Saturday, October 7, 2017

English: Our way or their way?

Because of the colonial baggage it’s associated with, English as a language is both a hiramanaye and kaduwa. It allures us and distances us. We love it and are afraid of it. We want it but can’t have it. At the same time. Concurrently. English Our Way is the official policy regarding the teaching of the language in our schools, and I believe in our universities too. The concept as such is easy: Sri Lanka must get rid of its colonial baggage and that by being empowered to speak the colonialist’s language the way its people want. Warts and all. Taken it itself, there’s nothing wrong with this line of thinking. The proverbial devil, however, and as always, is in the details.

The problem with English Our Way, which I have written on elsewhere and have explored with unabated interest, is roughly the same problem with affirmative action policies, no matter how well structured and well intentioned they are, since at the end of the day both reward and even subsidise mediocrity. It’s one thing to praise your child when he or she plays the piano, it’s another thing to think of sending him or her to Juilliard even before the basics are picked up and mastered. English Our Way (which I will refer to as “EOW” hereafter) substitutes complacency for precision, encouragement for pedagogy, and, probably worse of all, staticity for dynamism. A language can’t be predicated purely on how a collective wields it, after all.

In Sri Lanka and at the outset, English is still very much a marker of distinction, status, and privilege, as opposed to ability. The irony is that language being a great leveller has almost always been used, not to communicate, but to divide. The bigger irony with respect to English, however, is that its function as a social divider is based on how it is spoken. Not how it’s read or written. That’s why we still haven’t produced a great prose stylist, a great poet or novelist or even playwright, in English. Snobbery is and always will be, when based on a language, dependent on how the snobs, or the “uppities” as I call them, articulate. Not on how they write, not on whether they’ve read, and not on whether they’re productive. It’s less a matter of learning to wield it at all than of learning to get through the elocution class.

A language is nothing if it isn’t made to live, to breathe. English, in our country that is, hasn’t been made to live and breathe for a long, long time, particularly at the hands of those who insist on speaking it for the purpose of social mobility. It’s largely a variant of my earlier argument for cultural modernity: if we don’t take to the world outside without losing our grip on our cultural sphere, we can’t progress one inch.

The problem with English here is that we are divided between the gama and the city. Those in the gama, proverbially speaking, are legitimately interested in gaining worldly knowledge (in terms of literature, philosophy, popular culture, etc) for the betterment of their society. They lack the requisite skills in lingua franca, however. Those in the city, again proverbially speaking, are less interested in worldly knowledge than in spawning their peers. They have those skills. It’s a division between those who can do but don’t have, and those who can’t do but do have. The one aren’t endowed but can do wonders, while the others are but, pathetically, can’t.

I am amused whenever those who lived and were educated at elite institutions before the 1956 election and revolt contend that they lived in peace and amity because there were no linguistic barriers: both Sinhalese and Tamil, and Muslims and Burghers thrown in for good measure, spoke the same language. English. What’s forgotten here is that inasmuch what transpired after 1956 was an uprooted social process, what existed before it could hardly be referred to as an arcadia. No less a person than Regi Siriwardena, who himself was no basher of English, called a spade a spade when he cogently pointed out the mistake of this pre-1956 generation: confusing their privileged childhoods for the notion, and myth, that a completely English education had done away with the interethnic rifts which were to emerge in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. It’s in this context that what happened after swabasha must be assessed.

Swabasha wasn’t a misconceived project, but like EOW, its intentions, laudable as they were, concealed certain deplorable flaws. The thinking behind the movement that bred swabasha, which was contorted politically to yield Sinhala Only, was that no nation was going to develop without coming to terms with its history, its heritage. On the other hand this did not and does not mean a rubbishing of the colonialist’s language, or for that matter his customs. Anagarika Dharmapala, that much vilified national figure, was therefore careful in differentiating between absorbing the West and aping it: for him, we were preoccupied with the latter, not the former. That is why, as records indicate, he went to the extent of teaching the Sinhalese to eat with a fork and a spoon. Malinda Seneviratne wrote on this and observed the following: “Acquiring the weapons of the enemy or in the very least picking up mannerisms [makes] it harder for the enemy to distinguish himself/herself from the ‘rabble’.”

Naturally then, swabasha never meant “letting go” of English. But that’s what we did. Those who were elected to power, who then transformed a much needed social process to a narrow-minded, chauvinistic political process, made it a habit to condemn the elite and the language of the elite while wallowing in it. They praised the game iskole, the sangha, veda, guru, govi, and kamkaru, while ensuring that their kith and kin didn’t go to that celebrated iskole but would learn their letters and obtain their higher education in the big city school and overseas. This dichotomy between practice and precept has been sustained all these decades. Sadly. One comes across them in very many speeches, by our officials, even today, when they speak about the wretched and the helpless. These officials aren’t bothered by the wretched and the helpless, of course: they just want to turn their sympathy for them into political mileage.

By letting go of the lingua franca we gave into what those we fought against – the elite theoreticians and ivory tower scholars – had wanted all along: a different and more insidious form of social discrimination. What swabasha did was to hide away social divisions without really hiding them. By temporarily consoling the underprivileged, 1956 repressed their concerns and anxieties and at the same time sustained those divisions which had been ailing them until then. The problem wasn’t with the movement, clearly, but with the people who had been elected to direct it. It was as much an attempt at levelling our society as it was at getting that society closer to the kind of cultural modernity, rationality, and industrialisation that the likes of the Anagarika here and Tagore there, during the Bengal Renaissance, had envisioned.

It didn’t take long for those concerns and anxieties, of the underprivileged, to re-emerge. There’s a symbiotic relationship in any country between the language of the discriminating minority, the language of the rabble, and the insurrections and revolutions such a rift provokes. It happened in Russia, where the mother tongue was discarded in favour of French (which readers of War and Peace will know is what the aristocrats speak), and it happened in Sri Lanka, twice: in 1971 and 1988. While it would be simplistic to root these in language barriers, they did have a say, and still have a say. Because those who are rather mediocre in the language fear it, they believe that their inability is a sign that it shouldn’t be learnt at all, which is why the children of 1971 and 1988 are the hardcore radicals the children of 1956 were not. The latter were more often than not idealists, who genuinely believed that the country had opened up to them.

It has not. Not yet.

So after all these insurrections and calls to arms, after the stalled revolution that was 1956 was aborted, what do have today? A program that teaches us that language standards are very many, that there is no one standard or yardstick which can be used to assess ability and mediocrity. I am no originalist, and when it comes to English there probably are several standards (Indian, Jamaican, Singaporean, etc) which can be coupled with and separated from its birthplace. But there’s a difference between those countries and ours. That difference, which I pointed out above, is that we are still carrying that burdensome colonial baggage. India has, for the most, let go of this baggage: that’s why they aren’t bothered with diction and accents and even elocution (the latter of which I studied, and was chastened by). They don’t have the English-as-she-should-be-spoke mentality we do, which is how they developed over the years.

To be sure, not everything in India should be emulated, after all theirs is a vastly different territory. But when it comes to the dissemination of English, which is so voluminous that it deserves a less sketchy treatment than mine, our neighbours provide a good starting point. Which is where I rest my case, for now: the more you give into the notion that mediocrity in a powerful language is alright, the more you give into the rift between the uppities and the underprivileged, between the have-nots and the snobs. Language is still potent, a divider as opposed to a leveller. It remains a sign of cultural hegemony. Even in India, and especially in Sri Lanka. English Our Way, by the looks of it therefore, may well be an extension, no matter how well paved with intentions the road to it is, of what we saw after 1956, 1971, and 1988.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 6 2017