School English medium to hai, lekin theek nahin hai. Sabhi teachers ko MTI ki problem hai. Bachche kaisi English seekhenge?”
(It’s English medium school, all right, but no good. All teachers suffer from MTI. What kind of English would the kids pick up?)
We were on a post-Diwali social visit in Haryana. My nephew was sharing his plans to move out of the village to a big city to secure better English education for their two school-going kids. “But they are already going to an English medium school in the town nearby,” I countered. That’s when he mentioned MTI.
We were puzzled, as we had never heard of MTI. He was puzzled, as he did not expect his educated chacha and chachi not to know about MTI. Looking at our expression, he spelt it out: Mother Tongue Influence. That’s when it dawned upon us: the teachers spoke English with an accent that betrayed their mother tongue.
We came back home and checked. Sure enough, we were idiots. MTI is a well-recognised ‘problem’. A simple Google search on “mother tongue influence” yields thousands of pages. Umpteen videos and portals, mostly Indian, almost entirely focused on English, seek to guide us about how to get rid of this problem, speak ‘natural’ English, gain confidence and build career and so on.
Any linguist will tell us that the ‘disease’ called MTI does not exist, that this is a universal condition. Mother tongue influence is the most normal, natural and healthy feature of how human beings use languages. If anything, native speakers of English are the worst victims of MTI, since they never outgrow it! The tiny island called Great Britain displays multiple forms of MTI affected English: not just Scottish and Irish but also accents like Birmingham. A language like English that enjoys a global footprint today is bound to have multiple registers, dialects and accents. If there is an American English, Australian English and Canadian English, surely there is room for Indian English, Bengali English, Tamil English and so on.
It is easy to laugh at this tragic-comic situation of aspirational Indians trying desperately to forget their mother tongue. Those like me who have acquired English as an alien second language – I still struggle with my articles and prepositions – need only to look back at their own painful journey. Those who picked it up almost as their first language might also recall how they developed a clipped accent or eased into American lingo. NRIs struggling to erase desi traces is not uncommon. If MTI is a code word for cultural inferiority and self-hatred, this syndrome affects us all.
Allow me one more story, far removed from the village. About 20 years ago, we met a renowned scholar who was trained abroad and spoke charming, non-MTI English. On learning about my writing in Hindi, she complimented me on dissemination work. I corrected her as I published some of my original research in Hindi. She was appalled “how can you do conceptual work in Hindi?” I mistook it to be a south Indian contempt for Hindi. But she clarified that she thought no better of Tamil or Kannada or any other bhasha. “These are not languages of modern thought. You can write stories and songs, but you cannot do social theory in these languages,” she said, closing the conversation.
I suspect she spoke for a vast majority of monolingual, Anglophone elite in our country and those who look up to them. My nephew did not have her articulation and social confidence, but he shared this enchantment of English. Put bluntly, the unspoken belief is that English is the privileged vehicle for modernity. Any desi trace would dilute the modernity that we aspire to. Hence the division of cultural labour between cognitive and expressive that Probal Dasgupta has drawn our attention to. English is the language of cognition, of expertise, of science, of economy and our future. Bhashas are for street gossip, for recalling our childhood and expressing our emotions. This deep cultural prejudice, a modern superstition, is at the root of the anxiety to get rid of MTI.
Language is the site of class struggle in most societies. It is the favourite ground for games of cultural superiority. This contestation gets worse in post-colonial societies like ours. We practise a virtual linguistic apartheid. English is a language of power. Its relationship to Indian languages – bhashas as U.R. Ananthamurthy used to call this family – is not dissimilar to that of the white race to non-whites under the apartheid regime. Acquisition of English is not about learning a language, it is a passport to power. No wonder, English is intimately linked to aspirations, frustrations, comedy, tragedy, and farce.
The real tragedy of what my nephew seeks to do is not just that it has no basis in linguistics and pedagogy. Nor that he is giving in to a form of self-hatred and cultural inferiority, that this is a race where he would always be a loser, always a mile behind the elite. The real tragedy is that the spoken English industry has managed to make him see his potential strength as his weakness. We Indians cannot contribute our best to humanity by faithfully learning the Queen’s English. Our creativity and excellence will have to draw upon MTI. It is only by drawing upon MTI from all over the world that the English language and modern thinking would be enhanced. As Ram Manohar Lohia reminded as, we cannot be modern by looking side-ways at someone else’s modernity. We must stand on our own feet and look ahead.
We don’t need to follow Lohia’s prescription of Angrezi Hatao [banish English]. The slogan for our times can be Angrezi Badlo [transform English]. An unabashed Indianisation of English, that involved borrowing and learning from bhashas, would not only rescue our deracinated elite, it might also rescue English itself. For far too long, English has remained an Auntie-tongue, a respected outsider. It is time to embrace MTI and make English another bhasha, another mausi in our family.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)