By Manleen Bawa
For most of us, our school lives have been dominated by this phrase. Growing up in an environment which eulogises one’s ability to converse in English and invokes strong punishment for those unable to do so, English has occupied a precarious position in our lives. To explain this peculiarity, we do not have to look far away. The recent Twitter trolls attacking Pakistan Captain Sarfraz Ahmed’s inability to fluently speak English at a press conference in the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 provides the perfect example. It is saddening to see how the masses jumped to judge a sportsman’s worthiness based on his fluency in English over his talent and performance. An individual’s meritorious achievements are immediately diminished in worth and value if one is found fumbling in English.
Over the years, on numerous occasions, Asian cricketers have been subjected to ridicule for not talking in proper English. The decision to hand over the captaincy to Kapil Dev was questioned given his poor English skills. Shahid Afridi was unable to articulate his thoughts at a press conference during the World T20 2016 in India and was then misquoted about how he felt about playing in India, an incident which created a huge uproar in Pakistan. Harbhajan Singh has always struggled with the language and has been the root of several jokes. Inzamam-ul-Haq has become the stereotypical representative of all Pakistani cricketers who cannot talk in English.
A colonial legacy
The colonial discourse elevates the knowledge of the English language to a superior stature. Communicating eloquently in English is supposedly a marker of ‘intelligence’ and is accorded a higher social prestige. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his ‘Decolonising the Mind’ argued that language was not only a means of communication but also a ‘carrier of culture.’
By this, he meant that cultural values, notions of morality, traditions and history were embedded in language. Since the colonial enterprise enjoyed hegemony, the English language assumed ascendancy over native ones. The public was made to believe in the supremacy of English, as a way to impose subservience on the locals. Knowledge of English was supposed to be the route to make the colonised more like the masters they admired. Initially, English education in India was a privilege thus distancing it from the working class and further heightening its status.
A shocking reality
The reason why there is a fuss about someone’s grasp over a particular language is that language is not transparent. It subsumes within it a hierarchy of beliefs. Historically, English has assumed a self-acclaimed dominant position and it is a hard to shake the colonial hangover since it permeates into almost every aspect of our lives, even today.
Whether one should be comfortable with speaking in the native language or give in to the colonial master’s language, which has been strategically elevated to become a global necessity, demands scrutiny. What we need to understand is that this status is a historically acquired one. English education, more specifically English literature, was introduced as a means of control and containment. It aimed to generate a certain sense of reverence for the Empire.
Today, the acquired aspect of its status is made invisible and made to appear as ‘natural’, thus transforming English into a language of the elite, who, in turn, mirror the bygone masters. The native tongue has been downsized to such an extent that it threatens to eclipse one’s calibre. When a sportsperson is asked to take English ‘lessons’ it is apparent how little things have changed since decolonisation. How is it that an individual who brings laurels to a country is mocked for not talking in a language that was never his own in the first place?
Questioning the dogma
However, sportspersons aren’t the only ones who bear the brunt of this dystopic discrimination. In a recent video by AIB on engineers and campus placements, the emphasis on spoken English is attacked by the protagonist, an engineering student, who explains the socio-economic background from which he hails and how he is a first-generation English speaker in his family. It shows the unrealistic and unwarranted expectations placed by the society on something as small as speaking in English. All of this results in competent individuals losing out on the right kind of job because of their inability to properly articulate a language.
While there is no denying the importance of English in today’s time, there is, however, absolutely no correlation between one’s grasp over a foreign language and one’s merit. Virender Sehwag gave a befitting reply to shun all unnecessary criticism of Sarfraz Ahmed by tweeting, “Criticising Sarfraz for not speaking English is insane. His job is to play&he has done brilliantly 2 take Pak in finals #StopColonialMindset”. This kind of laudable support is exactly what we need to wear off the colonial residual effect.
Featured Image source: Flickr
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