Who Owns English? The Indian Context

N. S. Gundur examines how dominant and subordinate cultural influences have interacted with English, contributing to its status as a global language. See Pornsawan Brawn's review of Rani Rubdy and Mario Saraceni's English in the World: Global Rules, Global Roles, Essential Teacher, December 2007.

English, the first global language, seems to be the most extensively discussed of all modern languages. At no point in history has any language traveled so far and wide. It took nearly two hundred years to occupy that position, and only since the 1990s have we started discussing it as a truly global language. In India, English is debated not only in relation to the regional languages, but also in relation to British English.

Generally, the dominant culture influences the subordinate cultures. Culture travels through language, and language travels with culture. Naturally, the language of the dominant culture either influences the languages of the subordinate cultures, or it creates a new variety of its own. With the advent of globalization, which has enabled English to connect and compress the world, the proliferation of English has reached its zenith to such an extent that nonnative speakers outnumber native speakers three to one worldwide. In Asia alone there are 350 million English speakers. Hence the question, “Who owns English?”

In the contemporary context, it is unreasonable to think in terms of the native-nonnative dichotomy. When we accept English as a global language, the boundary between native and nonnative becomes blurred.  A language survives by its use. They who use it own it. However, the so-called nonnative speaker who tries to imitate the native speaker fails because it is the nature of any language to be different in space, time, and cultural context. A close connection exists between the identity of a nation and the language it uses. Each nation, in its context, has not only its own specific reasons to use English, but also its own way of doing so.

Yet the threat to different varieties at the global level is the stigma attached to them in relation to standard British or U.S. English. People’s attitudes need to change so that these varieties are not intrinsically superior to other language varieties.

As far as “owning English,” I am quite sure I don’t own it. English is not the monopoly of English language teachers. It is teachers who use a particular language in their classrooms (not necessarily language teachers), journalists (both print and electronic), and the writers who shape the language of a nation. In India, English is the language of higher education, and national news outlets like NDTV and Headlines Today, as well as national newspapers, that subtly mold the Indian variety of English. A substantial body of writers in India have used English creatively and successfully. Rao (1971), in his Foreword to Kanthapura, observes:

It is the language of our intellectual make-up¯like Sanskrit or Persian was before¯but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore had to be dialect, which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it. (p. vii)

Hence, like our African counterparts, we need to create our own variety by speaking, writing, and teaching this variety. Teachers, journalists, and writers have a greater role to play in this direction. On the one hand we accept Indian English and propagandize it; on the other, we English teachers consider it inferior to British English. If one is to teach Indian English, what are the resources available to us? And how will we use them to create respect for Indian English?

Reference

Rao, R. 1971. Kanthapura. New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks.

N. S. Gundur (gundur@rediffmail.com) has taught English to cadets at the National Defence Academy in India for the past three years.