Readers Write In #510: Colonialism and the English language

Posted on October 14, 2022


By ​Hari PR

This is in response to the recent thrust by a government-appointed panel to replace the medium of instruction in educational institutions, which currently is English, with the respective regional language. The reasons provided for this change are that English is a vestige of the colonial legacy that India is trying to put behind her, and that it is well-established that young children absorb knowledge better if content is delivered in the language they speak at home.

I have conflicting feelings about this. There is no doubt that English, for all the good that it has done, remains an elite, exclusionary language that only a small proportion of the population is able to speak with reasonable fluency. There is also no disputing the fact that there is a large number of works of brilliant poetry, literature, and other written works in our regional languages that go unread and underappreciated simply because of the preferential treatment that English and works written in English get.

Personally, I was drawn to the English language from a very young age. I still read English novels with fervour, though more recently I have been trying to branch out to Tamil novels as well. Sometimes I feel pangs of guilt – why am I drawn so much to a language that, to all intents and purposes, is foreign to me?

On the other hand, English is also a wonderful link language that enables easy mobility, especially among students. I have done part of my education in Delhi, and I consider that phase to be among the best in my life. If the proposed policy is implemented, would students be confined to their home states? And how would companies with presence in many states operate? And what about companies serving international clients?

I know that the English language has a colonial connotation in many parts of the world, considering that it comes from an empire where the ‘sun never set’. Its legacy is particularly more complicated in India, given her multilingual character, and the fact that many families living in India also speak English in their homes. India has also produced English authors of international repute, like Arundhati Roy (who has also written about her internal struggles with language in one of her essays.) At the same time, large swathes of our population cannot reasonably speak or comprehend English.

I suppose there are no easy answers, but I just wanted to put my thoughts out here, off my chest.