English is the medium of instruction in our universities, the IITs, IIMs and other campuses and the medium of dissemination of information in a large section of our media, print, TV, radio and Internet. Yet I don’t find in our country the kind of concern I see in the western media and academia at the decline of good English. In contrast to the falling standards of English, there is an increasing rush to learn it, evident from the rapid growth of English medium schools Let us first look at the scene in the campuses.
There is a perceptible slide in English speaking and writing standards as also in its popularity as a subject of learning. American universities are anguished that fewer and fewer students are opting for English major. The level of teaching that language too has come down. English campuses in the west are worried about this downturn. During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically.
“As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land. And because it is probably irreversible, it is important to attempt to sort out the reasons—the many reasons—for what has happened,” wrote William of Chace (Sept 1, 2009 cover story in American Scholar).
The Wall Street Journal carried (13 March 2005) an article by Oliver Kamm, an editorial writer at The Times, London, calling for democratization of that language and for liberating grammar from pedantry. Democratization has struck roots already as evident from the way different linguistic communities are refashioning English to agree with their grammar conventions.
The Economist said (Feb.20, 2015), “The English language, as we all know, is in decline. The average schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, not that recently perhaps. It was William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who wrote, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.”
In Sense of Style, a Penguin publication, Steven Pinker found that in the United States recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. “They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”
But if we go by the accretions to the vast English-speaking community, the scenario looks different. Nicholas Ostler writes (21 Feb. 2008) in Forbes, “And India, set to overtake China in population by 2050, is avidly trading on its English expertise. It is notable that beyond the 330 million or so native speakers, perhaps twice as many more use it as a second language. English, with its simple sentence-structure and openness to borrowed vocabulary, is often thought well suited to be a global medium.”
India may be the country to have the second largest English-speaking population in the world but the complaints about the poor standards of English elsewhere are true of not only Indian academia but also its media where every rule in the grammar book, relating to subject-verb agreement, to the use of modifiers, correct spelling, clichés, officialese and punctuation is broken not only in reporting but also in writing main articles. When I read the English that appears in news reports, articles, and features appearing in our print and Internet media, I observe a steady decline today in their English standards. As a person, who has worked for nearly forty years at the desks of three national dailies and as a teacher of mass communication at three universities in the country, I have been a witness to the ignorance of basic rules of grammar among journalists (reporters, copy editors, and other writers) whose knowledge of grammar is based on praxis or even hearsay.
Two important factors have played an invisible role in the changes that have overtaken the language. They are colonization and immigration. The colonies avenged British colonial rule by ridding English of its royal pedigree. The Indians injected hundreds of words into English from their languages, enough to compile a parallel English dictionary known as Hobson-Jobson Dictionary. The Americans rejected British pronunciation and spellings and even prepositions. With their contempt of the royalty, they have tinkered with both the King’s English and the Queen’s English. The spellings have changed. Prepositions have been dropped like “jumped out (of) the window.’ Now, American fiction writers have begun using proper nouns as common nouns, what are known as generonyms, Bru for coffee, Marlboros for cigarettes, Johnny Walker for whiskey, Kleenex for tissue etc.
The blacks sculpted a dialect known as Ebonics based on their own grammar book as a token of revolt against the English spoken and written by the whites. They use double negatives (I don’t know nothing). They disregard subject-verb agreement (They was coming). Transform interrogatives into declaratives (you coming up’ for ‘are you coming up?’) They make the sentence sound both declarative and interrogative. Less go is let’s go; whassup is what is up?
Each colony remade English in the process of acculturation. Immigration has brought into both Britain and America millions of Africans, West Indians and Hispanics who speak mixed lingos in places like London and Birmingham, San Francisco and Orlando. Where the local boys and immigrant boys go to the same schools, the children speak a language that baffles their parents. In despair, an Australian wrote The Englishes in the sixties, alluding to the different versions of the language spoken and written in different colonies.
The English language is constantly evolving, transcending time and space. The English in The Hindu today is different from what appeared in that paper in your father’s time. The English in the Caribbean, is different from standard English (if there is one) because it is influenced by both British English as a result of colonization and by American English as a result of the proximity of these countries to the American mainland. Writers like Bernard Shaw had issues with the English language. He died leaving behind him a large fund for purging the English language of its illogic. Pedantry is bad, as Kamm says, but not grammar.
Languages are means of communication. A communication is incomplete if the person it is addressed to cannot make sense of it. A grammar evolved through consensus is necessary for successful communication. Even body languages differ from community to community.
We are all living in a kind of global village where languages, interacting with each other, lose their virginity. However there is no doubt that the English language is gaining in popularity in India where there is a stampede to get into English medium schools and unlike in the west English newspapers continue to sell well. But the lament is about the standard of English both in the media and the academia. As a majority of journalists today possess a degree in journalism/mass communication, the absence of English as a subject in j schools and campuses is reflected in mistakes as simple as subject-verb disagreement.