Wednesday 5 December 2012

Living in a Bilingual World

It baffles me somewhat that I have left this section unattended for so long. I love writing about the wonderful world of languages. After all that’s what I majored in at university. And “Living in a Bilingual World” has always had an appreciative and receptive audience on this blog. In fact, my regular linguistic outing was included in a book a couple of years ago, “Multilinguals are…?” by educator and scholar Maddalena Cruz-Ferreira. It was a recent essay in Prospect magazine that made me bring Living in a Bilingual World back. Under the title Let them learn English, the article focused on the division that exists in the teaching of the English language in India and how the poorest are, as usual, the ones faring worse.

That the language of Shakespeare, Alice Munro and James Baldwin remains the lingua franca worldwide should come as no surprise to anyone. I’ve written here before about English natural ability to adapt to the modern world. Its malleability means that anyone can learn the language; even if its phonetic and spelling systems remain a mystery (there are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet to represent its forty-four phonemes!). And I’m talking from the point of view of someone who taught the language for a number of years as both as an undergraduate student and teacher.

This resilience and flexibility benefit people in countries like India where, according to Zareer Massani, the author of the Prospect piece, there’s no truly national language. He states that “Hindi, the central government’s official language, is an artificial, 20th century construct created by purging Hindustani, the colloquial language of the north, of most of its Islam-derived Persian and Arabic words. Now, 65 years after independence, Hindi is still a little spoken officialese one grapples with government forms.”

If Zareer is right and this is the linguistic panorama in India, it then makes sense to default to a language with which the rest of the world is at least acquainted. But of course, there is the small problem of the British Empire. India was a prized possession of it. And not everyone agrees that the imperial legacy was benign and beneficial. In fact opinions have always been divided on the matter. This is the reason why many in the Asian nation are opposed to English becoming the de facto language. Plus, English apparently carries with it a whiff of privilege and elitism in the subcontinent. It’s still mainly used by those occupying the upper echelons of education, media and the judiciary. By contrast outside this mini-world, there’s a whole Babel of dialects nationwide that merit as much attention as or maybe more attention than the language of the former conquistadores.

It’s a dilemma with which I can sympathise from a personal perspective, even if it is to a lesser degree. When I moved to the UK my accent was still heavily American, with a North-eastern lilt. This was the consequence of having had three or four postgraduate teachers hailing from or living in Boston and New York. Over here in the UK, people were at a loss as to why a Cuban would choose to speak like an American when we were supposed to be at loggerheads with them.

The answer is that first of all, it’s our two governments that have locked horns for more than five decades. When it comes to common, ordinary folk from both the US and Cuba, we leave our political differences aside and get on pretty well most of the time. And the second element is that most schools, further and higher education institutions in Cuba teach American English as opposed to the British standard. The latter is seen as distant, not just geographically, but also practically. But what is non-practical for a Cuban can become very useful to an Indian. So, when our compadres and comadres from the subcontinent use (chiefly British) English as a way out of poverty and deprivation, they’re being neither anti-nationalist nor pro-empire, but resourceful. In order to explain this approach, Massani quotes Mumbai-based businessman and journalist Jerry Rao: “Even if you flunk your schools finals, if you can speak decent English, today you can get a nice job. But even if you have a master’s degree and your English is poor, you’re likely to end up in a labour market where salaries are significantly lower.

I witnessed a similar situation in Cuba in the early to mid-90s when many professionals, including doctors and teachers, defected to the tourism sector. Their motivation? The green Yankee dollar. Whilst their hard-earned salaries in Cuban pesos were getting more and more devalued, those working at hotels and tourist resorts were minting it. And that was just from tips. There was a problem, however. Many of these highly trained professionals had been educated either in the old socialist bloc or in Cuba but with socialist ideals. The language they’d learnt, used and were used to, was Russian. Russian. In a globalised world trading in English. Yes, you can imagine the rest. Scrapheap doesn’t even begin to cover it.

That’s how in my first paid job as a teacher I faced a classroom full of people coming from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. There were mechanics, lawyers, journalists, ballet dancers (in fact, Lorna Feijóo, prima ballerina at the National Ballet of Cuba, was one of my students). You name it; they were there, trying to do the same thing their Indian counterparts are doing now: getting at least one foot on the first rung of the social and economic ladder.

The irony is that despite the strong presence the Brits had on Indian soil, the influence the empire had on Indian life and the ubiquity and usefulness of the English language in the world, Gandhi’s sons and daughters are headed in the wrong direction. It is said that in ten or fifteen years’ time Hispanics will be the largest minority ethnic group in the US, replacing African-American in the process. And in probably ten more years after that, Spanish will replace English as the official language of the States. And where the US goes, the UK oftentimes follows. Spanish is, then, the way to go, my lovely Indian chums. And here’s the first word for you to learn: ¡Bienvenidos!


Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. i took a couple years of spanish back in the day...i remember some enough probably to get me things i need but in a world of spanish speakers i would be bankrupt soon enough....ha...or change and adapt....our times are changing though and we have to learn to change with it....that will be hard for many...

  2. so spanish is the future languaje? Intetesting but I think will be in USA probably but english will be english yiu know.
    A time I worked in a university (facultad de matematicas) always amazed me almost all the books that the students needed were in english; all the papers;the works etc. so if you dont knoe english you cant study.
    I think in the future is important know more languajes I read in english and french and of course in spsnish ha! but is really important sometimes can read in the original languaje.
    well sorry for the large comment.
    nice post.

  3. daughters speak spanish fluently...and if they wanna talk without being understood by their parents, they talk the sound of it..

  4. Wonderful post my friend! I wouldn't have explained better why we have an American accent or what it was like back then in Cuba.
    I wish you had a G+ & Fbk buttons to share your posts.
    Have a nice rst of the week! Hugs

  5. I'd love to learn another language...and Spanish seems as good a place to start as any,

  6. Spanish and Chinese are the future languages!

    I studied Spanish at university, so maybe it's time to brush up on it again?

    I've since learnt Swedish, which has pushed my Spanish back to the bottom of my memory...

  7. LOLing at so many of the points you've made! Well,, we'll see in another 15 years if you are spot on in your prediction. Truly a fascinating post!

    Mahalo nui loa!

  8. Fascinating reflections - especially those concerned with a potential future. I can see how it might come about, but I'm not sure how I feel about it. I have this fatalism that shrugs the shoulders and says, "so nothing lasts for ever"! Still, it is, as I say, fascinating, and I can't stop thinking about it.

  9. An interesting perspective here. I took Latin for a couple years...wish i had taken a practical SPEAKING language, but I must say that from taking Latin I learned VERY well the English parts of speech. LOL.

  10. Generally speaking I think English is more and more becoming the default second language of the world. But I think in the English speaking countries probably Spanish will become the default second language. At least that is true in the Western Hemisphere. And don't forget Spanglish. Perhaps that's the language of the future.

  11. Spanglish, Anne! Indeed, I'd completely forgot about it. In fact, I do use it sometimes with my mates here in the UK. Words like "walkear" (to walk) and "joggear" (to jog) are quite common nowadays.

    Thanks for your comment and I wish you all a lovely weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  12. interesting i feel bad to only speak English and a little Tamil and admire others who speak many languages

  13. I knew a bit of french way back when, now all I know is how to ask where the bathroom is haha but yeah have to change and rearrange.

  14. Hahahaha!

    Very interesting post, Cuban. The good news is that, regardless of what the international language is, Indians are very good at adapting. Most Indians speak at least three languages. They're own regional dialect, Hindi, and English. Yes, Hindi and English. It's not true that people don't speak those, they all do to some extent because you can't graduate high school without studying both of those languages. The question is whether or not they want to, not whether they actually can and do.

    Then there are the more educated people who also speak Sanskrit and or Latin.

    My grandfather spoke six languages and he didn't even finish high school because of how much time he spent in jail and the beatings he suffered during the Independence movement.

    In a country where there are no less than 13 state languages, Spanish is not going to be a problem.


  15. Thanks a lot for your comment, Jai. In fact, Indians also speak Swahili, or at least those born in Kenya! When I used to work in travel, the company was owned by two brothers born in Kenya, raised in London and fluent in Swahili, Gujarati, Hindi and, of course, English. Spanish won't be a problem at all! :-)

    Have a great weekend everyone!

    Greetings from London.

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