Reading the Hindustan Times on my train ride to Agra, I came across an article titled, “English is Ok but Hindi is the New Cool.” In the article, the author describes Hindi as an “orphaned language” and writes about coming from a small town “where people thought success in life was not possible without learning English.” He explains though, that there has been a change in attitude over the past few years: Hindi has started to gain back its “cool quotient” thanks to a new breed of writers, publishers, and entrepreneurs who have been promoting Hindi through their work.
When I came across this article, I was pretty ecstatic. It couldn’t have been more opportune, as the subject had been on the front of my mind since my first week in India. When I arrived at LEAP, I was expecting to work on programs for skill development– that is, professional skills like teamwork, problem solving and communication– but instead, I quickly learned that I would be working on a program that taught English. At first I was confused- what does learning English have to do with skill development? Are these students trying to work abroad?
My coworkers explained to me that for many students, speaking English is the most desirable skill of all. It is what LEAP was best at teaching and what students wanted to learn most, so they switched the focus of the program. Learning English is perceived by many as “a way out,” they shared, the first step towards gaining opportunity and improving your future. In India, the ability to speak English opens up many career paths.
I quickly learned that the significance of English speaking was far more profound than this functional explanation. English ability plays a huge role in perceived social stratification, with English-speaking as a visible marker of class and prestige. I see this every day when I get lunch at Khan market, one of the most upscale shopping areas in Delhi (and apparently the world’s 24th most expensive retail location). Virtually all of the patrons speak to each other in English, while the small shopkeepers, guards and maintenance staff do not. In the office, people speak in English almost exclusively. (I have found that the primary exception to this norm is when people are really riled up about something; with an increase in volume comes a quick increase in percentage of Hindi).
As a byproduct of this association with class, the ability to speak English becomes a source of confidence for many Indians. Even if you may not have the wealth or careers of the elite, speaking English gives you the chance to at least appear as if you do, to be perceived by others as well educated and on the path towards upward social mobility. I saw this in the father who boasted to me for minutes about his daughter’s great handwriting and scores in English class or the rickshaw driver who proudly told me that he was attending night classes so he could become literate in English.
I have come to understand that the inverse relationship between English and confidence is equally strong, if not stronger. Just as ability to speak English brings confidence, the lack of ability can be a major source of insecurity and shame.
There have been many times where in the midst of great conversations, people repeatedly discredited their skills, apologizing for their English and saying that they “only speak a little” even though they were having full and intelligible conversations with me. After reminding people that they were doing great and had excellent English, I have been told things like, “You give me morale boost.” A friend even texted me once that he had a “confession” and “confessed” to me that he used to be very poor at English but now feels much better. “My confidence has improved so much since talking with you,” he said.
In his book, India Calling, Anand Giridharadas explains that post British Raj, a new “self-confidence and liberty to be Indian without apology evolved.” Still though, “the colonial stain, that residual longing to be someone apart from yourself,” left its mark. Fewer and fewer Indians strove to be English, but millions of Indians strove to learn English, Giridharadas recounts.
He describes an elite class of Indians in the late 20th century who “clung to the sense of their own superiority, calling ordinary Indians by condescending names such as ‘vernie’ for ‘vernacular.’” English ability became the distinct marker of an emerging form of Indian elitism.
And here we are today, with members of the elite class participating in an intentional movement to reject this history. After being interrupted by the trauma of colonialism, a pride for Hindi may in fact be on the verge of a “comeback.” However, I take the article’s notion of a wide-sweeping “comeback” with a grain of salt. While this may be true for a specific elite and urban class of Indians, this Hindi revolution is not reaching all parts of society. From my time speaking with students at LEAP, I understand that for many Indians, speaking English is still a major impediment to equal access to opportunity and a huge determiner of self and social worth. For people with many other sources of cultural capital (read: high levels of education, wealth, and social influence) this reclamation of Hindi may be possible. For others, though, speaking Hindi or their mother tongue is still not enough.
Given this context, I understand why so many students are dying to learn English. And while I am glad that English-learning offers a clear and direct means towards improved self-confidence and career opportunities, I feel sad that this barricade exists in the first place. It is disheartening to see that for many, confidence is derived from the acquisition of a language that was historically forced on them. The skidmarks of colonialism persist even when the colonialists have left…
I would like to believe in an India that transcends this past, a world where self-actualization is found in your mother tongue and on your own terms, but for now, I work within the confines of reality. Although I have my qualms about working within this English-centric framework, I have had to accept and embrace English-learning as a tool for tackling social inequalities in India. “Cool” or not, English is a means of upward mobility and I am excited to see how LEAP’s English program helps equalize the playing field for the students who participate.
- Giridharadas, Anand. India Calling: an Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. St. Martin’s, 2012.