English: Is it really a Second Language?

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English: Is it really a Second Language?

By – Dr. S. Sujaritha, Issue XIII, February 2016

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Introduction to the Author:

Dr S Sujaritha
Dr S Sujaritha

Dr. S. Sujaritha is at present working as Assistant Professor of English, Pondicherry University Community College, Puducherry. Her Ph.D is on diaspora literature and Bakhtin’s theory of ‘chronotope’ and her research field of interests are Post colonialism and Feminism. She has published fifteen papers in national and international journals and anthologies. Three more papers are accepted for publishing in national and international anthologies and journals. At present she is working on diaspora writers.







The Article:

Communication is defined as the process of sharing ideas, emotions, information and messages with others through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior. It plays a vital role in survival. Many scholars say that along with humans, animals and plants, even the non-livings involve in communication. Though communication exists in all species in some form humans are the only being to have adapted languages into speech. Moreover human communication is unique in comparison to other communications. The reason behind this uniqueness is the communication systems used by other animals, plants or non-human are closed system which consists of a number of possible things to express. It cannot be increased where as human language is an open-system which provides ways to create new words and sentences.

Members of other species often display high level of intuitive reasoning, reacting to stimuli from the environment in quite complex ways, but only human beings are able arbitrarily to combine and recombine mental symbols and to ask themselves questions such as “What if” (Tattersall)

Humans in the early days started to distinguish themselves from animals by developing their speaking skills. Some believe that humans in the early days used sign language. Later they communicated through gestures which were sometimes accompanied by sounds. Later they preferred sounds than action. Several theories regarding the origin of language is available. Some see language as mostly innate and others see it as a socially learned one. Some theories help to understand the formation of languages. Some such theories are: 1. Bow-wow theory- speech formed through imitation of environmental sounds (hiss, cuckoo).  2. Pooh-pooh theory- formed through people’s instinctive cries caused by pain or other emotions. (oh!, ouch!). 3. Ding-dong theory- people reacted to stimuli in the world around them, spontaneously producing sounds in response to them.

These early theories help to understand the changes in human communication actions changed as sounds and later sounds changed as meaningful language. Animals, plants and non-livings use the same sounds and actions to communicable where as humans have more than 6000 languages to communicate, according to the society in which they live, the usage of the language changes. Even though humans have the ability to learn any language, they learn a language which is used in the place in which they grow. Hence many know only one language which is their mother tongue. Some others learn many languages due to the effect of globalization or due to their interest in learning languages.

            Based on the environment in which people lived, different cultures formed and that lead to the formation of many languages. Some scholars say language and culture/society are intrinsic in nature. Hence by learning a language, one can understand its culture and tradition. It can be well understood by Benjamin Whorf’s statement which goes as,

Language determines one’s entire way of life, including one’s thinking and all other forms of mental activity. To use language is to limit oneself to the modes of perception already inherent in that language. The fact that language is only form yet molds everything goes to the care of what ideology is (quoted in Lisa Das’ lecture note “Language and communication”).

Language’s purpose is to communicate one’s ideas/ emotions. At present language is not only a tool to communicate but it is more than that. People used language as a tool to make their communication easier and effective; whereas now it has grown and deviated from its purpose of serving people and has started to rule people. Consequently now people have started to judge one’ potential in one’s usage of a language. In particular in the developing nations, developed nation’s languages occupy a dominant position.

Initially when people expanded their business in/moved to other countries/regions they had the need to learn the language of that region. Later when the kings expanded their territory by conquering other kingdoms, learning of foreign languages took place. The language of a powerful kingdom ruled the conquered nations. This is how the language of a powerful kingdom/nation started to dominate the language of the oppressed countries. Influence of English language upon the colonized countries can be sited as an example of this sort. During the colonization period, the British government spread their language in their settled/colonized lands. In this way English with slight modification has become the national language of the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The richness of the colonial languages were diminished with the emphasizing of the English language.

 The control over language by the imperial centre-whether achieved by displacing native languages, by installing itself as a standard against other variants which are constituted as ‘impurities’ or by planting the language of empire in a new place- remains the most potent instrument of cultural control (Ashcroft & etc: 283).

            In the present scenario, the world has shrunk due to the effect of globalization. It leads human beings in the compulsion to be familiar with the language of the developed nations. Especially the domination of the English language upon the post-colonial countries particularly in India, Africa and other nations is severe. Though English is considered as a second language in many developing countries, many people from those countries prefer English than their mother tongue and use it as an effective language to communicate. Especially most of the post-colonial nations still suffer with the inferiority complex towards their mother tongues. It raises a question are we still mentally colonized? In India too most of the educated and upper/upper middle class families use English language to communicate even among their family members. Many feel ashamed to communicate in their mother tongue and the worst condition is they force even their children to speak in English, which they consider as a prestigious issue. In most of the decolonized nations, English speaking skill is seen as a criteria to judge one’s talent/intelligence.

 … [A]ny achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the ticket to higher realms. English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences and all other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education… Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance (Thiong’o: 288).

India has 22 official languages. Due to the diversified languages in India, English is considered as the second official language. But the current fascination towards English is forcing the people to treat their mother tongue as an inferior one when compared to English. Now knowing English is not seen as a skill but as one’s knowledge. What Macaulay once said that printing of Sanskrit and other Indian regional language books as waste of money is approved by most of the Indians now. Almost all the parents in India urge to join their children in an English medium school. This mentality has converted many schools where mother tongue was the medium of teaching into English.

The hypothesis of the present paper is to analyze whether English is really a second language in India or is it occupying the primary position by diminishing the importance of the mother tongues. Literature and film media are seen as a mirror of a society. The paper uses literary works (poetry) and a film to portray the dominant role of English.           To discuss literary works the paper has selected Sujatha Bhatt’s “A Different History”, “Search for my Tongue” and “Nanabhai Bhatt in Prison” and Kamala Das’ “Introduction” and for Film Media the paper analysis English Vinglish by Gaurie Shinde.

Bhatt uses poetry as a medium to convey her ideas of culture and language. The select poems talk about Bhatt’s anger towards love for English language in India and her helpless condition in using English language.

            People’s interest towards English language is not a recent occurrence. Even during the colonization period many admired the language and some preferred to mimic the British in order to feel superior among the rest. Ironically people who fought with the British for their rights admired English language and literature. May be as a result of Macaulay’s educational act, Indians might have started to glorify English literature. Sujatha Bhatt in “Nanabhai Bhatt in Prison” visualizes her grandfather reading Tennyson in prison for civil disobedience against the British which might be the result of English education.

            Bhatt in “A Different History” questions Indians craze towards the English language. The first part of the poem discusses Indian culture and practices towards books. The second part questions how the language which was the oppressor’s and which has tortured and killed many becomes the most cherished language. After independence instead of forgetting the language, the decolonized people have started to love that language. By raising such questions, she is trying to make the people to realize that they are worshipping the language of their enemies.

“And how does it happen/ that after the torture/ after the soul has been cropped/ with a long scythe swooping out/” by these lines she tries to portray the tortures people faced under their oppression. Instead of revenging the conqueror, the grandchildren of the oppressed have started to love the conqueror’s language. Here the history is a different one, where people love their enemies’ language. Bhatt fears that in future people may forget their mother tongue due to their love for English.

In “Search for My Tongue” Bhatt expresses her fear about losing her identity as a Guajarati-speaking Indian. She presents herself as having two tongues in her mouth: the mother tongue and a foreign tongue. When she stays in a place where she has to depend upon a foreign language, the writer realizes that she has lost her tongue. Hence she,

…lost the first one, the mother tongue,

And could not really know the other,

The foreign tongue”.

The need to use the foreign tongue often results in the death of her mother tongue. She believes that her mother tongue

“rot and die in …mouth

Until … had to spit it out.”

The tongue which is believed as dead comes alive at night in her dream. Now it occupies the centre by pushing the foreign tongue aside. She concludes the poem with a hope that even in such a condition her mother tongue grows and blossoms.

Kamala Das’ poem “Introduction” gives justification for using English which is not completely the colonizers whereas it is hers. She uses it to convey her emotions.

“…The language I speak,

Becomes mine, …

All mine, mine alone.

It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,

It is as human as I am human…”

This proves that she appropriates the English language and uses it as she desires.

Like Das many post-colonial writers understand that completely neglecting English for the mother tongue is impossible. Instead along with their mother tongue they can use their own English. Raja Rao has commented thus,

“I will have to write my English, yet English after all – and how soon we forget it – is an Indo- Aryan tongue. Thus to stretch the English idiom to suit my needs seemed heroic enough for my urgent most demands. The Irish, remember, had done it (…) So why not Sanskritic (or if you will, Indian) English?” (15).

The movie English Vinglish centers on the protagonist Shashi Godbole, a middle class woman with two children in India. She is a housewife, very much caring about her family and passionate about cooking. Her lack of English knowledge is always mocked by her husband Satish and daughter Sapna. Their comments and her experiences due to poor English language portray her pitiable and inferior position in her home. Shashi’s elder sister, who lives in the U.S. invites her for her daughter’s marriage. Shashi goes alone to the U.S to help her sister. Her experiences due to lack of English knowledge, force her to join for a four weeks course to learn conversational English. Her commitment towards learning English makes her as a best student. Shashi’s speech in English at the wedding portrays her self confidence and her nature as a typical conventional wife.

                       Shashi Godbole is a conventional wife, whose life is based on taking care of the needs of the family members. Her commitments and services to her family are not recognized by her husband and daughter. Shashi is an excellent cook; she prepares and sells ‘Ladoos’. The money she earns due to it makes her to feel excited regarding her talent. She receives compliments from her customers whereas her husband Satish does not recognize it instead asks her once to stop doing that business. Satish always boost up about himself and never pay attention to his wife’s talents. Sapna also worships her father by neglecting her mother. They both tease her by pointing out the mistakes she commits in English. This increases Shashi’s discomfort in English and develops into an inferiority complex. Shashi’s motherly care and strictness becomes ineffective in the case of Sapna, due to her lack of the language. In spite of Sapna’s disregard and impertinence towards her, she tries to win her daughter’s affection.

                       By that time Shashi’s elder sister from the U.S invites Shashi for her daughter’s marriage earlier than the rest of the family. Travelling alone to the U.S threatens her and as a result she takes coaching from her husband to converse in English. The society respects her as a human being which she lacks at home.  During her journey to the U.S, her co-passenger helps her to understand an English movie and while parting he advises not to be afraid of the English language or the Americans. English is just a language like Hindi or Tamil. Learning a language is good and one should not feel shy about it. Later in the U.S. in a restaurant a stranger saves her from the depression she undergoes due to lack of English language. This incident along with the humiliations she felt at her home motivated her to undergo a four week Spoken English course. The course enables her to understand her potential and her interest in learning English. When her niece’s marriage is fixed on the same day of her final, she prefers her family over her ambition. During the marriage her speech regarding marriage and relationship in English surprises her family members. Her ideas about a family and its members change the perspectives of her husband and daughter.

                   The above discussed literary works and the movie have indicated the influence of English upon us. Many can communicate in English without mingling the mother tongue whereas in the case of mother tongue speaking it purely without the interruption of English is less possible. It proves our addition to the English language and it paves way to the formation of the question is English really our second language? In our everyday life we can come across people treat English as knowledge than a mere language. Instead of glorifying the British’s English, one can use that language to present our cultural richness to the world. As Kamala Das mention we can use it as our English instead of simply mimicking the white. The paper concludes with the words of Raja Rao,


“English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up – like Sanskrit or Persian was before- but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We can only write as Indians(…) our method of expression… will someday prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American.”(14)





Thiong’o, Ngugu Wa. “The Language of African Literature”. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Ashcroft, Bill &etc (eds.) London: Routledge Publishers, 1995, 285-290.

Ashcroft, bill, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin (eds). The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge Publishers, 1995.

Tattersall, Ian. “How we came to be HUMAN”. Scientific American Special Edition. 16(2); 2006; 66-73.

Das, Lisa. Lecture notes on Language and Communication. Accessed on 13/12/12. <www.iitg.ernet.in/scifac/qip/public_ html/ed_cell/…/lizadasqip.pdf.

Rao, Raja. “In Search of –My Bride” (1978). In the Meaning of India. New Delhi: Vision Books, 1996. 142-148.


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