The chairman of the national knowledge commission Sam Pitroda has written to the Prime minister Manmohan Singh that English should be made compulsory across the country from class I. In a report 'Teach English from class I to bridge divide: Knowledge panel to Govt', dated January 12, 2007 in Indian Express, Seema Chisti quotes various reasons why Mr. Pitroda recommends to make English mandatory in school syllabus. Only knowledge of English language can safeguard people from any kind of exclusion and it can bridge socio-economic and socio-cultural divides, according to the commission.
To quote from the report, 'the commission terms the understanding of, and a command over, the English language the most important determinant of access to higher education, employment possibilities and social opportunities'. Being a researcher in the area of folk language I am impelled to argue against this recommendation which will, furthermore, corrupt the pedagogical software by unleashing prejudicial virus.
English Vs Vernacular
There is no denial to the idea of learning any language on this earth. Knowledge of language and literature from any part of the world certainly broadens the cognitive horizon of humans. Furthermore, there is no second thought about a potential emancipatory effect of the knowledge of English in the world where English happens to be an almost legitimated lingua franca. Many scholars argued that education in English language played a pivotal role in the making of a class of nationalists in India during freedom struggle. English is also noted as a class and caste leveler in a society which is deeply steeped into social stratification.
However, it is problematic when one particular language is accorded more utilitarian significance vis-'-vis professional value in policy statements issued by the commissions of governments. As an unstated corollary of such ratings given to languages, indigenous/vernacular languages automatically slip down to the lower rung of the invisible hierarchy of language.
The recommendation by Mr. Pitroda exhorts teaching of English to redress social inequality. Paradoxically, it reinforces inequality by making no reference, whatsoever, to the pedagogical significance of learning languages in general and equality of importance of both English and vernacular in particular.
As a matter of fact, the aforementioned recommendation is a clich' by now and it belongs to the very common sense of people. We can find this view, English ' superior to other languages, rife more or less all over India. A Symmetry between common sense of people and policy statement is but a curious phenomena referring to a third force which seems to be more powerful than the idea of learning and teaching languages.
Onslaught of Linguistic Capitalism
As the evidences suggest, many European languages have come up in competition with English in the market place. The industry based on the language skills of professionals is inclusive of BPOs / Call centers. The benefit of working for this industry, as the common sense goes, is a kind of life style and a fat package of remuneration. 'We the people' appreciate both considering it our socio-economic progress. So does, perhaps, the knowledge commission of our times. No wonder in this rat race of becoming more useful for the new age industry we, as learners, zero in on a language that can help us land in a highly rewarding cell. This story is not a fiction for majority of English speaking people in India.
French, German, Japanese, Korean, Italian and so on are on the same path of reductionism whereby a language is diminished to the level of petty marketing only. The famous Anthropological saying that language is the vehicle of culture and civilization is obscured in the contemporary world. Arguably, there is only one vehicle of culture and civilization today: unbridled capitalism.
Under such a circumstance of hegemonic linguistic capitalism, it is but difficult for Vernacular/indigenous languages, inclusive of tongues/dialects, to stand the brunt of our times. Incredible that many Hindi newspapers seem to be emulating their English counterparts so desperately that they are neither Hindi nor English. Many of us educated in English medium exhibit a strange inhibition when it comes to reading in vernacular. In Hindi speaking regions we witness a disregard and backwardness attached to the very official language Hindi, let alone tongues and dialects. Many tongues in North India such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, etc, acknowledged in the constitution of India, suffer from an utter disregard in the changing milieu whereby a language without prospective commercial benefit, without pragmatic and utilitarian value in market place, is apparently considered to be a burden of past. It is no longer the longing for literary richness of language attracting us. It is rather modern and merchandize prejudices attached to certain languages that drive our linguistic desires and preferences.
The protest by our revered writer and activist Mahashweta Devi, in 'Singur!: Do we really need Rabindranath', in the annual issue of Mainstream (Vol. XLV, No. 1), targets not only the perpetrators of capitalist violence in Singur but also a design that is aimed at destroying the pristine set up of Shantiniketan in the name of development. There is a need of similar kind of protest on the issues of language in order to rescue it from the capitalist prejudices. Only then can we think of a pure pedagogy pertaining to languages that can allow us to learn languages irrespective of prejudices and hierarchy of languages.