sure, Singaporeans do wonderfully well in English, but that is a very small, atypical society, however successful. Conversely, learning English hasn't helped Filipinos much, as most of them remain desperately poor.



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