Friday, February 4, 2011

My Kind Of English?

One frenzied afternoon in 1982, in the dusty little town of Birtamod in Eastern Nepal, I bumped into a young man. He was remarkably tall, blonde, with a goatee, clad in baggy jeans and a Nike T-shirt. He wore a laced, hand-knit, hemp backpack on his shoulder.

I often recall that scene from my teen-age days not so much for its visual distinctiveness but more for the English the budget tourist spoke with me that day. A band of kids swarmed around the foreigner, shouting “kuire! kuire!" as he flipped through his little travel book and shot a few questions at me.

His queries were statistical. Typical of Americans perhaps, he seemed to have a strong sense of place: What is the population of this city? What is its altitude? What is its area? He also took notes. Like a vigilant reporter, he seemed to care for details.

Some kids responded with impulsive answers and I tried too, with little regard to accuracy of information. I was interested more in the way he was speaking than in what he wanted to know. I liked the way he chewed out the words, with a sing-songy intonation, too fast to follow yet composed for someone used to the rumbling, khalyang-balyang of Nepali sounds.

Drawing on my elementary English acquired from an Indian English-medium school, I tried to spurt out, as if to prove that I could speak English— a daring move, I thought, in a rural town where an overwhelming number of high school students in their finals could not make it to college because they failed in their mandatory English.

Unlike in India, with a colonial history, Nepal neither had an extensive population using English as a second language, nor an efficient academic or processional means to promote and nurture this language. For many in the world seeking a competitive commercial and diplomatic advantage, English offered a window on the globalizing future. And I got to directly rattle that window a bit that afternoon.

What shocked me at that moment was the discovery that, after all, I was not as half-witted as I might have thought. The young tourist wrote in a bizarre way. It would be totally unacceptable in Nepal; that is at least what I had been taught. He scribbled his address in garble for me, indiscriminately mixing the upper and the lower cases, an embarrassing, flawed writing in Nepal’s grammar-sensitive English curriculum. He does not even know how to write his own language, I wondered at that time.

To me, that incident continues to serve as a reference to the bifurcation between the spoken and the written word, between languages, between media. I find that split in the medium even more intricate in recent years as English usage becomes more common in Nepal and popular media and new technologies drag us further into a new tide of English language that is resonant of its native roots and yet divorced from it.

The emerging reality is such that this tide is crashing right at our borders. India is already a country with the second largest English-speaking population, after the United States. And China has more people learning English today than any other country. David Graddol, the British applied linguist, in his study English Next: Why Global English May Mean The End of English As A Foreign Language (2006), predicts that in the coming decades both these countries will play a major role in the development of what he calls “Global English”, a basic language skill as opposed to a “foreign language”.

When communities of users stop considering a language “foreign”, they embrace it as their own, adapting it to their local accent, conditions and needs. It’s like the Khas kura of history spoken in the east or the west of Nepal. Draddol compares Global English to Latin, which he says flourished as an international language after the decline of the empire and the demise of its native speakers. In this new environment today, native speakers of English will loose their relevance and their traditional authoritative standard. Because of their cultural baggage, “gold plating” of teaching process, remote accent, and lack of skills required of bilingual speakers, they will actually be seen as a hindrance and an obstacle to the free development of the language.

This may come as an empowering message to many of us who use English as a second language and who had to traditionally look up to native speakers to validate our English usage. It certainly comes as a relief to me who learned English and somehow ended up saying “Nepalese” instead of “Nepali” or “Kathmandu” instead of “Kathmandaun”. Also, of course, I did carry the illusion of modernity or pride of prestige widely associated with this language.

Freedom of progress, however, is not without obligations for it first requires us to revise and review our aspirations. The question, then, is what type of English do we want to practice and develop in our country, with what type of local accent?

Before we can think of reforming school curricula, this question forces our attention to our immediate discursive environment today which is increasingly mediated by newspapers, radio stations, television channels, the Internet, mobile and other hand-held devices. So far the English language that inundates our media and via them the public consciousness is a complex hodgepodge of British and American and Indian varieties. We will require a Draddol-type study to thoroughly map our usage.

Still, I have my impressions, derived from some words here and some words there. Sometimes it takes just ordinary expressions to get insight into our deeply-held perspectives and attitudes. The split in the medium I mentioned earlier reflects in our split communication. Our Nepali newspapers use English words and phrases indiscriminately. English newspapers also sometimes flirt with Nepali words and phrases. China recently decided to be a little different. Last month, in a sanitary measure, it banned English words in its native press. Here we anglicize with English: Mt. Everest, Gurkhas, etc. We purge ourselves with Nepali: Sagarmatha, Gorkhali, etc. Our Indian friends provide a clue to what they are up to in their quest for global communication via adaptation: Bombay and Calcutta are relics of the past. These little alterations symbolize a paradigm shift in the resurgence of Indian consciousness now visibly animated by the spurt of outsourcing and a desire for a seat on the UN Security Council.

A chaotic and alarming trend in the evolving form of new English is the practice of what may be termed as “e-porting”--merely transferring of already available predominantly online English data to another platform--rather than reporting by our many so-called online prosumers or college students as well as, alas, some of our traditional journalists. Immediacy and ease of the e-world has fostered a cut-and-paste enterprise even in mainstream journalism. One gets to see newspapers with bits and pieces and images lifted off the Web. And these are often published without any edit, or credit. Never mind, the gurus of journalism, too, get away with it. Not long ago, students at a journalism college in Kathmandu stumbled upon a piece that one of their professors had plagiarized verbatim from a foreign publication.

Nano journalism, characterized by a minimalist drive to deliver fast-and-furious sentence-length stories and posts (Twitter, Facebook, SMS etc), has created and nurtured a new online species of butchered English; acronyms worth a weighty dictionary. For speed, efficiency and ease, this is a feature of the evolving global English as we know it today, although in its robotic and metallic garble, it could also outshine our young tourist from Birtamod.

But technology is not and should not be the end of our personal story. As the linguist Graddol suggests only the ground has shifted. He foresees a more polyglot globe in future driven by segmented and niche markets in diverse language communities, including cyberspace, for it is in those places where the future prosperity has the best chance to occur. He sounds confident that languages like Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic will become influential regional media of communication.

Competitive, future-oriented societies are already consolidating their Englishes and training their citizens in these and other similar languages. We can begin by revising our educational instruments, professional manuals or journalistic stylebooks. Any attempt at developing our global language policy should not just adapt English to our needs but also at least tinker with another regional language (besides Hindi). How about Mandarin or Spanish?

Writer is a co-initiator at Media Foundation & author of A Compassionate Journalist (2010)

Published in Republica, Feb 02, 2011