Print Edition - 2016-03-06  |  Free the Words

Accepting ‘Englishes’

  • Use of English is the only way of communicating with the people of South Asia
- ABHI SUBEDI

Mar 6, 2016-

The remark made by a senior Sri Lankan delegate and well-known writer Daya Disanayake at the Saarc literary festival last month in Delhi struck me as very meaningful. In the last speech of the working session, Disanayake took umbrage at the liberal code switching by the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi writers. They used the common language to read poems and some stories and pieces of thought occasionally. In such meetings, held especially in India, a number of writers read out their Hindi works to a mixed audience of the region. For the Nepali delegates, as far as Hindi is concerned, there is no problem of comprehension. In fact, Nepalis understand Hindi better than the South Indians who are found lost when full-fledged Hindi readings take place at the conference. I have noticed a certain sense of nationalism and love for ones language in such readings. 

Using English

Disanayake complained that such discourses and readings, which are opaque to many members of the Saarc region, are a waste of time for the delegates who do not know the languages. Disanayake’s ire is targeted at people who fail to use English where it is needed. His remarks opened some important dimensions of the use of the English language in the Saarc region, which is not a new phenomenon. He was saying so to ease communication among the people of the countries of the South Asian region where experts and linguists have identified different forms of the language like Indian English, Pakistani English, Nepali English, Bangladeshi English, Sri Lankan English and Burmese English. But Afghan delegates who participate as citizens of a Saarc country have problems with the use of English. 

The expression ‘the empire writes back’, coined by Bill Ashcroft, a renowned critic and theorist of post-colonial theory, and colleagues, has the homonymy of ‘the empire strikes back’ for the writing in English by writers of the erstwhile British colonial territories. I have often encountered this problem in the South Asian literary meetings where learned papers are almost invariably presented in English. But creative writers glibly change codes. The use of English in South Asia has overcome the initial moments of ambivalence whether to freely use English for practical purposes or to always act with chips on the shoulder. I think South Asians have now entered a new phase of the English language debate—use it when you need it, but also use your own mother tongues when you find an audience in regional meetings such as the Saarc writers’ conference. 

When I see writers switching codes back and forth, I feel the use of English in South Asia has entered a new phase. But regional communication still requires the use of English. As a literary writer, I attend conferences where the writers’ medium is only language and nothing else. The Afghan writers and presenters’ use of English in such conferences is not quite as efficient as other writers’. Their codes are limited and they are less articulate, but they have to use English to communicate with other delegates. I have noticed that this is a new phenomenon: Use of English is the only way of communicating with the people of the region. 

In the classrooms

The 21st international conference of Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA) that is opening up shortly in Kathmandu brings the above matter in a different light. This huge regional conference of English teachers will discuss how to make the use of English effective in the classroom. This time the organisers have circulated a new theme, ‘Englishes’ in the classroom. I readily accepted to give a plenary session on this topic because I feel happy about the recognition of not just varieties but forms of English by the NELTA, which has a good regional network. The monolithic standard of English does not work anymore. Regional forms of English have been recognised by scholars over the years. Many works have been done over ‘Englishes’. 

One other point that should be noted is that English appears to be the most versatile ‘border-crossing’ language. Border crossing has become a favourite expression in sociological and cultural studies today, but the example of English language as the subtle border crosser holds a different significance. English adjusts with changing regional uses. It functions by assimilating regional forms. English is the most change-savvy language. To ignore forms of English today is no longer possible for English language teachers. But the most serious challenge for the teachers is to choose certain forms and make them useful from the point of view of teaching English. That is no ordinary matter. But to close doors to forms of English that emerge around you, in different domains of life and language use is to stay only with the English that was considered standard.

But to return to the Saarc writer’s ire about the free code switching by writers of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, literary writers who may use different forms of English in their literary communication understand each other’s varieties. Interestingly enough, the various forms of English that I have noticed in these conferences over the decades show that the best way to address the forms is to recognise and use them. This experience can be useful for English language teachers too. They do not have to make extra efforts to exercise with the forms; all they need to do is to assimilate the forms that are in common use in the selected teaching materials. This method will open up new frontiers for English language usage both in the literary world and in the classrooms.  

Published: 06-03-2016 10:55

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