Why English?

The dilemma of the colonised

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Why English?

Prof Nomad

The editor of a volume of poetry that I recently contributed to sent me a short bio text that they will include in the book. The bio included this:

“Not atypical of linguists from South Asia, his first degree was in English literature. He dropped the formal study of English literature pretty soon after graduating; but, has continued writing.”

There is nothing wrong with the bio – it is correct.

What bothers me about the text are the reasons why I first studied English literature, and then English linguistics, and then Applied* (English) Linguistics & TESOL. [*I still don’t know how “applied” my degree was.]

And this bothers me because the decisions that led to my study of, in, and about English were taken before I was even born and by people who do and did not know of my existence.

Those in power when Pakistan came into existence had already decided on maintaining English in the country.

In fact, the decision had been taken back in 1835 when Lord Thomas Macaulay, who served on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838, stated:

“… How, then, stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We much teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands preeminent even among the languages of the West… Whoever knows that language, has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said that the literature now extant in that language is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world spoken together. Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects… (Source: Thomas Babington Macaulay, from “Minute on Indian Education”, 1835)

Here, in this short extract, lies a description of the present state of many of our colonised nations. Many of us have now adopted Macaulay’s belief* that we cannot at present be educated by means of [our] mother-tongue. Our colonised governments and elites also believe that whoever knows that language [English], has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth. These two reasons are amongst the most common ones given in support of English today.  [*Macaulay’s minutes are based on his beliefs, not on data or factual information; “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.“ he wrote in the same document.]

The reasons why our elites promote English today were also identified by Macaulay back in 1835: “In India [which includes much of today’s South Asia], English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government.” The elites were already learning and using English to better themselves (not the larger community) – even before the Mughal Empire was formally abolished. When the British (like most other colonisers) left the direct control of their territories (because it no longer served their interests), they transferred the power to that group of people who were already benefiting from the coloniser’s socio-semiotics: coloniser’s ways of being, knowing, and doing. Doing so enabled the colonisers to maintain control of their colonies through socio-semiotics, not direct rule. They could now transfer the pains and responsibilities of everyday management of the lands and peoples to those who would continue the policies and practices introduced by the British; and, so, even today, our successive governments continue to provide material and other benefits – including human resources – to the colonisers.

Macaulay underestimated that English “is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East”. Today, English is often the preferred language of education and coporations; and, hence, has become the language of commerce world-wide. He proudly proclaimed that English “is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia”: the two “great European communities” that followed (and continue to follow) the precedence set in India to suppress and destroy Indiginous languages, ways of being, ways of knowing, and ways of doing. Today, Indigenous, colonised, and/or other marginalised communities in all these parts of the world are still led to believe in the hegemonic discourse that English and knowledge in and through English is the only path to success.

The quote ends with Macaulay’s assumed conclusion that “of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects”. Ironically, by listening to English-first advocates throughout the colonised world, it appears that Macaulay’s words are truer today – over one hundred and eighty years after he wrote them – than when he wrote them.

Macaulay Minutes from 1835 nicely explains why I and so many of us are given no choice but to learn English and through English. Those who succeed in achieving these targets are given access to lucrative corporate and global jobs – much like those who spoke English were given positions of power by the British. Most others have to make by with what they have –  while continuing to believe that if only they had learnt English well or payed attention on their studies, their lives would have been better. These people are given no alternatives to “succeed” in life. This limitation of opportunities to succeed in local contexts through local languages and local ways of doing is one cause of crime, corruption, poverty, and violence in our countries.

The political agenda of promoting English and knowledge in English dates back centuries. It was published and promoted by the colonial governments, universities, and educational systems. It formed the basis of the curricula in social sciences, law, business, humanities, and even the sciences in the elite British universities. Universities which serve as models for setting-up our own universities and disciplines.

Many of our political leaders who later fought against direct colonial rule were educated in colonial universities and practiced their professions in English (or another colonial language). Their education was often carried out in English and sometimes in British universities (e.g. Gandhi, Jinnah, and Nehru all received their training in law in England). The curriculum that they studied was based in and promoted western interests. Many of our founding leaders believed in the discourses that they had been taught during their education and work. For example, Jinnah’s belief that a nation needs one language to succeed was based in western European thought. It is this thought that contributed to the decrease of linguistic diversity across western Europe to create modern-day nation-states. And, it is our leaders’ belief in the colonial thought that a country needs one common language (and religion) that has led to creating language policies that empower just one (or a few) languages as national or provincial languages. The majority of Indigenous languages are disempowered through non-recognition and a lack of support. No investment is made to develop economies in Indigenous languages; and, hence, speakers of these languages are forced to abandon their own ways of being, knowing, and doing in order to seek employment elsewhere. This has lasting individual and communal implications. For example, when either of the parents are absent from home for long periods of time in order to make money, there is a higher risk that their children will be exploited.

Policies that empower English and one (or few) local languages are made on purpose because the elites continue to believe (perhaps out of ignorance or out of self-interest) in the western myth that a country can only succeed if it has one common language. And, in the meanwhile, English is protected as the language of knowledge and the corporate world.

It is in this context that the government of Pakistan (and many other colonised countries) chose to maintain and continue to promote English over all other languages. In doing so, successive governments – either through neglect or poor policy and practice – continue to destroy Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing. And, by doing so, these governments destroy the very peoples whose care and welfare is their responsibility.

Our governments are able to maintain the prominance of English by continuing to create policies and practices that demonstrate to the masses that they need English to be “successful”. By doing so, they also retain their own power and position. The power and position that Macaulay said will be passed on to a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

However, Macaulay made a mistake in his follow-up statement. He was wrong in predicting that this “class of persons”, who became leaders of the country in time, will translate the western knowledge into their own languages: “To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

Macaulay believed that the class of persons that they train will translate the knowledge learnt and share it with others to “benefit” their communities. This, at best, was wishful thinking. More than the knowledge that they learnt from the books, this class of persons learnt how the British used language, education, and economics as tools of building power, control, and influence. In turn, when they took over the everyday governance of our lands, they maintained the socio-semiotics of the British and now use them to keep themselves in power. By doing so, they have maintained and extended colonisation, one where we now have layers of colonised and colonising communities within and outside our countries.

Even if it were true and English was indeed the only key to success, access to the English of “success” is a myth for many. The type of English that one needs to succeed through English is controlled by testing corporations (e.g. TOEFL, IELTS, Pearson) and corporate publishers (e.g. Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard/Princeton University Presses). The English needed to meet the requirements of corporate tests, universities, and jobs is restricted to those who come from certain socio-economic backgrounds: people who are able to study in schools where elite English medium curriculum is used and afford the exorbitant charges for corporate tests and other training. By using money to both define and control access to “good” English and education, elites control who gets access to the language and knowledge of power.

The elite’s support of English is in their interests; not the majority. For the majority of people, English is a gate-keeper that keeps opportunities shut for them.

The above – in a nutshell – is what bothered me about why I was given no choice but to study (in) English: to make the dreams of Lord Macaulay, a colonial agent, come true.

And, even after I left my formal study of English literature and shifted to linguistics, I studied linguistics in a Department of English. That is, I studied English linguistics.

And, furthermore, the linguistics I studied was designed to train me as an English language teacher. We were hardly taught any linguistics. We were taught English grammar and ways of teaching English. We were not even taught how many languages were spoken across Pakistan.

There was not – and is not – a Department that focuses on Indigenous languages of Pakistan (excluding some provincial/national languages) at the University of Karachi.

But, we have Departments of English and French and…

Why have we never invested in understanding our own peoples and communities? Why have we not cultivated our own ways of being, knowing, and doing? Why do we continue to follow the socio-semiotics of our colonisers at the cost of our own peace and prosperity?

And, when I say this in the context of Pakistan, I mean, why has the state not invested in languages other than Urdu and English. Why has it neglected and suppressed speakers of other languages? Why do we not have sustainable economies that use and empower local languages? Why does this continue to happen today? How can there be a ‘naya’ (new) Pakistan, without ‘nayi’ (new) socio-semiotics: without a new approach to supporting and enhancing the diversity of local languages, ways of being, ways of doing, and ways of knowing?

Perhaps, if we and our governments invest in diversity, things can change.

We can learn about and from each other; and develop respect for each other.

This will develop harmony, prosperity, and most importantly: self-respect and self-esteem.

This would mean that we have really become post-colonial: our socio-semiotics are no longer colonised by others.

To make this happen, we need to “do” things (i.e. take action) in our academic, personal, and professional lives. Do things that are grounded in our contexts and are developed for the purpose of empowering ourselves.


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