‘I can’t understand you Sir; can you try speaking English...’
English. A language that is supposedly universal, inclusive and essential.
Here I am at the age of 23, spitting out broken Tamil whilst eloquently addressing this topic in English. I do not know who I am supposed to blame. How can I blame the system when I have benefitted from it countless times due to my ability to speak English? Why have I been able to get things done faster when I speak to others with my British accent, as opposed to other family members who might have a slight twinge in their accents.
My question (or questions): why is English still regarded as highly favourable across the globe, but since this is a South Asian magazine, specifically, in South Asian countries? Why is English literacy so desirable in a country where the national language is not English, where it is not a first language for the majority of people and why is illiteracy often associated with the inability to speak English? Do you anglicize your beautiful Sanskrit name so that English speakers can pronounce it better or do you say all names with a thick British accent because that is better than trying to pronounce someone’s name and getting it wrong, even though it is already wrong by you doing so?
Why do we value a language that has risen to fame due to its imposition on other languages and cultures? We still make way for this colonial legacy. Visitors to the UK are expected to speak English but when English speakers visit another country on holiday, the nationals are expected to speak English and we don’t bother to learn a single word besides ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, if that. Why do fluent English speakers tend to ridicule accents rather than embrace that each style of English reflects a part of another language and identity? Instead of laughing at someone because of the way they pronounce something, why not try and say something back to them in their own language.
It is perfectly reasonable to have a majority spoken language across the globe, but why is this heralded as the ultimate language and why does speaking this language suddenly elicit respect and status in comparison to, for example, someone who can speak more than one language. To put this into perspective, 20% of the world’s population speak English, roughly 1.5 billion people. However, only 360 million people actually speak English as their first language.
Yes, in this day and age, English has become important to thrive across multiple countries and helps us connect to a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds. However, make no mistake, the diversity of English speakers does not reflect true diversity and inclusion of all cultures. If we want to reflect all languages we need to start making a safe space for all languages in ALL institutions. We need to hire interpreters and translators to help us bridge the gaps, rather than disadvantage those who do not speak English.
We need to offer languages other than French, German, Italian, Spanish and Latin in schools and teach children that their native language is just as important as studying English. There is a misperception that bilingual children become confused when they start to learn English, and teachers and/or paediatricians sometimes advise against parents continuing to speak to their child in their native language, stating that this will further delay their child’s English language development. There is a multitude of research that shows bilingualism does not lead to any confusion and infants can distinguish between the two languages by the ages of 4 months and appear to even show additional skills in detecting subtle differences between different languages (Byers-Heinlein & Lew-Williams, 2013) which I will very briefly summarise below.
Bilingualism not only provides a child with the benefits of speaking an additional language alongside better language acquisition and distinction abilities, but there are many non-linguistic advantages, including a better ability to navigate their social interactions, executive functioning (e.g. task switching and inhibition) and functions related to memory, to name a few. Surprisingly, some research has shown that the brain’s ability to learn a second language declines with age and the earlier a child learns, the more likely they are to retain the features of a number of languages with little difficulty and fewer errors. There is no research which shows that bilingual children are more likely to experience language difficulties or delay than monolingual children. The child usually demonstrates a conceptual vocabulary across both languages which is similar to that of a monolingual child and this difference becomes less noticeable over time. This common misconception has unfortunately led to the deprivation of the many benefits of bilingualism for such children when advised by a misinformed professional. Bilingualism helps a child to thrive and a language is best acquired from infancy with native speakers of that language, therefore, it makes logical sense that we should foster a child’s native language alongside their English language skills.
Fluent reading, writing and speaking of another language other than English are a dying breed amongst the South Asian diaspora. I’m sure some of your parents and grandparents may have laughed at you trying to speak in your native language, but is it not ironic that they pushed you to study English so well so that you could thrive in this Eurocentric world. They did not want you to miss out on the same opportunities that they did because they could not speak English or could not speak it ‘well enough’.
We need to advocate for those who might not have a voice because they cannot express themselves eloquently in a language that was forced upon them. We need to say it louder for the people in the back, but say it in their own language.
Citation for further reading: Byers-Heinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the early years: What the science says. LEARNing landscapes, 7(1), 95.
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