Tuesday April 24, 2018

Linguistic hegemony and cultural imperialism through English

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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.

Also Read: India is free, but Indians are still colonized

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Governor humiliated for addressing in Hindi

  Incidentally, Hindi is a very powerful language, if we go deeper. This language is so self-sufficient that it is one of the direct descendants of Sanskrit, the oldest and the perfect language in the world

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Sri Ganga Prasad was criticised for giving his speech in his native language and not English in the legislative assembly.

Salil Gewali, Shillong

  • Hindi is one of the official languages of India
  • Sri Ganga Prasad faced criticism for giving his speech in his native language
  • This makes one question if English is becoming dominant in India

Sri Ganga Prasad faced a barrage of criticism when he delivered his maiden speech in the National language in the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly. Even one of the legislators abruptly walked out of the assembly hall while the Governor was digression the session. Thus, the Governor was intensely scoffed at and humiliated through the social media and other news media.

Well, everyone has their right to disagree and criticize. Of course, we do not disagree that the majority of people in Meghalaya are not fluent in Hindi.  This is not a big deal. But disrespecting the language could be.

Is Hindi being ignored as the nation moves more towards English? Wikimedia Commons

This news also made many of my facebook friends abroad pretty curious.  One very learned scholar – Avital Markel from New York speaks out her mind with a dose of humor: ‘why is there so much noise when your governor delivered the speech in the language which is originally from India itself? I know another popular name of this country as Hindustan, not “Englistan”, I believe.’ Another Yoga teacher from Las Vegas — JM Palmer remarks — ‘it’s ridiculous that people can disrespect their own language. I can easily pronounce a good many Sanskrit terms. I personally have tremendous respect for India’s Sanskrit and other languages because they are the languages of Yoga and wisdom of spiritual dimension’. Mr. Palmer is a spiritual seeker who regularly visits India.

                 I think both Avital and Palmer views resonate with what the citizens of other countries feel. At least with those who have not been insanely fascinated by the English language like some Indians do. It’s much observed in the country that one without English speaking skills is obviously looked down upon.  The ‘inferiority complex’ vis-a-vis the West and its external trappings often hold many Indians back in asserting that they are Indians. This syndrome is getting more pronounced among the certain class of intellectuals and the snobbish folks. This has already taken a very ugly shape. The trait of sedition is quite noticeable amount the certain class of citizens.

                    Anyway, if we have regularly tolerated the bunches of fraudsters, rapists, and murderers in the parliaments and state assemblies in the country, why could we survive a speech of few minutes in Hindi and so on? 

Also Read: Is Hindi The National Language of India?

On the contrary, the citizens of very developed nations such as China, Russia, Germany, Portugal, France will never lose their calm when their leaders speak in the native languages. Actually, they all speak their own languages. The imperialist British till the date has literally failed to cast its spell on them. The citizens of those self-reliant countries rather swell their chests and claim their superiority and what they are due for.

                          If I am not mistaken Hindi is still recognized as the national language of the country. So, even if we are unable to learn the language, it would do jolly good if we do not disrespect it at all. Here it will be quite relevant to cite a case of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at United Nations General Assembly. I believe, nobody walked out of that international summit on 27th Sept 2014 when the Prime Minister delivered his speech in Hindi. Thank God, we didn’t have any leaders from Meghalaya who might have cringed with embarrassment and walked out! That particular speech by PM Modi in UN was so applauded that it subsequently served to motivate the member countries across the world to vote in favor of declaring a Yoga International Day for 21st June.

Harivansh Rai Bachchan, a Padhma Bhushan awardee for his contribution in Hindi Literature. Pexels
Hindi is a powerful language and ought to be used more. Pexels

                        Incidentally, Hindi is a very powerful language, if we go deeper. This language is so self-sufficient that it is one of the direct descendants of Sanskrit, the oldest and the perfect language in the world. On the robust ground of India’s Sanskrit the Modern linguistic stands. Kudos to those unprejudiced and rational intellectuals such as Sir William Jones, Johann Goethe, F. Schiller, Franz Bopp, F. Schlegel, Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky who discovered the incredible literary gems in the languages of India.

                           Finally, for those who sniff at the languages of Indian origin and the wisdom and culture associated with them, I would like to share just one opinion by their much celebrated English master. Here exclaimed the American British Nobel laureate TS Eliot: “Two years spent in the study of Sanskrit under Charles Lanman, and a year in the  mazes of Patanjali’s metaphysics under the guidance of James Woods, left me in a state of  enlightened mystification.” I think we should not walk out of the “truth”. India has for ages been enriching the intellectual treasure troves of the West. But, what is a huge paradox is that our Indians are either not aware of it all or they do not want to acknowledge it.