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Minding My Language, Or How I Learned To Love English

17/06/2017 10:33 AM IST | Updated 19/06/2017 9:31 AM IST
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My day job involves introducing my students to the quirks of the English language and helping them deal with those quirks. Given that English happens to be the second or even third language for almost all my students, the task becomes challenging.

Before I even begin with the technicalities, I often ask my students to first think of one good reason they want to learn the language. I tell them that unless it is something they are convinced about, the language learning experience will neither be effective nor exciting. The most common objective they come up with is, meeting the demands of the job market. While that is a perfectly legitimate reason, I prod them to look for something more personal, more immediate. After some brain-storming, when they look at me with expectant eyes, I give them the example of Madhav Jha from Chetan Bhagat's Half-Girlfriend. This example mostly works because, like it or not, they watch (if not read) Chetan Bhagat. I give them my own example too. I was the non-English type that Bhagat writes about in his novel. As a child, I was picked on for not being able to speak English properly (among other things). When I narrate my experiences in the very language I was afraid to speak once, they listen with rapt attention. The bottom-line always is, "If I can do it, so can you, because you're way smarter and you have more resources at your disposal than I did."

In English, I discovered, I could circumvent the need to conform to my masculinity in every other sentence I uttered or framed in my head.

That is what I say to them in the classroom, and it is true. However, in private, when I try to spell out the reasons that motivated me to learn English, I realise that it was not merely to escape the nasty comments of my peers. The desire to learn English sprang from a deeper place. Despite Hindi being my first language, I was never fully comfortable with the gendering of verbs that it required. It just did not feel right somehow, especially when I used Hindi self-reflexively, that is, to think about myself. In English, I discovered, I could circumvent the need to conform to my masculinity in every other sentence I uttered or framed in my head. English gendered its third-person pronouns, but you don't use third-person pronouns when you think about yourself. The pronoun for self (I) is genderless in most languages I know. English allowed me to escape gendered verbs while referring to myself. So I started using English first to communicate with myself before I used it with anyone else. Given English's malleable and ever-evolving nature, even third person pronouns are on their way to becoming more gender-neutral. The choice of gender-neutral 'they' as the word of the year in 2015 stands testimony to the change.

However, I must add, that even after all these years, I feel my relationship with the English language is queer. Although I use it for the greater part of the day, I feel it's not coming from my heart but from my mind. I am acutely conscious of it while I am speaking it. I can still perceive the shadow that my first language casts upon my English.

In fact, when I was teaching at a school, reprimanding the students was a big problem. When they had me worked up, my first instinct was to scold them in Hindi. But then I had to remind myself that I am an English teacher, and had to mentally change linguistic gears. My scolding in English did not ring true though. School kids, besides being capable of inducing meltdowns, are also quite smart. They see through you. My reprimanding, consequently, was not effective, because it did not pack the punch that it would have had in Hindi. But if I had to explain a concept to them it always instinctively came out in English.

The bestselling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche confessed in one of her interviews that she can speak Igbo (her native language) fluently; she can laugh, gossip, and bitch in Igbo, but she cannot make an intellectual argument in Igbo.

This, I suppose, is true for many of the colonised peoples. The bestselling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche confessed in one of her interviews that she can speak Igbo (her native language) fluently; she can laugh, gossip, and bitch in Igbo, but she cannot make an intellectual argument in Igbo. She echoes in a way what author Raja Rao had succinctly stated in the last century: English is the language of our intellectual makeup, not our emotional makeup.

Many of us can relate to this sentiment. We are not masters of our own languages, whereas we have mastered the language of our former masters. Yet we can never own the English language the way we own our native language. We can never take the same kind of liberties with English, not with the same sense of ownership at any rate. Most Indianisms started off as erroneous usages; they were not deliberate manoeuvres — purists still avoid them. Of course, there are writers and poets who try to subvert this hegemony through their art, but regular users of the lingua-franca will always find resonance in the words of James Joyce:

"The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language."

We are not masters of our own languages, whereas we have mastered the language of our former masters.

Yet, the irony is that Joyce (like Chimamanda and Raja Rao) chose to write in the very English language that he 'othered' so dramatically. I too have never undertaken any form of creative writing of considerable length in my native language. Add to this the fact that I use the forceps of English to dissect the delicate and nebulous idea that we call the self. Thus I am not too sure if the strict binary that Raja Rao evokes still holds true. The act of creating art is as intimate as the act of constructing and deconstructing the self. All three processes demand both of the emotional and intellectual faculties. Maybe, then, the English language works as a bridge between these two faculties for people like me. My secret desire is always to help the students find at least one such personal reason as they navigate through the convoluted contours of the English language.

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