Good English? No thanks

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Once upon a time, not very long ago, so the history books tell us, in certain parts of the world now known as Europe, India etc languages like Latin and Sanskrit flourished among sections of the ruling classes even though these languages were hardly spoken or understood by vast sections of commoners. Much of what many contemporary historians term as literate cultures were societies that used these languages in their institutions of learning, religion and administration (for example the church in Europe, the clergy in India). Gradually the prestige these languages gained in the minds of men meant that one couldn’t say anything important or substantial in the languages that were spoken by the commoners, particularly when one had to communicate with the upper sections of society. If you lived in that time and that place and couldn’t speak one of the elite languages you’d find it hard to be taken seriously by the powerful and the mighty. And since all learning was done exclusively in these elite languages the “vernaculars” were seen as devoid or incapable of the refinement necessary for culture, science, truth etc.

This is not to say that people didn’t see any wisdom in the common, or that they didn’t value folk culture. Rather, the prestige gained by the languages spoken by elites in society meant that other languages were seen as coarse, inferior or lacking in many traits that were indispensable for wisdom, truth, culture, rationality etc. This was quite natural, since many customs and social mores were interpreted through books and texts that were composed in these elite languages. And since the written word was seen as a manifestation of divine truth, texts composed in Latin or Sanskrit were seen as the holy repositories of important wisdom. Needless to say that these texts glorified the customs, culture and values of the classes that composed them. Many respected, official customs of society were enacted in the elite language through formulaic and rote conventions embodied in the processes of law, religion, medicine etc So knowing the elite language of learning and administration was a prerequisite for prestige and status in these societies, and often other languages and their truths were interpreted through the prism of the holy tongue of the elite, the cultured and the learned. This, of course, is a general sketch of something more complex. However, one consequence of this state of affairs was that form mattered more than content: what you had to say, the actual content of your words, didn’t matter as much as the language you spoke. Naturally, if you were a Sanskrit or Latin speaker you could get away with the worst narrow-minded bigotry and obscurantism, so long as you said it in chaste Sanskrit.

Something like this is very much the situation with English today. In today’s global society English is the only real international language—one need not list all the reasons why it is so. Yet some are pertinent to this argument. English is the language spoken by the most powerful and affluent groups in contemporary society. In many parts of the world, to varying extents, it is the language of government, business, education, prestigious institutions of justice; and the overwhelming majority of published material, in the form of books, magazines, websites, multimedia etc is in English. In our global village the best routes to upward mobility all lead through English, and often the best rewards of upward mobility are synonymous with the Western world (the homeland of English) and its lifestyle. We might seem to have left religion behind us and embraced a secular ethos; yet in this secular world of ours English has a sacred place.

In the non-Western world this dominance of English is not unchallenged, but the realities of international politics and power mean that the aura of English reigns supreme virtually everywhere. This place of English in the modern world is commonly considered a natural outcome of its inherent virtues. English is synonymous with culture, art, science and technology, learning, sophistication, civilization and all that the “native” speaker (the white Westerner, or the westernized human being) of English sees as the characteristic traits of Western society.

But can one language be inherently superior to any other language? If that defies commonsense, then shouldn’t we think again about the common opinion that English is preferred today simply because it is the language of power? Come now, you might object, you can’t make a case against English just because it’s Western: English has a vocabulary that’s richer than many languages, it has expressions and phrases for sentiments and emotions that have no words in other languages, it can be used in official and private/personal situations with great felicity, and it’s practical to use English because it has a global reach. Agreed, it’s fruitless to quarrel with some of these virtues of English, but some of the reasons behind them say a great deal about the nature and sources of inequities that are peculiar to our age.

When English is referred to as a Western language it is always a particular English that is referred to. Not all the English accents of the Western world are synonymous with culture, sophistication, reason, progress, tolerance etc The English most valued in societies like Australia is the English spoken by a particular cultural group. It is well known that most people who don’t belong to this group are not seen as the best speakers of English even if they speak it fluently and have no other language to call their own. Also, those so-called non-native speakers are granted recognition of their English language skills precisely on account of the fact that they do a good job trying to emulate the standards of good Western English—the educated English-speaking Indian is the perfect example of this type.

This English that is the norm is closely tied to the power wielded in society by its “native speakers”. This power is exercised through the grip this class has on the state and its institutions. Through the state and through educational institutions this group enforces its version of the language. Since the largest numbers of the workforce up until recently came out of these schools, this species of English dictates the standards and values of social and economic life in Australia. And this English dictates what the true and the just in Australia will be. To give this English a friendly, human and democratic facade its allegedly colorful side is promoted in the mass media (mainly radio, TV, and cinema) as the Aussie accent.

When a non-English speaking immigrant encounters a “native speaker”, and if it’s in a business/official situation, many of us are familiar with the strange logic set in motion by the pervasive and insidious hierarchies in a supposedly egalitarian Australia. Often one has to make an effort to be understood, one has to repeat oneself, correct oneself, speak softer than our confident and casual compatriots. What if one finds oneself in a government organisation, say a legal cell, or in a bank seeking a loan? An immigrant from the third world who has had to learn English would have to try and strike a rapport with someone whose day-to-day life and past experience of Australia is worlds removed from the immigrant’s. In fact, in that chaste English one would have to look very deep indeed to find words and expressions that are true to the non-English speaking immigrant’s experience of Australia. Never mind. English has the resources to sanitize your troubled and confused sentiments about Australia. So speak it as well as you can, and it’ll act like a balm to your immigrant soul.

We must now go back to a point made earlier about elite languages—the point about form dominating content. History repeats itself in strange ways sometimes. The old games a corrupt clergy played in ancient India or medieval Europe have found a new lease of life in ultramodern Australia. So it doesn’t really matter whether what you say is reasonable, intelligent or important—so long as you speak in the right English you’ll more often than not be taken seriously, or least get a hearing. This curious situation prevails in nearly all walks of life, particularly in those places and spaces where the real Aussie accent is still the main mode of communication: like the best-paying professions, the media, law, medicine, architecture, institutions of higher education…

If you are a journalist, for example, substance is often not as important as form. So even if you know little about India’s or China’s economy, if your English is good you’ll find that your services will have plenty of takers in the Australian media. If you are a doctor, good English can get you very far. Never mind that most patients from non-English speaking backgrounds are wary and cynical of doctors who can’t understand them—that is their problem. The doctor’s English is a firm indication of his/her abilities. And in the world of business, i.e in the private sector, an army of experts and consultants and a variety of other peddlers of all kinds of expertise on how to increase revenue, boost profits, promote employee welfare, thrive in a society where good English and the form that comes with it plays a huge role in ensuring their career paths are lucrative. In politics, good heavens. Good English works like magic, no matter how cynical Australians claim to be about their politicians. Form over content. You didn’t need read this article to know this.

What exactly do you think is the role of English in multi-cultural diverse Australia if it is not to create social differentiations that lead to prestige and status? What is the role of English today in Australia but to make privilege look like a natural right of the winners? Is it really true today that English is spoken by the majority in Australia? Who is this majority? And how did they come to be defined as such? Is it a myth that we live under, that Australia’s demographic make-up hasn’t changed in the last decades in a manner that has made English only one of the main languages? How representative can English and the institutions that depend on English be of a society changing the way Australia is?

Friends, strange are the ruses of a power that garbs itself as egalitarian and multicultural.

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