Language is a funny thing


“Five rupees for every word in Hindi,” the teacher would say, “you will be fined five rupees for every word spoken in Hindi.”

That is how we were taught to speak in English. At nine or ten, we knew the theory of it, we knew how most words were spelt and written, we knew them when we heard them, but we still weren’t used to talking in English. A good method to learn English, the teachers decided, was to make sure that the kids all spoke to each other in English as well, and not just when they were required to. This little fine was just one of the means to ensure that we spoke in English, although it was never really taken that seriously.

Look at us now, one of the largest English speaking nations in the world; the number of people who speak English in India is second only to the United States in the world (although that of course is by virtue of our population). But language is a funny thing. The more I talk to other people, especially the ones who speak different languages than mine, the more I realize that language is a two-way mirror, and that it shapes, as much as it reflects, the society around us.

The spread of the English language around the world has had an effect that has been, and will be studied for years to come. It has brought together people across different cultures in ways that was unimaginable. By English being a common medium, we have access to a lot more art, cinema, literature, and people of course, so that the world is smaller than ever. At the same time though, the spread of English has created classes, anxieties and structures that are extremely undesirable, in addition to having a homogenizing effect across cultures, for the sad truth of life is that specificities are lost when commonalities increase, and hardly do they ever exist in simultaneity.

The English language, today, stands at a very interesting position. To the people for whom English is not the first language, the non-native speakers of English so to say, the language comes to them mostly in the forms of one of the three: as an imposition, an inheritance, or a necessity, if not all three. Impositions make you helpless, inheritances are accidental, and necessities digested, for the lack of better options. What comes out is a culmination of different accents, styles and (mis)translations in which English is spoken.

Most people for whom English is a second language then, aspire towards the ‘standard’ when it comes to spoken English. The standard may be the one which is presented by mainstream media, the ‘standard’ BBC English, or the one which they pick up from the pervading presence of Hollywood.

Yet there are so many accents within English that one from the other could be a different language, if you compare a small town English accent with, say, a southern American one.  Interesting here is a tiny example a Scottish guy in my class gave us: between the two big cities of Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which are only an hour apart, the phrase ‘no danger’ means something completely different. In Edinburgh, saying ‘no danger’ is akin to saying, no worries, I’m on it, I’ll finish the job, whereas in Glasgow ‘no danger’ means come off it, no way I’m doing it.

Accents are an integral part of spoken tongue, and I can’t for the life understand why they are assigned a negative connotation; granted, it is something that gives you away. One language isn’t superior to another, so to be less fluent in one than another isn’t a sign of weakness or strength. It should be nothing. It is but natural that your native tongue would corrupt your spoken English, for even living someplace makes you pick up an accent.

“You have an accent”- yeah so do you. Everything spoken is spoken with an accent, whether inherited or acquired. What is ‘having an accent’? Just simply the marker that you come from elsewhere, and as long as we believe in an equal world and values, one place is as good as the other, one language as intricate as another, and each accent unapologetic.

Saying that ‘you’ have an accent implies that you assume a position of centrality, that you set up a standard to be subscribed to, a standard which you subscribe to yourself.

As of now, as the world stands in this time, English is such a language, so widespread that it should understand no standards.

The non-native speakers, the English-as-a-second-language speakers bring with them the weight of another language, and so talking to them is even more interesting. Mistranslations are fun and teach you about the logic and temperament of another language in relation to English

For when you think of it, when you really think of it, why should anyone aspire for a particular kind of English? It’s a colonial and class imposition. Everybody is born with a capacity to learn and grasp a language, for everybody knows atleast one. English is not a superior language, so knowing it doesn’t really signal anything about the person (unless someone is an ignorant classist). As long as you can function in your society without knowing English, not knowing it is okay. Knowing it a little is okay.

More than that, having an accent is wonderful, and should be worn as a mark of pride- it shows that you are from elsewhere, a place which is distinctive and has its own solid, identity not yet overwhelmed by anglicization of the world.  Embracing a language is embracing what you bring to the language; you add to it as much as it adds to you.

You are given a language.

You make it your own.

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