English, Mother Tongue and Effective Communication

I love words. I love the way they delight people, make them laugh, blush, enthrall. Words have power — power to transform a dull moment into a cheerful one, anger into laughter, jealousy into love and dislike into companionship. I do not like people who misuse words, abuse them, treat them carelessly: I wish they could understand the beauty words possess, a language as a whole possesses.

Effective communication is important in every sphere of life — from relationships to jobs. India is a multilingual country. Most of us are bilingual and some even trilingual. But the tragedy is, very few of us are proficient in even one language.

A growing number of students are learning in English medium schools. All professional courses are exclusively taught in English. English is the language of the courts and government institutions (at least at the higher levels). It is also the language of mobile phones, computers and internet. It is the language of aspiration. It opens the doors to white collar jobs, and makes the road towards upward mobility easier. If you know English, you have “arrived”. So it is not difficult to understand people’s fascination with English-medium schools or the coaching classes boasting to churn out fluent English speakers in a month or two.

But the starry-eyed obsession with English has at least one major casualty — effective communication. Our pathetic education system ensures that students remain grammatically challenged and have pitiable vocabulary. (Sample this sentence from my textual conversation with a friend: I didn’t knew that. The sentence made me cringe; I felt like throwing my phone away.) Mother tongues remain confined in the four walls of our homes as they do not have “snob” value, nor do they give us fancy jobs in multinational corporations. So no one takes the pains to master them.

Though the importance of English cannot be denied, it doesn’t need to come at the cost of our mother tongues. Indian languages have a history of centuries with a treasure trove of literature and rich vocabulary. You can ignore them at your own peril. Also, there is research which says that students learn English more quickly and effectively if they maintain and develop their proficiency in the mother tongue.

Philosopher and linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” And therefore, bilingualism (or multilingualism — depending on which part of India you live in) is a gift that we Indians are naturally bestowed with and which we rightfully need to acknowledge as such.

14 thoughts on “English, Mother Tongue and Effective Communication

  1. The idea is to get language right — whichever it may be. Not learn one in a haphazard manner. That irks. It reflects laziness.:-/

    BUT

    Language has always evolved over time. And that is because of the influence of colloquial words. If we all remained sticklers for the traditional rules of grammar, language would never change — for better or worse.

    That said, I still like to get my language right. Otherwise it sounds like music played offtune.

  2. I thought this post got over too soon. I was hoping to read your experiences with learning the language and how it has evolved, while I am sure you have too. Or vice-versa. Whatever it may be. I think that you should have taken another go at it and then posted it.

  3. I agree with Sameen, nothing to add to this? Yes, being bi-linguist or multilingual is great! But perfect proficiency in all?

    I am okay with “I didn’t knew that” as long as the person is ready to learn their tenses again. But then again, as long as the message got across, it was effective communication. Right?

    • Of course I could have expanded this article but didn’t feel the need to. And where do I in the article suggest that you should attain perfect proficiency in all the languages you know?

      And yes, I am okay with “I didn’t knew that” too, but only if you are in school. I expect better from an undergrad student who has studied in English medium school for 12 years. And yes, if the message gets across, it’s effective communication. But we don’t use language to only get simple messages across; we exploit it to convey irony, sarcasm, wonder, etc, which you can’t do unless you are proficient in the language. All I want for people is to just pay a little more attention while conversing in a language, any language.

  4. I actually think language is such an important part of cultural experience. That’s one of the few reasons that I hold dear about being born in this country.

    But I also worry about this “bilingual illiteracy” (a term I read somewhere).. where sometimes I can’t complete my sentences without borrowing words from the other language and going back and forth.. It makes me feel I am not proficient in either of the languages.

    What do you think about that?

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