Thursday, January 3, 2008

Mother Tongue Influence On English

A lot of people refer to mother tongue ‘influence’ on English, as mother tongue ‘influenza’ and have a good laugh at others’ expense. Of all the influences, the mother tongue influence is the most difficult to get rid of, or so we believe! In my Verbal Ability sessions, I invariably come across people who carry around an inferiority complex, just because they speak English with a mother tongue influence.

When I tell them that I come from a vernacular medium school and couldn’t converse in English even while in college, they refuse to believe me. ‘But Ma’am you have a perfect English accent’. I tell them about my own battles with mother tongue influence (in my case a dual influence of Punjabi and UP Hindi). My Punjabi teachers couldn’t pronounce ‘measure’, ‘pleasure’, ‘treasure’, ‘support’, ‘develop’ etc, and my UPite father could not say ‘school’ or ‘zero’. We (my siblings and I) grew up saying ‘meayure’, ‘pleayure’, ‘treayure’ ‘sport’, ‘devolp’, ‘iskool’ and ‘jero’ . But when we went out into the world (in my case Kolkata) for further studies, we were old enough to keep our ears open to correct any pronunciation errors that we inadvertently made. I can only speak for myself (though my siblings are as fluent speakers as I am). If I was not sure about the pronunciation of a certain word, I would ask, practice, and learn (I do it even now). After all any language is learnt over a lifetime!

You can never proclaim to know all the words or their correct pronunciation, especially in English. English is an evolving language. New words keep getting added to it virtually on a daily basis. There are a lot of French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese and even Indian words being added to English, much to the horror of purists! Now can any one say that I have mastered English? We are all learners. The only difference is that we are placed at different levels of learning.

When we make mistakes in our own mother tongue (or even our national language for that matter), these are taken as ‘oh, s/he can’t speak her tongue’. No one cares if you can’t speak your native language. But English is something else; it is the language of commerce and higher learning. Not being able to converse in impeccable English marks one as someone not up to the mark. I wonder if it has something to do with our colonial hangover, or the ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome of ‘class consciousness’. (Now don’t think that I am anti-English or something. On the contrary, since I belong to a Pan-Indian family, English happens to be our family tongue now.)

The first step towards limiting this unwanted influence (it is difficult to overcome overnight) is by acknowledging the problem. If we are ready to admit to ourselves and to others that we have a problem, and solicit everyone’s help in correcting us by pointing out our errors, our language will soon improve. But this effort requires a lot of courage, and deep willingness on our part. Listening to English news, reading aloud (to hear your own voice), paying attention when others are speaking, and making continuous effort to correct yourself, go a long way in helping overcome mother tongue influence.

I take pleasure in the fact that the Americans chose to defy Standard English language of the British and got away with it. A country as financially strong as USA could do it. They made American English a new standard. Similarly Australians speak English in their own peculiar way. Why, even the Queen’s own country doesn’t follow a single way of pronouncing a word. Each region of England has its own special influence. Now what do you call that influence? Their mother tongue is English, so it can’t be called ‘Mother tongue influence’, at best you can call it ‘regional influence’. So you see while none of these people are under pressure to improve their pronunciations and grammar; we Indians have become the torch bearers for ‘Queen’s English’. Why?

Why can’t we just relax, and learn to speak deliberately in as much a neutral accent as possible? We should have the confidence that as we practice more, we will eventually become proficient in speaking so called ‘Public School’ English. The purpose of any language is to communicate. When we speak slowly and deliberately we can be understood better. In case someone still doesn’t understand a particular word, we can always spell it out for them. We need to be willing to give ourselves and others time to learn these skills. We need to be patient with each other.

The day is not far when India would be a Superpower. That day we will not feel inferior to any one because of our mother-tongue-influence. We will be proud of it. (We have already started feeling proud of our cuisine, customs, and Indian-ness). Words like ‘pre-pone’, ‘redressal’, and ‘wheatish complexion’, expressions like ‘I am understanding it’, ‘She is knowing the answer’, preposition usage like, ‘discuss about’, ‘pay attention on’ and frequent use of question tags like, ‘you are going, no?’ etc (I could go on and on, but I guess you’ve got the drift.) will become a part of Standard Indian English that we will expect the world to understand. I am waiting for such a day to dawn. That will be the new ‘Freedom’ day!

People wonder why I proclaim my disadvantaged background to others. Why can’t I just feel superior (la-di-lah!) about my current levels of communication skills? I could do that; but my kick lies in letting people know that if I could do it, they can do it too!

Times Ascent, 02/01/08, Chitra Jha