March 21, 2012 | Comments Off on English easy to learn? | Betsy Woodman
I’m still immersed in the letters of the Brahmin schoolteacher in Chennai with whom my dad corresponded for many years.
Mr. Patch could be crusty. I guess he figured that his advanced age gave him the right to be so, and temperament played in as well. “I am in the habit of making no mental reservations of any kind,” he wrote. “I speak as it comes out of my mind.”
One issue on which he was very outspoken was language. He scorned Hindi, the lingua franca of northern India. He called it a “hybrid Cockney…(with) neither its own characters nor much literature,” and dismissed its speakers as “dull-witted.”
Patch’s mother tongue was Tamil, an ancient south Indian language with a rich literature. He did speak some Hindi, having served briefly as principal in two Hindi-medium schools in the state of Madhya Pradesh. He remarked wryly, “I managed to pull through.”
Patch spoke much more kindly about English. “It is sweet,” he wrote, “easy to learn, full vocabulary and universal, being international…. It is God’s gift for one to know English.”
Nonetheless, he qualified this. “English is a very dangerous language…. Some words may mean more than what the writer means, causing interpretations more than one.” Somehow he was confident that friendship and intuition would overcome this difficulty. My dad, he wrote, would be “the last soul to misunderstand Patch. I can vouch that there is no second one to have known Patch better and what he stands for.”
Patch’s linguistic preferences reflected a political issue. The number of Indian languages defies counting—people just throw up their hands and say “hundreds.” The Indian constitution of 1950 established Hindi as the official national language and recognized twenty-two other languages, including Tamil, for use in state legislatures or in correspondence between states. English was to be allowed for official purposes until 1965. As this date approached, Madras state (now Tamil Nadu) was in an uproar, with full-blown language riots. Fearing domination by the Hindi-speaking northern part of the country, Tamil speakers spearheaded the successful effort to continue English’s official status in India.
PRI has a nice story on issues facing Tamil today:
Mutual friends of my dad’s and Patch’s, Chennai, 1950s. You can see some Tamil writing on the wall behind them.