Be it due to our colonial legacy, the need of the business-world or the desire to assimilate faster, the South Asian region has always had an English obsession. Many make opinions about people’s worth and character, not just linguistic prowess, based on their English skills.
English is thrust at us from all directions and the worst is: one cannot blame it either! We need it. After all, it has become a ladder for progress in today’s globalised world. It is a compulsion, not a choice. But while the aspiration is reasonable, the taunts often inflicted on those who are unable or struggling to reach the Society-designated level of proficiency can be counter-productive. Non-English speakers are treated as illiterates in an often boorish manner.
In most cases, it is the non-English speakers who have to work double-hard to break that bias. But admonishments only delay their journey to pick up the language and widen the bias of the two groups about each other. Moreover, it clouds the ability to appreciate the other, more important, qualities the person may have – be it work-skills, lifestyle-skills, maturity, character, etc.
While all South Asian countries face a deficit of quality English conversationalists, despite churning out a hefty number of graduates per year, the bias created by such taunts further widens the internal societal-divides. But the objective here is not to downgrade English and spur nationalistic passions towards local languages. Rather it is to downgrade this counter-productive admonishment and the perception-bias it creates to appreciate an individual’s broader knowledge of life.
The 2012 Indian film “English Vinglish” starring Sridevi offers a fantastic case. It shows the relationship between Sridevi, a person not proficient in the language, and her husband, who is. At home in Pune, umpteen taunts were inflicted by the husband (and their English-proficient daughter) on the wife which she bears silently. When she visits her sister in New York for her niece’s marriage, she gets a chance to get free from that environment of constant admonishment. Apart from the wedding planning, she takes some classes at a local English-speaking institute. There she meets several people who are also struggling with the language and facing their own variants of bias in their neck-of-the-woods.
Their common struggle and efforts to overcome this challenge bond them closer, creating an environment of camaraderie that was missing in the husband-wife relationship shown in the initial scenes. The climax is at the wedding, where Sridevi gives a speech to the young couple in English. Despite talking in an alien tongue, her words show deep wisdom and understanding about managing life, marriage, relationships, friendship and family, something her husband had failed to understand for years, due to his upfront bias.
While the film’s scriptwriter deserves accolades for the lines, the credit of its delivery goes to the brilliance of Sridevi’s acting. Not just the climax, the quality of her acting kept viewers entertained while subtly highlighting the underlying message in each scene. Not many actors could have performed the role with the aplomb as she did. As many mourn the untimely demise of one of India’s most versatile actors on February 24, it may be worthwhile to recall her role in making us re-think our ‘perception of English’.
While she did a lot of memorable roles, this one stands out in my mind. Of all the legacies she leaves behind, her strongest one will probably be about how she diverted our disproportionate bias for English into making us appreciate our fellow-beings for their wider knowledge, understanding, maturity and skills. That legacy might just make the bonds in our relationships and societies stronger!
As the adage goes, if someone speaks worse English than you, it probably means he knows one more language than you. The other way of reading it would be: you are only as intelligent as your ability to read the instructions on a box. If the instructions are in another language, you may fail to use and value the content for its true worth!
Image Courtesy: Reuters & CNN News18