Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where linguistic apostasy has led us

Sometime ago, I gave a pep talk to a group of students from an English medium school.  In the course of the talk, I mentioned the names of some well-known writers in Telugu and English and asked the students if they had read their books or at least heard about them.  The question only drew blank looks all around.  There was, however, one student who said that he had heard the names of some of the writers but not read anything written by them.  "Why is it", I asked them, "that you don't read any fiction in Telugu, your own mother tongue?"  A large number of students said – with considerable pride, I thought – they were not literate in Telugu, their mother tongue, because their second language was Hindi.  And they made no bones about the fact that their competence in Hindi was next to nothing.  I gathered that, in English, the medium through which they study, they don't have a reading habit as such, as the only books they read are their coursebooks.  As far as their oral communication is concerned, the fluency in English they have acquired can only help them communicate in a few limited contexts.

When I began my career as a teacher of English, I had to contend with something slightly different: linguistic apostasy on the part of my English literature students most of whom were from affluent families.  They had read nothing in their own literature which, in fact, they looked down upon, and read quite a lot in English which they considered a superior language.  What mattered to them, however, was English, not literature, and so they read plenty of light, frothy concoctions such as Mills and Boon, Barbara Cartland, and Harold Robins.  If, instead, they had read some literary works in their own mother tongue, it would have given an added dimension to their approach to literature.  By losing their own mother tongue on account of their linguistic snobbery, they had lost a dimension of their sensitivity.

If the linguistic apostasy of those years were bad, the linguistic impoverishment of the present in which an average student knows no language well enough is worse.  It is a problem that ought to engage the attention of parents, teachers and educational authorities.  Children should be encouraged to develop a healthy interest in their own mother tongue and read the literature in their own language.  It will urge them to take interest in other languages, including English; interest in one language, it has been proved, has a transfer effect.

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