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Role of English as a Tool for Communication in Tamil Society
Shanthi Nehemiah, M.A., M.Phil.
Interest in the Study of English
There has always been great interest in the study of English among the Tamils. However, this interest in the study of English has not resulted in noticeable widespread achievement in the use of English. Tamils have had a significant part in the development of English as an effective medium of writing fiction and even poetry.
For example, K. S. Venkataramani is one of the early masters of Indian writing in English. His deft handling of English is well recognized. He brought Indian atmosphere effortlessly in his writing in English.
The gypsy beggar is the lay extempore astrologer of Hindu society. He believes more in his own cleverness than in the possibility of distant planets exerting any influence over our destinies. So, all his glib predictions are cunningly coined phrases of certain universal currency, got out of a memory which is a rich storehouse of such jeweled wampums. He is a very clever and amiable student of human nature, remarkable for his intuitive powers. He can feel your thought pulses ten beats in advance. He is keen observer of men and things. He is all sagacity when he is charting, in rotund phrases of mellow felicity, the immediate future of a "pumpkin-bellied" landlord in whose house he has generously posted himself. He is a sweet talker, a consummate master of honeyed words, so long as there is a chance for alms. If he be repulsed, hard fighter as he is, he reverses all his rosy predictions, and curses with all the solemnity of an injured sage; for this he is sometimes well paid in ringing knocks and blows. Still in adversity, the advertising energy of his little drum which beats the eternal kudu, kudu, which means in Tamil "give, give," is immense. … (Venkataramani, 1921).
Likewise, in recent years, R. K. Narayan masterfully used English and he also came from the Tamil background.
Literary Achievement Not the Sole Yardstick - Why So?
While the level and achievement in creative writing should not be taken as the yardstick of the level of achievement in English, everyday writing in English among students with Tamil background is yet to reach significant levels of mastery. In other words, a desire to learn and use English is growing strong among the Tamils, but the ground reality is that the skill in using English does not keep pace with this desire.
Again one of the early attempts for the effective teaching and learning of English immediately after Independence began in Madras State, which adopted a campaign called Madras English Language Teaching campaign. The campaign began with the recommendation of a great educationist/linguistics scholar, Penfield, who insisted that early learning of another language before lateralization takes effect in human brain will lead to greater mastery of that language in children.
All these have not borne much fruit for various reasons. Primarily the skill level of English teachers in elementary and high schools is not adequate enough. Most rural families from which students come to attend these schools do not have any real exposure to continued use of English in their daily life. Political motivations and loyalty to our own Indian languages also may work against our ability to master this language adequately. And yet, often at work places, we do learn how to use English formally to meet our formal needs. But these reasons and contexts are not the focus of this article.
Globalization, Acquisition of English and Tamilnadu
Acquiring English language as a communication tool in the era of globalization has become mandatory for those who wish to participate in globalization and take advantage of what globalization offers in terms of culture, job, travel, technical knowledge and practice. It has come to pass that most of us in Tamilnadu have no other choice but to learn English if one wishes to be a global participant. English has become a necessary tool.
English as an International/Global language
What does a Global Language mean? Global English refers almost literally to the use of English as a global language. It means a common language for the world. A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country. Having such a status, the global language has to be of great importance, influencing all the domains of the human activity in the world. For example, English dominates every field such as the media, foreign language teaching, business, etc. English can be called an international language because of its simple and wide use already.
While English is not an official language in most countries, it is currently the language most often taught as a second language around the world. Today, we should acknowledge the fact that English is sweeping the earth's physical, economic, cultural and virtual space. English is the language of pop-culture, of tourism, of markets, of the Internet and trade. Several people speak English with their friends, and people get introduced to each other most often in English. Over half of all personal letters/sms/E-mails are also written in English. English encompasses more than just a convenient means of communication among people around the world.
Is English a Communication Tool to Understand Other (Western) Cultures?
The thinning of national borders due to globalization has made English a global communication tool. In one way or the other, every language is a pathway to understand its parent culture, because each language contains the unconscious assumption of that culture. This certainly is true of English which provides us an opportunity to know the culture that it generally represents. This we learn through various media including stories/fiction, movies, and so on. However, the focus of learning English in India is no more to learn about the culture it represents. Slowly and steadily, and certainly consciously, English that we learn has shed its original contextual and cultural features and has received a strong Indian coating of colors and re-interpretation of culture-laden lexicon and idiomatic expressions.
As Thirumalai points out,
"most nations have embarked upon a process of textbook contextualization when it comes to teaching English. The original pieces of writing by the native speakers of English are sought to be replaced by the writings of the nationals who are masters of English prose and poetry. In their creative writing through English, [these national] writers make use of metaphors, idioms, and set phrases from the national languages, which imply local culture and religion, and these are more freely used. Translations from the local tales are more frequently substituted for tales from Europe. In addition, government-inspired documents on ideology become part of the textbook. Nations (and individuals) want to appropriate English as a language minus the culture and religion it represents and communicates." (http://www.languageinindia.com/april2002/tesolbook.html#chapter1)
So, the English we learn in India is the result of some conscious effort at the Indianization of English. The process began long before India attained independence, but the process become more dynamic and forceful after Independence.
English in India
Officially English is accorded the status of associate official language but, in fact, it has become the most important language of India, despite political opposition. After Hindi it is the most commonly used, read and written language in India. In the present scenario it is mandatory for any employable Indian in the global market to have some proficiency in English. Proficiency in English has become an added merit for Indians in all fields including legal, financial, educational, and business in India.
English as Perceived by Indians
The role of English within the complex multilingual society of India is far from straightforward: it is used across the country, but it may be a speaker's first, second, or third language, and its features may depend heavily on the regional origin of the speaker. Indians who know English will always try to show off that they know English. Rightly or wrongly, English has come to symbolize better education and higher intellect for many Indians. It is a status marker for Indians. Indians who know English often mingle English words with Indian languages in their conversations. It is also usual among Indians to abruptly move to speak fluent English in the middle of their conversations in Indian languages. English also serves as the communicator or bridge among Indians who speak different languages.
Influence of Western English on Indian English
Because of the growing influence of American culture in recent years, certain elements of American slang are now used by some Indians, especially younger ones. American English spellings are also widely prevalent in scientific and technical publications, while British English spellings are used in other media. The form of English that Indians are taught in schools in Tamilnadu and elsewhere in India is essentially modeled after British English. In India the institutions or schools which emphasize English are considered "better" schools and the same is the case at the university level too, even though there is a slight trend towards adopting Tamil in Tamilnadu as medium of instruction at the college and university levels. Similar conditions prevail also in other states of India.
Since the 1970s many schools, mostly privately operated schools, have English in their curriculum as the first language. For most of these students, English is their first language in the curriculum but not in their homes. As they are all learning English and learning other subjects using English it should have been easier for them to communicate, read and write in English. This was and is not the case. At the same, the pathetic plight of the Indian students is that they feel ashamed to use their mother tongue and they are blissfully ignorant of their mother tongue.
Uniqueness of Indian English - Roots of Indian English
Just like the Americans, Australians or the English, who have their unique English words and phrases, Indians also have their own unique English. Indians and the Indian English language press use many words derived from Indian languages, especially from Hindi and other major languages such as Tamil. There is a growing tendency to use words from the local languages in the printed newspapers. This practice, we should remember, is not something started just by the Indians. The Britishers, for want of appropriate English words to describe Indian elements in various contexts and fields, began using Indian language words. We see this even in the earliest records in East India Company. I am sure that the other East India Companies such as those run by the French and the Dutch, would have also necessarily adopted this technique. In addition to such mixing, Indian accent also comes to play an important role in our deliberations in English.
Problems of accent have been noticed by many customers and corporations engaged in outsourcing in recent years. Indian accent becomes difficult for non-Indians to understand, especially when it is strong and when the speech is delivered with typical Indian speed! There are other peculiarities, such as our inability to speak and write in plain English, which also come to play a role.
The fact that we have our own brand of English is ably exploited for our own enjoyment (and for the enjoyment of those native speakers who have had some acquaintance with Indian English) by a great Indian English poet, Nissim Ezekiel. While Venkataramani, R. K. Narayan, and a host of other able and prominent creative writers of fiction focus/focused their attention to their narrative, Nissim simply used Indian English as the narrative!
This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.
A Study of Structural Duplication in Tamil and Telugu - A Doctoral Dissertation | Computational Linguistics as a Curriculum for Engineering Students in India | A Discourse Analysis of R. K. Narayan's The Man-eater of Malgudi | Sense of Place and Sense of Dislocation in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace | Teaching English Language Skills for Law - A Malaysian Case Study | Bi/Multilingualism and Issues in Management of Communication Disorders With Emphasis on Indian Perspectives | Role of English as a Tool for Communication in Tamil Society | The Frequency of the Passive in Indian English | Light Verbs in Gojri | The Core Functions of the English Modals - Speech Act Approach | Phonological Mean Length of Utterance (Pmlu) in Kannada-Speaking Children | Tolkaappiyam - Kaviraajamaarga - A Brief Note of Comparison | A Review of A Quick Guide to Postgraduate Supervision | Procedure to Develop Competency Based Self-Learning Materials | HOME PAGE of August 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR
Shanthi Nehemiah, M.A., M.Phil.
Department of English
Karunyanagar, Coimbatore - 641 114
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