S.chool English medium to hai, lekin theek nahin hai. Sabhi teacher ko MTI ki problem hai. Bachche kaisi English seekhenge? “
(It’s an English middle school, okay but not good. All teachers suffer from MTI. What kind of English would the kids learn?)
We were in Haryana on a social visit after Diwali. My nephew shared his plans to move from the village to a big city to give their two school children a better education in English. “But they’re already going to an English middle school near town,” I countered. That’s when he mentioned MTI.
We were confused as we had never heard of MTI before. He was confused because he hadn’t counted on his education Cha Cha and chachi Don’t know MTI. When he looked at the look on our faces, he spelled it: Influence of the mother tongue. Then it dawned on us: the teachers spoke English with an accent that suggested their mother tongue.
We came home and checked. Of course we were idiots. MTI is a generally recognized “problem”. A simple google seek on the subject of “native speaker influence” result in thousands of pages. Countless videos and portals, mostly Indian, almost exclusively geared towards English, try to help us to get rid of this problem, to speak “natural” English, to gain self-confidence and to make a career and so on.
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Any linguist will tell us that the “disease” called MTI does not exist, that it is a universal condition. The influence of the mother tongue is the most normal, natural and healthiest trait of human language use. If anything, native English speakers are MTI’s worst victims as they never outgrow it! The small island called Great Britain displays several forms of MTI-affected English: not just Scottish and Irish, but also accents like Birmingham. A language like English, which today enjoys a worldwide presence, inevitably has multiple registers, dialects and accents. If there is American English, Australian English, and Canadian English, then there is certainly room for Indian English, Bengali English, Tamil English, and so on.
It is easy to laugh at this tragically comical situation of aspiring Indians desperately trying to forget their mother tongue. Anyone who, like me, has acquired English as a foreign second language – I am still struggling with my articles and prepositions – only has to look back on their own painful path. Those who almost picked it up as their first language may also remember developing a truncated accent or working their way into the American language. NRIs fight for extinction desi Traces are not uncommon. If MTI is a code word for cultural inferiority and self-loathing, this syndrome affects us all.
Allow me one more story, far from the village. About 20 years ago we met a renowned scientist who was trained abroad and spoke charming, non-MTI English. When she found out about my Hindi writing, she complimented me on the dissemination work. I corrected them when I published some of my original research in Hindi. She was horrified: “How can you do conceptual work in Hindi?” I thought it was a South Indian disdain for Hindi. But she made it clear that she thought nothing better of Tamil or Kannada or any other bhasha. “These are not languages of modern thought. You can write stories and songs, but you cannot do social theory in these languages, ”she said, closing the conversation.
I suspect she spoke for the vast majority of our country’s monolingual, Anglophone elite and those who look up to them. My nephew didn’t have her articulation and social confidence, but he shared that charm of English. Frankly, there is the unspoken belief that English is the privileged vehicle for the modern age. Any desi Traces would dilute the modernity we strive for. Hence the division of cultural work between cognitive and expressive that Probal Dasgupta made us aware of it. English is the language of knowledge, expertise, science, business and our future. Bhashas are for street gossip to remember our childhood and express our emotions. This deep cultural prejudice, a modern day superstition, is at the root of the fear of getting rid of MTI.
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In most societies, language is the place of class struggle. It is the favorite place for games of cultural superiority. This dispute gets worse in post-colonial societies like ours. We practice a virtual linguistic apartheid. English is a Language of power. Its relationship with the Indian languages - bhashas as UR Ananthamurthy called this family – the white race is not dissimilar to the non-whites under the apartheid regime. Acquiring English is not about learning a language, it is a passport to power. No wonder English is closely associated with aspirations, frustrations, comedy, tragedy, and farce.
The real tragedy of what my nephew is trying to do is not just that it lacks a linguistic and educational basis. Nor that he gives in to some form of self-loathing and cultural inferiority, that this is a race he would always be a loser in, always a mile behind the elite. The real tragedy is that the spoken English industry managed to get him to see his potential strength as his weakness. We Indians cannot do our best to humanity by faithfully learning the Queen’s English. Our creativity and excellence must be based on MTI. Only by using MTI from around the world would the English language and modern thinking be improved. Ram Manohar Lohia reminded that we cannot be modern by looking at someone else’s modernity from the side. We have to stand on our own two feet and look ahead.
We don’t have to follow Lohia’s recipe for Angrezi Hatao [banish English]. The slogan for our time can be Angrezi Badlo [transform English]. A blatant Indianization of English that involved borrowing and learning English bhashas, would not only save our uprooted elite, it could save the English themselves too. English has remained an aunt-tongue for far too long, a respected outsider. It’s time to embrace MTI and make English someone else bhasha, Another Mausi in our family.
Yogendra Yadav is one of the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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