Mint

Speaking English

I don’t like my column in this week’s Mint.  To do it right, I should have delved deeper into the “personality” of languages; and delved deeper into the notion of mother tongue.  But being neck deep in badam halwa and other Deepavali sweets, this is the best I could do.  So I was pleasantly surprised to see this Reuter’s response to the piece, which, by the way, I like better than the piece itself.  One comment has already come and calls my attitude “intensely offensive.” It says that I was– to use psychology parlance– projecting. Maybe I was, although I would like to think not.  If the visiting young man had the whip-snapping casualness of a Mumbaikar, I would have broken into Thamizh, no problem.  But he was sooo formal.  I know that Mumbaikars find me formal, so maybe it is a geography/location thing.  Anyhow, got to go get patakas.  Happy Deepavali!

The Reuters piece below and then, my piece.

Keep your distance, speak English

NOVEMBER 8, 2012

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)

COMMENTS
2 COMMENTS SO FAR | RSS COMMENTS RSS
NOV 9, 2012
2:57 AM UTC

Ms. Narayanan says she used English to maintain a social distance between her, the “boss-mans’ wife”, and her husband’s Tamil-speaking colleague. I submit that her justification for speaking in English to “maintain a distance” is intensively offensive. What was her husband’s colleague’s transgression? He simply wanted to invite her to his wedding! From the way the story is narrated, he has behaved with more class than this Ms. Narayanan. If she knew Tamil, she could have switched to Tamil after a few words in English. This would have made this “nervous young man” feel at ease and would have shown her class. Instead she wields English as a weapon to put this man in his place. To be able to speak fluent English in the Indian context is largely an accident of birth. This requires no great individual accomplishment and does not reflect intellectual or moral superiority.

Posted by KNatarajan | Report as abusive
NOV 9, 2012
2:51 PM UTC

Thanks for the response. Do you think that she was interested in maintaining the distance, despite her words? And that she projected her desire onto what she imagined his desire would be?
-Robert

Why don’t we speak in the local tongue?

English helps us maintain a distance

First Published: Thu, Nov 08 2012. 07 50 PM IST

English creates barriers of formality.Photo: Thinkstock<br /><br />
English creates barriers of formality.Photo: Thinkstock
Last week, my husband’s colleague came home to invite us for his wedding. No big deal. This, after all, is normal in India, where protocol dictates that you go in person to invite people, and occasionally strangers, to family events.
Sending an embossed invitation with a follow-up phone call will not do. In India, we like the personal touch. We dutifully visit ageing, long-lost relatives who we barely see over the course of months, sometimes years.
Come wedding season and suddenly the shrewish aunt whom everyone in the family cordially hates becomes the most popular person in the spider web of Indian extended families. Musty ancestral homes become vortexes as nephews and nieces who are in the process of getting married troop in to take the blessings of family elders and invite them to weddings, baptisms and whatnot.
photo

Regional magazines.

In urban India, this has taken a new form. Work colleagues come home to invite the boss-man or boss-woman to their wedding. And so it came to be that this young man, whom I shall call Raj, came to invite us. An interesting website, called Differencebetween.net, has a whole host of reasons as to why we are this way, the most obvious one being that Indians are family-oriented. India is also hierarchical. In the still-rigid social, familial and cultural hierarchies that define India, nonagenarian toothless relatives come first; followed by college professors, scholars, senior citizens and only then superiors within the workplace who are often called “chairman-ma’am” instead of being addressed by their name. Work-life boundaries blur as junior employees phone and invite themselves home with a simple excuse: “Ma’am (or Sir), I would like to come home and invite you for my wedding.” In such situations, the bosses, however much they believe in privacy, can scarcely refuse to allow the young analyst from entering the sanctum of a home.

That Sunday morning, at 9.30am sharp, just as we finished a hurried breakfast, there he was, ringing our doorbell. Raj was young—maybe 24 or 25 years old. He was lean and had the clean-cut look of a fresh college graduate unsullied by the politics of the workplace.
We chatted politely. Raj handed us his wedding invitation. The wedding was going to be held in Trichy, famous for the keerai (spinach) vadas served near the railway station. The girl’s family was from Trichy, Raj said. As he spoke, my mind began clicking the facts into place. From his name, accent and narrative, I could tell he was Tamilian. I opened my mouth to rattle off some Tamil, my native tongue, and then stopped.
Indians, much like other nationalities, have an inbuilt sensor by which we gauge appearance, accent and name for provenance. Without even looking at a person, most of us can tell caste, region and religion just based on a name. By listening to an accent, we form opinions about social class—we assume that people who don’t speak good English belong to a lower social class; we make value judgements about people based on their grammar; we think people who are uncomfortable with our language are idiots, hence the urge to speak slower to people who are stuttering while speaking a foreign language.
Raj provided all the usual clues and then some, through his traditional wedding invitation; his correct form of address; and his inherent formality.
“Please do come and grace the occasion, ma’am,” he said as he walked out the door.
Later, as I made filter coffee, south Indian style in my kitchen, I wondered why I hadn’t spoken to him in Tamil. I was fluent in it. I spoke it often. 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?
Language, perhaps more than anything else, save sex, is a vehicle for intimacy. It draws people closer. Just talk French to the French and you’ll see how instantly you will become one of them. We may be comfortable in English, our nation’s lingua franca, but we coo to our babies in Marathi, Assamese, or whatever our native tongue happens to be. We may swear in English but we speak to our mothers in our mother tongue. We may call our lovers “sweetie”, but we call our wives or husbands “jaan”. Okay, nowadays we call our spouses and significant others sweetie andjaan, I’ll give you that.
On the flip side, language can also serve as a barrier. 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.
Shoba Narayan can swear like a truck driver in multiple tongues. She speaks Tamil (and English) with her parents and children though. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
 

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