English Vinglish

English Vinglish

My cousin, who lives in Abu Dhabi, called me a few weeks ago to vent her exasperation.

“A colleague cannot believe that I have been hired as a full-time teacher since I am not a native English speaker,” she said angrily. “Is being a ‘native’ all that matters? My seven years of college education in the US don’t even count?”ad I only been superficially acquainted with the cause of her outrage, I would have definitely reassured her. I would have told her to forget the words of an ignorant colleague. But I could relate to her objection a tad too well. Thus, offering even a hint of consolation would have been tantamount to an egregious lie.

Being a native English speaker matters — and as a person who has spent most of her life churning essays, research papers, edits and opinions in English, this fact stings like a bee. here’s an entire history behind this cumbersome grievance that I carry with myself — and it’s one that most South Asians coming from my particular background can relate to. My complaint is not with others, but with my own peculiar background.

English isn’t the second language of people coming from upper middle-class urban households in Pakistan. Neither is it their first. In fact, English holds a revered status — it a mark of privilege that the well-off minority aspires to achieve, so that it can distinguish itself from the common lot.  Decades after decoloniSation, Pakistan’s upper middle class, in its zeal to speak and write perfectly in the Queen’s language, has inevitably become Lord Macaulay’s ideal prototype of people “English in taste and opinion”.

There’s considerable effort that goes in producing Macaulay’s dream South Asians — in fact, it’s a process that starts from childhood.  The economically privileged have always been eager to reproduce their elite club of English speakers over the generations. And they will, in fact, spend any amount of money to make their children go to the best English schools. I also had parents, who were overly fastidious about sending me to the best English medium school.  So when I got admission to an elitist convent school, they couldn’t stop bragging about it in front of all and sundry.

The main aim of the educational curriculum at my school was to make students proficient at speaking and writing in English. Those guilty of grammatical transgressions were criticised harshly — and often, much to their chagrin, in front of a classroom full of chuckling peers. But when it came to Urdu and its literary tradition, there was sparse institutional effort  directed to make the students take interest in it. Quite expectantly, my class fellows and I felt little enthusiasm for learning Urdu during middle school.

While Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie novels fuelled my imagination during English essay writing classes, I relied on rote learning to regurgitate Ghalib’s cumbersome poetry in Urdu language exams. So it was no surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to take up an easier version of Urdu — Urdu B — in O-levels designed especially for slackers me. Those who slacked in English, however, did not have such a rosy alternative; they just were simply not allowed to pursue O-level education.

Many years later in university, when I read Saadat Hasan Manto and Intezar Hussain’s translated short stories, I was able to appreciate the genius of South Asian writers. But I was still unable to appreciate the language they wrote in. I had to make peace with the fact that a great deal of nuance had been lost in translation. Yet my ignorance about an entire opus of literary tradition in Urdu didn’t bother me; what mattered more to me was the fact that I belonged to an exclusive English-speaking class of educated people in Pakistan.

But the moment I began to seek opportunities abroad, this assurance of privilege was, in fact, replaced by an identity crisis. There was a particular interview I gave in Dubai in 2008 that I remember. simple question by the interviewer left me deeply discomfited: “So are you comfortable talking in English, even though it’s not your first language?”

In a moment, she stripped me of ownership of a language I had always thought was mine. Even though I managed to give her a convincing explanation, her question continued to disturb me for a long while. It made me realise that all my life I had occupied a linguistic no-man’s land. Urdu was supposed to be my first language — but I could not even speak an advanced level of it, let alone read and write it expertly. While I was assumed not to have complete command over a language that I had been encouraged to excel at since childhood. English for me, I realised, would always be confined to the ‘second’ domain — one I could access, but never quite conquer.

And this realisation has hit me hard several times, whenever I have been discriminated against for not being a native speaker. Over time, I’ve tried to come to terms with some hard facts. I have had to accept that English is my second language — technically, at least. The fault lies with the particular upbringing and education of my generation, which had little regard for this technicality. We were made to take our native possessions for granted and instead strive to own things from foreign lands. But our ambitions for gaining these non-native things, including our linguistic aspirations, will always remain a work-in-progress. – Khaleejnews