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Letter from India: Language is like a weed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2010 - One of the surprises when I arrived in India last fall was in the realm of language.

During my first week in Hyderabad, one of south India’s largest cities, I was delighted to find a city tour offered in English, and promptly bought my ticket. It turned out I was the only foreigner on the tour bus; the rest of the tourists were from various parts of India.

As the tour bus wound around the city, our energetic guide, to my consternation, insisted on speaking Hindi into the microphone at the front of the bus. Or … was it the main language of this part of the country, Telugu? I looked around and saw that everyone else was absorbed in his fascinating stories about this old palace or that ancient fort.

Finally, I leaned over to my neighbor and asked if he could tell me what the guide had said about a building to our left. He looked at me with surprise and pity. “Where are you from? America? Don’t you speak English?”

I’d always thought so, of course — but it seems one of the first things I had to learn in south India was that my mother tongue had traveled a long way, in more senses than one. I thought of that incident recently as I sat in a classroom in Visakhapatnam, the city where I now live.

“Language is like a weed,” my Telugu teacher stated without any hint of humor. “It will pop up and grow anywhere.”

We had taken a break from my clumsy attempts at basic Telugu and began to talk about the way English has taken root in India. Certain English words and phrases have all but replaced their Telugu equivalents. And on a broader scale, as I’ve discovered through my own experience, English has become a fixture of Indian culture and identity in a deeper sense.

Recently, my teacher went to a local restaurant and ordered coffee with a little chakkara, or sugar, on the side. The waiter nodded, smiled at her quaint use of such an outdated term and said he would bring sugar, using the English word, right away.

To make her point about English springing up in the strangest places, my teacher then told me about an interaction she had with her cleaning lady. In working out a work schedule, the cleaning lady would suggest possible dates for her return. But when she put forward certain dates, she would always begin her sentences with the word sapoju.

My teacher, who speaks fluent Telugu, Hindi, Bengali and English, finally had to stop her to ask what sapoju could possibly mean, as she had never heard it before. After some confusion it became apparent that sapoju was, in fact, suppose (“Suppose I come the day after tomorrow….”). It had been so completely absorbed into the cleaning lady’s dialect that even she did not know it was originally an English word and not from Telugu.

Here, English is no longer always viewed as a foreign tongue. Originally a legacy of British rule, English has persisted and lived on in India as the language of law, business, advertising, education and young people. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, politicians hold press conferences in a blend of English and Telugu with a dash of Hindi. Movies, music and pop culture celebrities incorporate English into their titles, chorus lines and nicknames.

The integration of English is more than just the use of certain words or phrases, though. It goes beyond that to include a reformulation of the pronunciation, the emphasis and the sentence structure.

At times I have found Indian English (some call it "Hinglish") to be so radically different from my own understanding of the language that, native speaker though I am, I need the help of an interpreter.

I received another blow to my confidence in my English abilities just the other day. A telemarketer working for an Indian domestic travel website called my cell phone to promote a special deal on flights from Hyderabad to Delhi. I understood that much, but not the rest, and asked her to repeat it. Then repeat it again, and again. I still didn’t get it. Finally she said, “Sir, are you comfortable talking in English?” handed off the phone to her manager. After a couple of minutes, the manager, equally unimpressed with my English abilities, said they would call me back some other time and hung up.

Ultimately what stands out about the use of English in India goes beyond differences of accent or vocabulary – here there is a sense of language ownership that contradicts notions long held in the West of language, culture and identity. As illustrated by my experiences with Indians who have sympathy for (or exasperation with) my "poor" level of English ability, they saw the hindrance to communication as my lack of comprehension, not their pronunciation. English might be a global language, but American English, as I discovered, seems quite provincial at times.

Who controls a language? No one, it would seem – and everyone.

Language is a living thing, something constantly growing and dying, consolidating and expanding. And, I would argue, this is a good thing. While it sometimes leads to confusion, it also leads to overall increases in the participation, reshaping and renewal of the language. There is room for more than one dialect or dictionary. As a matter of fact, widely disseminated new books have already cropped up to provide authoritative rules and examples of usage for Hinglish speakers, such as "The Hobson Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary" and "The Queen’s Hinglish."

In any case, it is unlikely that much could be done to stop the spread and transformation of English, even if one did consider that to be desirable. While it is difficult to accurately measure the number of English speakers in a country as large as India, a story from the BBC estimated that nearly 330 million Indians use English regularly. The Christian Science Monitor quoted an expert who placed it closer to 350 million.

Meanwhile, China has implemented massive new programs to increase its number of English speakers. Analysts from the British Council of India claim China is catching up quickly and might even surpass India soon.

If, as my Telugu teacher suggests, language is a weed, then it appears to be a particularly resilient, prolific species. More important, it shows that the growth of language follows a pulsating, vibrant process, no matter where it takes root.

Nick Wertsch, of St. Louis, will be sending in occasional letters from India. 

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