Since time immemorial, languages like English have been used as a tool of cultural and linguistic imperialism. The plight of indigenous languages throughout the world is more or less the same. The imperialists use similar modus operandi everywhere i.e. of subjugating native populations by attacking their culture, language, self-esteem and replacing them with their own.
In India, for instance, English distinguishes those in executive authority from others and prevents the effective participation of the masses in the government process while working as a gatekeeper to better jobs.
Author David Cooke describes English as a ‘Trojan Horse’ – or a virus – and argues that it is a language of imperialism and of particular class interests. This analogy is of particular interest.
Legend has it that Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside so as to enter the city of Troy and win the war. The Trojans, after noticing that the Greeks had conceded defeat by sailing away, carted off the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, decisively ending the war.
Likewise, English, as Trojan Horse, creeps into a society and then gradually destroys and replaces its indigenous languages.
Professor Richard R Day calls this process ‘linguistic genocide’. In the book ‘Language of Inequality’, he writes about his study of gradual replacement of Chamorro in Guam and the North Marianas and pessimistically concludes, “… as long as Marianas remain under the control of the United States, the English language will continue to replace Chamorro until there are no native speakers left. This has been American policy and practice elsewhere and there is no reason to believe that Guam and the North Marianas will be an exception.”
Professor Alastair Pennycook in his book ‘The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language’ warns that English poses a direct threat to the very existence of other languages.
‘More generally, however, if not actually threatening linguistic genocide, it poses the less dramatic but far more widespread danger of what we might call linguistic curtailment. When English becomes the first choice as a second language, when it is a language in which so much is written and in which so much of the visual media occur, it is constantly pushing other languages out of the way, curtailing their usage in both qualitative and quantitative terms.’
How language shift affects native people
The shift from native language to foreign one may take a long time but the end result, usually as can be seen around the world, is the death of the former. As the example of Marianas shows, the language shift there from Chamarrow to English was completed in but a few generations. When the native language is no longer the first language learned by children, it dies a painful death.
For instance, when the Native Americans i.e. Indians made a switch from their language to English, their language died because there was nobody left to speak it. The death of Native Americans’ language was not voluntary. In India, the spread of English and its wide-spread usage in educational institutes and bureaucracy has ensured that the country’s slavery was kept intact even after our independence.
Today, those who know English rule the roost and this ensures that masses are kept away from the corridors of power and decision making. English is literally a passport to good jobs; the speakers of native languages are seen as inferior beings.
Sankrant Sanu – an entrepreneur, writer, and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon shared an anecdote with NewsGram related to his recent visit to IIT Kanpur.
Sanu has been hopping from one place to another, delivering lectures in schools and universities, educating the youth about the pressing need to create equal opportunities for those who wish to study in their mother tongue.
“A friend of mine who had gone with me to IIT Kanpur for my lecture was initially dismissive about the damage caused by English to our society, especially the youth. However, during my speech when the students themselves began sharing their plight, how they suffered because of their lack of proficiency in English, light finally dawned upon him… So much so that he at once handed over a cheque of Rs five lakh for my work that is aimed at securing justice for Indian languages.”
Like those IIT students, there are millions of Indians whose stories need to be heard and shared to ascertain the reason behind their lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. English – or Trojan Horse – that is read and spoken by only a fraction of total Indian population should not be allowed to sabotage the lives and careers of so many bright Indians who can, if given a chance, do pretty well by studying in their own languages.