Keep your distance, speak English
I discovered when I wrote the blog post, “Hindi, Tamil and English: linguistic lessons in pragmatism,” that I am not the only person who thinks languages in India is an interesting topic. The comments that I received in that post, in which former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju wrote about the value of learning communal languages such as Hindi and English, reflected opinions from all over the map, and usually centered on how my language is best vs your language is worst.
Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, made several points in his controversial opinion pieces, but he emphasized that common languages such as English in a country of incredible linguistic diversity is important for people who want to be literate, sophisticated and successful.
Shoba Narayan, writing in Mint, offers a different reason to use English: to keep some distance between you and the person you’re talking to. Here’s an excerpt from Narayan, who caught my attention and affection with her author’s note that she can “swear like a truck driver in multiple languages.” The story concerns a young man who works with her husband, who came to their house to invite them to his wedding. Judging by his name, accent and story, she decided that he was Tamil, and was prepared to speak to him in her language. But she stopped. Read why:
Speaking Tamil to a nervous young man who barricaded himself behind the formality of English would have unnerved him. It would have catapulted me from being the boss-man’s wife to becoming a friend. And while I might have been okay with that, I am not sure he was. Hence English: to maintain a distance.
Narayan writes more broadly about this idea in her essay:
When you meet a stranger and you can tell they share a common language, first of all, do you switch from English to Bengali or Hindi or Telugu? Or do you continue speaking in English? Watch yourself next time and let me know. Some part of it has to do with the circumstance. When you are in a boardroom and are introduced to a fellow Sindhi or Kashmiri, it is unlikely that you will switch to your mother tongue in front of others. But what if you are alone, inside your home?
How do you handle these linguistic differences? Why do you use English in certain situations and not in others? Is it ever OK for me to struggle through Hindi, Urdu or Bengali with you because I’m a student? Or is it artificial and weird to depart from English, the language that we know we both speak? Finally, how much does language reinforce the notion of being separate people — and in a way, separate countries — inside a democracy whose borders were drawn by other people many years ago?
(An Indian Army recruitment sign in Bangalore. The second language is Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka. Photo: Robert MacMillan)