The Coloniser’s Tongue : English
- This post is about English. I was educated at a private English school in the heart of the old Empire. I studied the British way. Learned to say autumn instead of fall, and add a “u” to color and honor. I did my O and A Levels via Cambridge International Examinations. I had afternoon tea, enjoyed Cadbury’s Freddos, read Dickens and Hardy and more from the canon, and grew up British in a way but not quite. My grandfather fought in the Second World War as part of the British Army. His family and his passports said “British India”, and there was a bus from London to Calcutta. My mother went to a convent and was taught by nuns, who were out on a misson to civilise the heathens of India. The headmistress of my first school was Anglo-Indian, that’s how I learnt at the age of four what a child of a white British person and a brown Indian person is called; Anglo-Indian. Despite growing up Pakistani, English was the way to be, the right way to be in empire land at least.
- English as the lingua franca of the world.
I studied English with a passion, I studied it with a zeal and in thus doing so I lost my own native tongue, what a betrayal, to speak your coloniser’s language better than your own. But perhaps, I am not the only one to blame, for it was an entire systematic supression of our culture and language as English was idolised and problematically marketed as the only way to get ahead in the world. Urdu was looked down upon, banned from my school, in fact we were awarded little badges which indicated that this student has only been seen communicating in English, and thus systematically, slowly, bit by bit we erased our own language and culture. We studied Urdu daily, however English was not only a subject but the medium in which every other subject was taught, so in order to study math, history, science, art one first had to know English- so 1 hour of Urdu daily versus 6 hours of English. But it was only to make sure we excelled globally, after all isn’t all the groundbreaking research published in English? Isn’t all the best literature written in English? Don’t the most prosperous nations speak English? Would you wish for your child to be left rotting in some backwaters of the world while others excel by virtue of knowing English?
- English as a synonym for internationalisation/globalisation. Wherever I travelled to in my life I had an advantage, thanks to my English medium, Western education. I was respected, understood immediately, complimented on my clear pronunciation, told I was intelligent and to a great degree “othered” to less of an extent that someone from my part of the world, with my religion and markedly South Asian looks would have been in a xenophobic post 9/11 world. In Europe I was often asked to be an au pair, in China a teacher, and others tried to recruit me for their companies all in awe of this paradox, this anomaly, this non-native native speaker. I often tried to reiterate that my English fluency was no more remarkable than their Polish, Russian, Italian and so on but this was always met with “But English is international, you can go all over the world and speak it, what use is my language? English is the only one that matters.” Internationalisation, cosmopolitan or a modern-day janissary? I can recite the history of others better than my own, I can talk of cultural icons of the West and have read all the most important books by all the dead white men, but what of my own past? I am a stranger to it.
- English as the marker of a colonial past. British India happened. The colonial past cannot be denied, or painted over. English is a part of our lives now, to the extent that many Urdu words have been replaced with English words and the original Urdu words for those objects have faded from the population’s knowledge. What is a glass called in Urdu? I do not know, my parents do not know, my friends and neighbours do not know – in fact nobody knows anymore. I do not think I speak Urdu, I speak a mixture at the very best of Urdu/English, I may start in one language while completing my sentence in the other. We still have the last few white British beggars begging in the Queen’s English, roads and cities named after colonisers, every road sign is in English and Urdu both, our constitution is in English and speaking English is something everyone does to a varying degree.
- English as a status symbol. It is no wonder then, that in the absence of the colonisers’ domination, people rose to take that position by embodying the colonisers themselves. Despite English being ubiquitious and one of the official languages of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – and the language of its constitution – access to English is restricted to those with money and power. To those who can afford the outrageous costs of a private education, because the public school system has failed. So speaking English in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan means you grew up : rich, privileged, educated, waited upon and with a silver spoon in your mouth. It means your thoughts, ideas, desires and time are far more valuable than of those who cannot speak English or do so with an accent. It means high society shall open its doors to you. It means when you speak, you will truly be heard. It means you matter.
- English as a measure of intelligence.
In the words of one of my favorite poets, Yusra Amjad, on the place of English in Pakistan “Being bad at Math, makes you, well, bad at Math but being bad at English makes you stupid.” English is the measure of intelligence and the fairness of one’s skin the measure of beauty in a nation that still staggers under the weight of the colonial hangover. All your other talents and intelligences are reducible to zero if you cannot speak English and that too a smooth accentless one. What use is your being a brilliant economist or writer if you mispronounce a word in a fine gathering and end up being ostracised as a crude unpolished hillbilly. What use is art and literature that is not in English, but to prove that you weren’t intelligent enough to be able to do it in English. On the other hand if you fail at every subject save English then of course it is simply because the other subjects were just not interesting enough to your genius.
- English as a claim to legacy.
Despite all this, I claim English as my first language. Without doubt, without hesitation I assert my right to English; I write my diary in English, I think in English, I dream in English. Yet, my claim of nativeness is not accepted, and on the basis of this I have lost many a job to a fair skinned, blue eyed Eastern European who is stumbling over their words with just a rudimentary English grammar. But it is my skin the color of golden wheat, my lips my nose, my features that distinctly stand between me and my right to English. After the influx of South Asian refugees an episode of British Classics can claim Chicken Tikka Masala as a British classic while I after 89 years of direct British rule and then indirect geopolitical influence cannot claim English as my first language. Certain countries even impose nationality restrictions on English teachers on the basis of origin from English speaking countries, which leaves me and many more like me “othered”. Which is why the large number of South Asian writers writing in English are reiterating our claim to English as they twist English syntax and even invent new terms to Indianify English, not because they do not know English but because they have such a mastery of the language that they can manipulate it so and create an even richer and more meaningful text where two languages interact. The prime example of this would be in Rushdie’s work, especially Midnight’s Children where he uses terms such as “chutneyfied” and also refuses to write foreign terms as foreign or in quotation marks for they are not so, we also have a right to English and the right to legitimacy of our version of it.
My Lens; an English Educator
English was perhaps the skill that helped me feed myself, wherever I went there was always a steady supply of people who wished to learn English. As a kid in love with literature, English became something I found myself rather buried in, so my undergraduate degree was in the field of Foreign Language Education, with a concentration in English Teaching. Which is why when I think of education much of it is tainted by English teaching and more significantly the prestige struggle, post colonial dialogue, problematic deification of English and the West. These are also very pertinent issues in post-colonial South Asian education, and just by the virtue of language the entire country stands divided – the haves with their English medium education and the have-nots with their Urdu medium education, or in some cases no formal education. This raises very important questions for educational reform in the region, which side of the language divide do we build our system on, is English truly helping Pakistan progress or are we modern-day janissaries selling out our next generation in a Faustian deal with the Western governments who refuse to let peace and stability last in the region. Do we need to educate our next generation in a manner that revives our culture, our language and our traditions or does the answer lie in further Westernisation? Even if it does, how do we eradicate the postcolonial hangover and internalised self-hatred of a nation? Does Pakistan need further internationalisation as our economy buckles and multinational corporations bleed the country dry? If English education divides, can it also be the glue that brings together those who have fallen through the cracks? What is the hidden curriculum with English and Urdu medium educations and how that has produced a population at loggerheads with each other?
I will attempt to answer these questions in a second post, which will be the sequel of sorts to this one. This is also a work in progress and I wish to add far more research and detail to it along the course of time.
p.s this is the first draft, I have yet to proofread and rewrite so please be kind people