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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Angst and Anguish of an English-patient

We Indians know not the art of war neither information dissemination that the west has mastered through their media... nor for that matter the craft of propaganda that socialist states quite successfully undertake!

I was watching CCTV today and this thought arose in me. I thought this too would pass like a lot of thoughts that have struck me recently, gently nibbling at my sides like an acupressure foot-massage in a pond full of hordes of little fish, asking me to post a blog.

I had successfully resisted those. I had decided a while back, not to abuse the blogspace by posting frequently random thoughts about random things. I have stuck to it, with the vehemence of a leech on a skin... but no! This one would not pass! So I gave into it as it started gnawing at me like a restless rat on a tin roof over a dingy attic. Hence this post. A while back I had this post on my Facebook about why we don't need Slumdog Millionaire and how it is not a great movie and all those who praise its Oscar-worthiness are lickers of white backsides because this is the latest tool of exploitation of Mother India by the Colonials. A great many gen-xers of the school I teach at rose up in arms in a Sepoy Mutiny against this anti-British stance of mine. I stood like the steadfast tin soldier then, as I stand now. Search me! What I explain below is God's own truth as witnessed by me and heard by me.

Since yesterday, the CCTV has been televising CCTV 2009 National English Speaking Competition. It must have been already a long-drawn process typical of any National level competition, which must have started at germane levels, at Colleges where hordes of people participate at the intra-college and -University level challenges and have arrived where they are.

23 participants are being pitted against 3 challengers and judged by a 9-member Jury about the English speaking quotient of each of them. THREE of them - after a three-day ordeal (the last day being tomorrow - 14th Nov, 2009) - would go through to a Grand finals. What is the competition about? Speaking English. What is the message it holds for us? A lot actually. At the moment we pride ourselves with our BPOs and Call Centres being the cash crops of our country's foreign revenue harvesting. Soon, this would vanish if what I witnessed was true.

A quiet little revolution has taken place. A lot of Chinese are starting to speak English. With an accent that would be much much more acceptable among the Western countries who want to transact with Asia - India or China or Japan or South Korea! With an accent that the English native speakers as well as the European english speaking businessmen would be comfortable. Add to it, the Chinese spoken English grammar may turn out a zillion times better because most Chinese go to language schools where English is taught by native English speakers. The grammar as well as the accent and the command is bound to be better in comparison to ours.

We had earlier in the recent past seen or read how the Chinese were being coached in English to serve the visitors during the Beijing Olympics. Further additions to this point: by its sheer volume and numbers, we all know China is bigger in population than India; in terms of the percentage of youth population, China is equal if not higher than India, if Indian statisticians and demographers are to be believed when they say that in 2020 or whenever India would have the highest youth population in the world!

The projection is: in three to five years time, when these college and university attending youth of China pass out and graduate to the world of business, China will have more English speakers in the world than even United States, which is the single largest English speaking nation and contains the most number of English speakers in the world. What will happen to our BPOs and Call Centers? How much of Green Bills would migrate home then?

I remember the times when I was in the IT sector, working as an in-house translator first, then as in-house full-time language consultant for German, then after as a free-lance consultant, when at the best of times a translator could spin more than a lakh of rupees in a week's time. That was the height of the IT boom when Indian IT industry was preferred in the West due mainly to our ability to do transactions not just in English, but good English. Even the European market - inspite of the lingual-cultural barriers and difficulties would come to our doorstep as a preferred business partner than China - though both our labour charges were cheap equally - simply because of our English abilities. The way school education is headed these days when, leave alone the students, teachers cannot communicate properly in English shows how badly communication suffers.

Communication is not just about content, it is more. It is the art of speaking a language, the art of structuring thoughts in a language through which the thoughts are presented, the art of having command over a language and presenting it in an effective manner. The Chinese are starting to master it, we are losing it - much like Arunachal Pradesh. The Pakistanis are (according to some of my young friends who have debated at the international levels, where the Pakistanis have a longer and stronger traditional and respected presence) mastering it and we are losing it - much like Kashmir!

What do we do? We are having internal skirmishes over haves and havenots. We breed petty politics and politicians and deliberately keep the population illiterate. We cannot say China is fully literate or totally prosperous; nor that it lacks corruption or internal political hassles; but... what they do not do is shoot movies that show our badness or our slums or our past glories alone! what they do not do is sell our souls to foreigners - who once ruled us - who shoot our undesired side and pitch it at Oscars. How many films or documentaries are made about the other side of China. All of us have the other side, but do we have to project that to claim material glory?

We have this biggest joke called Prasar Bharathi - they are celebrating 50 years of existence, the first 20 years of which it never reached the masses. When it is now reaching the masses, we know its quality. Supposedly, Doordarshan is beamed in 30 different languages, but look at its digital quality. Look at the packaging of programs. As an avid watcher, I can vouch for the heterogeneity of Doordarshan's content. Its content variety far outstrips any 10 of the private cable and satellite channels put together. Sadly, though, DD lacks in quality packaging. The latter these days is very important. It is just not what you give, but how it is given!

I am unaware of the following fact. Like the BBC or DW-TV or TV5 or ABC or VOA, do we have any television network that is beamed primarly targetting the countries we should be targetting and packaging a politically correct picture of India? Please let me know. I am as Adam as before the toad did its job!

Coming back... it becomes doubly our duty to take up communication seriously. It is quadruply important that the current tweens and teens and gen-x learn communication tools properly and master the common language of the world so that we do not lose out on progress. After all, speech is the one unique ability that humans possess; having been subject to 400-odd years of English-rule, we cannot afford to squander that advantage because our northerly and Dravidian politicians do not want to make the effort to learn Angrezi. Crazy, isn't it? Of course, when we reach out to our own masses, let us speak their language, both in spirit and letter, but we have to push ourselves to extremes to polish our communication. After all, true challenge lies in going beyond the basics and mastering the aesthetics. Would we? Do we have the grit to rise above our self-excavated rubble?

A small winding up info. There is this international competition for schools called World schools Debating Championships (hereafter WSDC) that is held annually in some city of the world or other, where teams representing countries, with participant-representatives drawn from schools of the respective countries, brandishing their Debating abilities and debating in English over a range of topics that bother the world at large on areas social, political, cultural, economic and artistic. As a curtain raiser to that, they have a mini-WSDC, which is a sort of whetstone for aspirant teams, novices and debutants to the field. This year it was held recently in October-November, as a prelude to the forthcoming WSDC at Doha, Qatar in February 2010.

Know what? China would be a debutant at Qatar2010. They participated in the mini-WSDC and wound up 4th in a field of 10 teams that contained some of the strongest debating teams in English such as New Zealand, US or Chile! As a rejoinder, after what I saw on CCTV... this is a strong foreboding. If you care to, and you receive this channel I am referring to, follow the CCTV English Speaking Competition if you happen to chance upon it.



Srinivas said...

A very thoughtful post sir KK. And need I say my desire to sharpen my own prose almost doubles or trebles whenever I read stuff from your end!!!??? Kudos and applause for it.

There are several strands here but let me speak to only those which come to mind instantly after having read the post.

I was off the blog world for a while too having come to understand that it had become too random. I thought it was peer pressure, a creation of associations with people closer to my age or in fact less. But that is just a convenience. Now I am bent on returning to be discreet and post only things that really animate my thoughts and concerns.

Your perspective on the possibility of India losing its English-edge as it were is well thought out. In fact, despite the gusto with which I use the Queen's Language I am hardly ever touch with its holistic socio-political implications. In that sense this post was an eye-opener!

Coming to Slumdog Millionaire... I think I told this to you before (I am not too sure): I thought the whole thing was "stuffed" too as most awards generally are. While it did not treat my thoughts to such objective bluntness in word as you have done, I totally agree with your take on the white-back lickers. But I am not too surprised with the Gen-X reaction being, at least in age, close to them although I guess age should not count to anything significant essentially.

The dwindling standards of English among teachers, let alone students, are a genuine cause of concern not just for anyone who has a stake in the language but also for all those who want to see themselves, their society and country in the top floors of the modern global edifice. And I have never given much to Dravidian politics. Even their anti-other-language slogans have essentially been vote bank ruses rather than statements coming out of clear convictions. I think the day DK was splintered to become DMK (and then its offshoots) something about the hue and cry was lost. Anyway, all that is known and very well documented.

A great way to start the day sir KK. While you may not be frequent I fathom from the message you sent across, I do hope we have more stuff to read from you during the remainder of this year as well as through the next. And I am sure you in your own way are contributing to the English language at school. Sometimes, it is only our part in making the difference that we can ensure.

Krishna Kumar said...

Dear Srini

you know what. Every time I write a post I cringe at the thought of a response or comment from you simply because I am not as regular or even a frequent visitor to your shores as you are to mine. And you always take pains to leave detailed footprints. Do accept my apologies. I do find getting time to surf the blog world difficult these days. Hopefully January upwards when my 10th and 12ths go into hibernation, I would have time on hands to visit you and several others who Follow My blog.

To reply back atcha... yes, we do have to constantly try to keep our English up and going. Any skill for that matter that could be contributive to others and hence indirectly to the welfare and growth of our nation. The gen-xers hardly think of anything beyond themselves and their tunnel-vision for what they want. Sometimes what they want is in the ultimate picture - if only they sleep over their desires and decisions long enough to objectify - not even a dying necessity. Yet they jump into life and seek things. The sense of community contribution is gone.

Teachers too these days are not of the same sterner stuff they used to be when I was a student. Accepted, lifestyle changes are the cause, still, the spirit HAS grown weak. The dominant will has become a matter of fleshly existence, where pain and hurt gets to people soon. And we tend to take the easy way out saying why if the reason for man's existence is to live life to the fullest must I take the tough path!

But, we are the last of the mohicans, to use a figure of speech. Keep on, you too, at it and someone may get inspired through you, we have a duty to do!

Srinivas said...

dear (sir)KK,

I hardly expect a return visit (let alone think of not having had one from your end for a while!). No issues on that.

And you are right prolly: we all have a certain duty to perform (rather than merely discharge) and I am preparing for mine. Cheers, happy week :)