Linguistic hegemony and cultural imperialism through English


How the west has established its cultural hegemony in the world through the English language is aptly depicted in two examples cited by Professor Alastair Pennycook in his book ‘The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language’.

Pennycook talks of the Voyager aircraft drifting in its lonely trajectory in 1977 in search of other life-inhabited galaxies, carrying recorded messages of greetings to aliens in fifty-five of world’s languages. But the principal message of greeting was delivered in the so-called universal language ‘English’ by none other than the then UN General-Secretary, Kurt Waldheim:

‘As the Secretary-General of the United Nations… I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet.’

Meanwhile, on the planet earth from a small radio in a township shack in Johannesburg’s Soweto, Johny Clegg and Savuka crooned thus:

Bits of songs and broken drums
Are all he could recall
So he spoke to me
In a bastard tongue
Carried on the silence of the guns

It’s been a long time
Since they first came
And marched thru the village
They taught me to forget my past
And live the future in their image

Chores They said I should learn to speak
A little bit of English
Don’t be scared of a suit and tie
Learn to walk in the dreams of a foreigner
I am a third world child

(Third World Child, Johnny Clegg and Savuka)

The irony and contraction in the two events happening at the same time i.e. the UN General Secretary’s speech and the South African singer’s song could not be more evident. For while Waldheim sends greetings on behalf of the people of ‘our planet’ in English, the singer recalls how they were taught to forget their past, told to learn to speak a little bit of the universal language and ‘walk in the dreams of a foreigner’. How could English be called the universal language when the majority of people in the world do not speak it?

Professor Joga Virk told NewsGram that these facts amply demonstrated that Indian people needed to deeply reflect upon the present linguistic situation in India, so that a correct language policy could be put in place.

Verily, the plight of local 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.

Henry Kissinger, at the time of the Turkish invasion in Cyprus in September 1974, while addressing a group of businessmen in Washington, said:

“The Greek people are anarchic and difficult to tame. For this reason, we must strike deep into their cultural roots. Perhaps then we can force them to conform. I mean, of course, to strike at their language, their religion, their cultural and historical reserves, so that we can neutralize their ability to develop, to distinguish themselves, or to prevail. Thus, we can remove them as an obstacle to our strategically vital plans in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, to all this neuralgic territory of great strategic importance for us, for the politics of the USA.”

British colonialists also had the same plans to establish their cultural hegemony in India. They gave India its independence in 1947 after 200 years of rule, but not before dividing the country along the lines of religion and imposing its language on the Indians. So much so that almost 70 years after attaining freedom, non-English speaking people who speak in their mother tongues are seen as inferior beings by their fellow countrymen. English defines classes as local Indian languages struggle hard to survive.

With one’s proficiency in English linked to one’s livelihood, it has become a necessity to learn the language.

Is it a well thought out and well-designed strategy to create a huge, lucrative market for Anglo-American commodities by using Anglophonic education as a weapon? Or is it just something we have to accept as a reality?

Author NS Ndebele in his paper on the English language and social change in South Africa writes, “The very concept of an international or world language was an invention of Western imperialism.”

After spending a considerable amount of time in India, the British realized in the eighteenth century that India could not be conquered militarily and that it could only be achieved through dividing them along the lines of religion, caste and above all language. The idea as first put forward by Lord Macaulay to the British Parliament on 2 February 1835 was to establish hegemony here by shaping popular consciousness, disassociating people from their cultural roots and traditions of solidarity and replacing them with their own.

Today, the majority of children in India are not being taught in their mother tongues but in a foreign language i.e. English. As a result, they are neither good in their own language nor in English.

Dr Joga Singh, Professor and Former Head of Department of Linguistics in Punjabi University, Patiala told NewsGram in a telephonic interview that one significant reason for India lagging behind countries such as South Korea, Japan, and China, etc. was the intrusion of English language in Indian education and other important domains.

The way English is occupying the language domains, the life of Indian mother tongues is under a severe threat,” Mr Singh said, adding, “The English medium instruction is producing a generation which has no appreciable mastery either over their mother tongues or over English; they cannot connect intimately with their own culture, tradition, history and people. It is not wrong to call these children as English children, for by the time they complete their schooling their competence in English is more than their mother tongues, it is meager though in English too.”

The Professor told NewsGram that these facts amply demonstrated that Indian people needed to deeply reflect upon the present linguistic situation in India, so that a correct language policy could be put in place.

“Restoring all linguistic domains to Indian mother tongues is essential not merely for saving and developing Indian languages, but it is essential for saving India. We may differ on certain points. But all Indian mother tongue lovers and the ones who have a correct understanding about language issues agree on one point that education at least up to school level must be in the child’s mother tongue. Let us all join to achieve this goal first.”

Once English is delinked from our education system, administration and Indian languages given due respect and restored to their deserving place, it would slowly start losing its relevance, he opined.

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