Published in The Hindu Literary Review (Feb 6, 2011): http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650330600.htm
Original, uncut version:
Indian English Today : Evolution or Disease?
David Crystal says in his book, The Fight for English, ‘To many people in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the language was seriously unwell. It was suffering from a raging disease of uncontrolled usage. And it needed help if it was to get better […] People needed to know who they were talking to. Snap judgements were everything, when it came to social position. And things are not much different today. We make immediate judgements on how people dress, how they do their hair, decorate their bodies – and how they speak and write. It is the first bit of discourse that counts.’
Crystal is not really arguing for ‘standard’ English in his book, or the ‘prescriptive’ rules that, he says, a bunch of pedants laid for the usage of the English language. Rather, he is arguing for the several languages English becomes in the hands of different people, in different settings, and in different cultures.
That’s indisputable. However, the new generation of Indians speaking and writing in English today seems to have taken those words quite literally, leading to a complete deterioration of the art of speaking and writing. Why is it that if you speak about correct English today, you’re immediately branded as an ‘elitist’, and looked upon as ‘the other’?
Once upon a time English was a language to which few people had access. People, who mastered it, spoke and wrote well, respecting the language for its beauty, fluidity, and nuances.
It’s no longer so. With the ‘Indianisation’ of the language, the attitude of the people towards English seems to be changing completely. If you belong to the ‘elitist’ group of Indians, (that is, if you’re particular about correct usage and grammar), you have the option of sending your child to a board that does teach grammar and literature. Otherwise, you have a problem with Indian English, not the rest of the country.
How did this happen? Does the problem lie right at school-level teaching, and treatment of the language? That, after all, is the time when foundations are laid. Over the years, English has been stripped to its skeleton, focusing more and more on function, and less and less on the finer points that exercise the intellect and enhance creativity.
While it’s a debatable issue whether the switch over from the structural approach to communicative has played villain, most people agree that little attention is given to the art of creative writing these days. The earlier emphasis on essay or story writing is absent in most schools now.
Ever since the functional approach has taken over in some schools, thumbing its nose at grammar, English seems to have become a hapless marionette in the hands of the young learners. Syntax and structure are no longer vital. And where there are no rules, chaos is of course the new czarina. Heavy blinds have been drawn over the pursuit of literature.
Worse, we seem to be promoting this culture every day, encouraging redundancies such as pleonasms and tautology, and locking essentials like sentence construction and punctuation into oblivion. Removing emphasis on correct usage or grammar is like removing the vertebral column of a language.
It’s a different matter when learners learn the rules first and then break them with their skill, creating something new and artistic. However, if we leave them in a chaotic world to begin with, where are they supposed to end up?
‘I don’t think languages are given importance in our schools, which is a pity. The so called subject teachers usually lack language skills. It is made to seem as if information is all, and language isn't important to convey or learn this information,’ says Dr GJV Prasad, Chairperson, Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. ‘There can be no education without a strong basis in language. We should teach languages well in our schools rather than teach absurd levels of science and other subjects. Our students can't enter intellectual exploration without a strong grounding in language.’
One always gets to hear that, since students are already overloaded with their science and math courses, it is best to go easy on English. Hence, most students land up not taking the subject seriously at all, and laugh at those who do. There is a dearth of schools that still make the effort to expose their students to nuances of the language, or go a step ahead and initiate them into the magnificent world of literature.
Language – the vehicle of thought and expression, and comprehension of the world we live in – sacrificed completely to the study of facts and figures, mass and matter!
These decisions at school level often cause more damage than one can imagine. Is it surprising that we eventually manufacture unthinking semi-automatons, who can only react arrogantly to what they do not know and haven’t learnt to value?
Dorothy Tressler, director, Somerville schools, says, ‘In India, we teach classes consisting of more than forty students. There is mayhem if you try to make these children learn a language using the communicative approach. You cannot make them read, speak, or spell individually every day. The weak ones are forgotten. They end up learning nothing. The traditional methods worked well for large classes.’
Vivek Govil, president, Pearson Education, India, doesn’t think the communicative approach is necessarily a bad thing. He says, ‘It is certainly a better way for people, for whom English is a second language, to acquire the language. My concern is that we are teaching the same courses to children regardless of whether English is a native language, a second language, or a foreign language. This is going to be an even larger issue when the Right to Education Act comes into play, and you have less homogeneous groups in school. And it is certainly destroying the language for those who should be learning at higher levels.’
That indeed is a crucial point. English is suffering at various levels, and this is perhaps the first casualty.
Dr Mita Bose, professor of English, Delhi University, believes that English cannot be taught either by trying to drill rules into the students (structural approach), or by switching over to functional English (communicative approach). ‘Once you’ve explained the rules to them, you need to teach them to look out for them while they read, speak, or hear the language,’ she says. ‘Constant exposure is important.’
The focus on a working knowledge of English nowadays is perhaps responsible for another significant development – ‘Indianisation’ of the language. ‘Indian English' seems to be the justification for all the errors that these speakers or writers in English make. Instead of accepting a mistake and correcting it, they brazenly defend themselves using ‘Indian English’ as their breastplate. Perhaps because English has suddenly become accessible to everybody, now that they don’t have to worry about the fundamentals, people don’t find it worthy of regard any longer.
In the long term this may hamper professional development, regardless of whether one is looking at a career in writing or not. Eventually, correct communication skills are critical in getting ahead, whether it’s email or spoken English. Sloppiness sets in under the skin and is almost impossible to get rid of. That’s why the top MBA courses in Ivy League often have refresher courses in the liberal arts – both for free thinking and exposure to quality language, which, in turn, is an exposure to quality minds. That is why many interview panelists ask their candidates what books they read.
The revised dictum today?
Saare niyam tod do; niyam pe chalna chhod do. Inqalab zindabad. (Do away with all the rules. Long live the revolution.)
Mediocrity has become the latest status symbol. Courtesy: the free-for-all, the new breed of speakers and writers is creating its own version of English – sans elegance, sans structure, sans finer nuances.
Correct English isn’t simply about avoiding splitting infinitives or putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. It’s about eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and beauty.
Sometimes these young authors do have stories to tell, but lack the requisite skills; at other times they have neither a story, nor the skills. Yet, they get published. Yet, they sell. This happens to be another ‘casualty’ for the English language.
‘Most readers have always read pulp, but there’s disrespect for the written language now that I think is new,’ says Udayan Mitra, publishing director, Penguin Books India. ‘People can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, for instance, and don’t care what the difference is either. This disrespect – and nonchalance – is certainly reflected in a lot of the manuscripts we receive. A lot of people send in manuscripts now, who would not even have thought of writing some years ago.’
These changing trends now seem to be riding roughshod over the publishing industry that initially welcomed the boom (of pulp fiction) by and large from college-going writers. Many of these authors today are using this mongrel language in their novels and books without restraint. They justify their writing saying that they don’t pretend to be literary writers anyway. Their writing supposedly helps ‘bridge the gap’ between the literary elite and the general masses.
The question is – is it really so? Are they really bridging the gap by pandering to the latter in this manner? Is it a good enough rationale for the dumbing down of Indian writing in English at international level?
Ironically, this trend, rather than bridging the gap between the ‘elite’ and the ‘masses’, is widening it instead. The readers for whom English is a second language, or a foreign language, will never acquire the skills or the finesse of the ‘elite’ (or first-language learners) if they never strive to learn the correct language. The gap will never be bridged. Indian English might work for them in India but, outside India, or while interacting with non-Indians, they would always struggle with their home-produced potpourri.
Publishers are not against the genre of non-serious writing or pulp fiction per se. (In fact this is crucial for the development of the larger reading habit).What they are concerned about is the way this genre is being dealt with today.
‘There is obviously a demand for these books,’ says Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India. 'There's both a plus and a minus to this. The plus was that there was, at least in the beginning a sense of liberation (India has been locked into the literary midlist mindset for the past five decades) with promise of a new genre of commercial writing that one thought would emerge – vibrant, innovative, contemporary. The minus is that this has not happened. Most publishers do have a whole slew of new manuscripts pouring in every day, but hardly any are of quality.’
Most publishers agree that, of late, the quality of submissions from young writers has been steadily sliding downhill.
‘Despite the much touted fact that English is dynamic and constantly evolving, there are still standards of correct grammar and syntax whether you are a believer in Wren & Martin or Noam Chomsky. Even ‘Hinglish’ brought in for character authenticity has to be located within a narrative framework of grammar and usage. However, a lot of today’s writing seems to eschew the need for correct English completely,’ adds Abraham.
‘I am simply disappointed. As a publisher it hurts to see such books,’ says Saugata Mukherjee, managing editor and rights manager, HarperCollins India. ‘I am all for commercial/mass market books, but can't quite believe there are only badly written ones. I guess publishers need to be a little more discerning and not compromise basic quality.’
Nobody can deny that language is ever-evolving. From feather quills to ball points, from Remingtons to VAIOs, writers have woven rich word tapestries, using different forms of English.
Where has the craft disappeared today? Where is the art? Where is the finesse?
Dr Bose puts it across beautifully. ‘If you want to offer your audience a dish, would you scatter it haphazardly on the table and expect them to dip a finger here and there and lick it to get a taste, or would you serve it nicely in a pretty bowl? Shape and structure are essential for a wholesome experience.’
There is a serious danger that we may never stop entering shops from their ‘backside’, looking for ‘loosepoles’ instead of loopholes, singing songs with ‘feel’ rather than feeling, going to the market ‘by walk’, or arriving at office ‘from inside-inside the colony only’.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to be concerned. For most people, ‘Indian English’ is simply ‘evolving’. It’s a disconcerting thought that tomorrow, some of these very people might land up in positions of authority – as English teachers, editors in publishing houses or even at newspaper offices – judging other people’s language skills, or writing our editorials.
It is not merely idle whining by another bunch of snobbish linguistic fundamentalists, but a genuine concern of a handful of those who still love the language for its grace, and admire orators and writers for their true genius. Hopefully, lovers of English will take some notice, for the industry-wallas will surely be watching, wary of 'bowing to the ineluctable pressures of what-happens-nextism’.