The Foreign Language Obsession Syndrome

I recount an informal class room discussion held some years back at a private school  where  I taught for some time. One of my students,  very good at her studies except English language, was taunted by a classmate for her poor communicative competence and inability to speak clearly and fluently in English. Though the student who mocked her wasn’t as good as taunted one in overall academic performance but she deemed having proficiency in English language as a privilege that entitled her to make the taunting remark. Thanks to the flawed education and inept upbringing by the teachers and parents that infect students with this linguistic prejudice and false perception that command over  English  is an entitlement/ privilege.

Quite dismayed, I could sense hurt and embarrassment the remark caused to the diligent student, but I deliberately let the argument stretch a bit to just keenly observe and affirm my perception of how language can create prejudice, class distinction and inequality in educational institutions; otherwise meant to make students unlearn inequalities of all sorts. The taunted student didn’t stay mum. Her prompt reply was quite well thought out and unexpected from a school kid. She retorted in a typical agitated kashur but prudent tone.

“Ath manz kya  asun chu agar ne kaense baches asel English tage karun. English hai che mahaz akh zaban yeth kaen saen Kaeshir zaban che. English paeth per per karne seat nai beneyakh ne che kahn baed falaspher. Talai angrez aanun kahn menish te su  karen me seat meoun hew Kashur agar wumren te hachenawon.”

“What is the point to poke fun  if a student’s English is not good enough. English is just a language like our Kashmiri is. Doing ‘per per’ (blabbering in English) doesn’t make you some great philosopher or a learned person. Can a native English speaker speak to me in Kashmiri as fluently as I do, even if she/he is taught the language  for years?”

The small incident  took place  in a less elite educational institute where this mad obsession for foreign languages is not that worrisome yet, but in schools especially the emerging ‘modern’ ones and those accessible to the elite class only, this serious intellectual  malady of looking down at, and ridiculing students who are not quite good at spoken English or  writing  grammatically correct  English is  a norm, quite acceptable. This disturbing trend prevalent in these schools where proficiency in  English  is deemed as a hallmark of excellence, competence, and the benchmark of a genius is a stark reflection of intellectual backwardness and the persistent colonial mindset of  the society we are living in; especially of those who run these institutes  otherwise  meant to liberate and emancipate students from bias and discrimination, be it linguistic or any other. This problem unfortunately persists even in institutions of higher learning like colleges and universities also where students and even scholars fear to speak freely just because of fear of making mistakes and their intellectual depth being gauged on the basis of proficiency in English language.

My intent is not to express disliking for, or prejudice against the  English, or any other foreign language, or discourage their promotion. Personally,  I love this language as much as my mother tongue for it is the only language that  enables us  to interact with our extended global human family. It is the language of opportunities which opens doors to jobs and education beyond borders.

I have, in one of my articles published by this newspaper, highlighted the importance of learning English language having the distinction of being the global language not only in geographic sense but in terms of its widespread use in the vital areas of academics, science, research, business and global communication.

Yes, it is a necessity to make students learn and practice speaking English in real life situations with the intent  to  improve their  communication skills, prepare them to  study or excel in linguistically diverse lands and educational institutes, but imparting English language skills in a prejudicial and coercive manner, like imposing fine on students for not conversing in English, parents and teachers scolding and ridiculing  kids for speaking in  mother tongue, is problematic. It amounts to cultural imperialism. It creates a sense of unreasonable disdain for the mother tongue, one’s culture and roots evident from the fact that students from Christian missionary and other elite educational institutions feel uneasy or ashamed of conversing in mother tongue. Speaking in mother tongue is an anathema for many among new generation and those who converse in native tongue in elite institutes or public spaces are derided as uncultured and lowbred. The reason for this perception can be attributed to the pompous and prejudicial methodology of teaching the Language. Instead of imparting language skills in an  empathic and friendly way, it is taught and practised  in  a manner that gives it a privileged status- a status more than that of a language or mere means of communication. As a result, it  instils a false sense of superiority among the proficient speakers and a sense of inferiority among non-proficient ones. Which isn’t real education besides it has a detrimental psychological impact on the taught. Students with a poor proficiency in English suffer from inferiority complex and they begin to internalize the belief that they lack some intellectual qualities which  mars their self-confidence and overall academic performance. Such students seldom  speak in the class. Their untold agony gets unnoticed. They often prefer to stay mum whenever they feel they need to articulate their views, interact with teachers and fellow students, answer or raise questions in the class. They helplessly feel somehow deprived of the participatory learning and an enthusiastic participation in learning activities in an atmosphere where language has been created as an impediment or a stumbling block not only to their intellectual or cognitive development but to the linguistic development as well. Thus language learning becomes a tiresome/cumbersome necessity in such a circumscribed learning atmosphere. Imagine the plight of a British kid obligated to start his academic journey in an alien language like Kashmiri.

This problem of linguistic enslavement, or  fascination for English language is not only confined to educational institutes but to the  bureaucratic,  social circles and other vital institutions as well. In countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and our part of the world where English is taught as a second language, it is not merely a language but a class and a badge of elitism due to its association with the elite  and corridors of power. The hegemony of English is a legacy of our colonial past and  also an  indicative  that we  continue to be afflicted with mental enslavement.

People, even educated class in our corner of the world misperceive   mastery over the English language as a an academic and intellectual trait, a sign of a genius  and deem every fluent English speaker as an intellectual, a  fact reflected from the envy and awe a good English speaker evokes; and also from the oft heard  remark that people make after hearing some effective and fluent  non-native  English speaker.

“Su che zabardas kaebel su chu folent English bolan.”

He is very intelligent for he speaks such fluent English.

There is no  dearth of such examples to cite to put forth the point of  how  the English language has become a convenient prejudicial excuse rather than a mode for communication for many of us. For example, I had an argument sometime back with a person on social media. When he failed to convince me, he ended up the argument with a remark that my English is not good. Another  common observation is how we non-native English speakers switch to English during an argument  and a verbal brawl  with fellow people as if foreign language makes an argument sound and convincing. This is just to show-off  English language skills as a mark of civility.

Only some days back, a journalist friend called a bureaucrat to bring into his notice a public grievance. The journalist talked in Kashmir and to his utter dismay, neither the response from the bureaucrat was courteous nor was the grievance addressed. The  second reminder  phone call in English to the journalist’s surprise earned him the title “sir” and  the grievance was also swiftly redressed.

I am concluding with the insensible and  irritating  trend of trolling people  on social media for their poor English or Urdu. This  insensitivity of  publicly sharing  and poking fun at people’s social media posts or   short speeches laden with grammatical or pronunciation  mistakes without imagining the  hurt it can cause is yet another  sign of our  intellectual immaturity. Because of this cheap public shaming, many netizens feel quite uneasy to write and communicate freely on social media. In present age of social media, such posts go do rounds on  different social media sites.

We desperately need to unlearn the deeply entrenched colonial practice of using language as a prejudicial tool and promoting bias against the native languages and their speakers. The sole motive of language is to communicate not to subjugate. Proficiency in English or any other foreign language isn’t an intellectual hallmark.