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From Britain with love: Railways, cricket and a motherlode of linguistic insecurity

  • Published at 02:28 pm March 1st, 2021
Tarin Fatema

Recognizing the hypocrisy

Do you remember back in school or university, how we felt particularly self-conscious to speak in English in class, lest we make a grammatical or enunciation error and everyone laughs at us? How many times were we mocked for our accents or called “khet” by our own peers? Or how many times did we bully our own friends for these same reasons? Raise your hand if you were embarrassed by your parents’ lack of English skills as a child. Raise your other hand if you believed English is the superior language because you were taught that speaking it automatically raises you in the social hierarchy. Why do we have this strange tendency to mock our teachers, parents, local TV personalities, athletes or spokespeople for their lack of proficiency in English, yet are completely indifferent to the mistakes of a non-native English speaker of Caucasian descent? I have a theory: it all starts and ends with the British Raj. The fact that we still place the value of someone's worth on his/ her English proficiency some 74 years after the end of the British Raj, sheds light on the difficult reality that we haven’t yet moved past our colonial mindsets. It is like we are viscerally tied to our colonial history and the story of our oppression, resulting in a reluctance to rise above those limitations. 

A matter of self-doubt

Rest assured that in this article, I have no intention to bash the English language because there is no reason to; English is powerful, versatile and absolutely irreplaceable. What I do want to discuss in this article is the reasons why in brown societies, English has become the measure of intelligence and the determinant for respect and status, instead of simply existing as the wonderful language that binds us to each other across cultures, religions and geographical locations. Linguistic insecurity is very common, it exists across many cultures, but it seems linguistic insecurity in our region is a rather unique one – we often tend to feel particular pride for knowing basic, sometimes inadequate forms of communication in every other language. For instance, our familiarity with Hindi in its spoken form, and our incomplete knowledge of Arabic in its written form with no understanding of the text. In these cases, we do not shy away from admitting our inadequacies; and rightfully so because learning a foreign language in any form, oral or written, is something of an accomplishment. However, we do not extend the same consideration and praise for our attempt to learn or communicate in English. When it comes to English we are either too self-conscious to use it as a means of communication or if we possess sound knowledge of it, then it becomes a sign of superiority. 

Modern-day Babu culture

At this point, you might say that it is rather presumptuous of me to blame the British Raj for modern-day inequality and elitist mindsets in our society which consists almost entirely of brown people of the same nationality, but please hear me out. I want to briefly touch on the “Babu culture” that was set up during the British Raj as a class system among Indians. The term “Babu” referred to brown men who enjoyed certain privileges of being employed by the British and served as civil servants perpetuating the British ideology to the rest of the brown populace. This phenomenon fed to the growth of social inequality that divided Indians into two very distinct groups, one that felt closer to the British Raj and therefore powerful, and another that was not as worthy. The fundamental ideology of the British colonizing mission was that the white man is superior to the brown man. Would you not agree that a similar belief of supremacy based on race remains central to our present social system? Today, the brown man that mimics the white man is superior to the brown man who doesn’t. I will give you three common examples: 1) Our obsession with white skin, 2) our blatant disregard and mockery of dark/ black-skinned individuals, 3) our obsession with the English Language and western accents. Our plight often reminds me of a statement Shashi Tharoor, author of An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, made in an interview with the newspaper The Hindu, “Part of being colonized is the colonization of the mind. We had a myth about Britain that the British had assiduously cultivated, such reverence for the Empire that it became an embodiment of aspiration instead of tyranny.” In short, the idea that the white man is the benchmark of success, status and beauty has somehow remained with us all these years despite our ancestor’s heroic sacrifice for freedom from the Raj. This flawed idea has manifested itself in a fashion that many of us even now end up treating our fellow countrymen like they are second-class just because they lack the supposed sophistication of speech, skin-tone or background to ensure compliance with our idea of supremacy. The colonizing mission had created a veneer of unworthiness, establishing to our ancestors and us that brown culture is primitive and our thoughts and ideas are basic, and the only way to reinstate self-worth was to impersonate our white colonizers.  

Embracing our Uniqueness: 

The effects of colonialism are bred through generations and it is not easy to suddenly wipe off and reset the mentality of an entire population. I appreciate how Arundhati Roy simplifies the presence of the English Language in South-East Asia in her essay In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities? She says, “Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire as the British imperial historian had tried to suggest; it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it.” In 2021, where there are bigger problems like a global pandemic, climate crisis, food security and wars to deal with, using the language of our colonizers to bisect our own people is no longer acceptable. English is just a language; yes, a powerful language with a global presence. It is commendable if you speak it well; and if you do not speak it well, learning it is advised. However, it is important to understand that English is not a measure of our intelligence or wealth or lack of thereof. My Bangladeshi mother who studied at a British Missionary School and is presently an English Language teacher often used to repeat the words of her old mentor when I had consciously tried to pick up an American accent in my adolescent years, “One should learn English from an English man.” With all my love and respect for my wonderful mother and her mentor, I disagree – A Bangladeshi should speak English like a Bangladeshi, to the best of our abilities, with the intention to communicate with the world, and not to place ourselves above or below others. We shall speak it with whatever accent is native to us, we shall speak it unapologetically.

Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan is a Mechanical Engineer based in Dhaka. She aspires to be an author someday. For rants and book recommendations, you can follow her on Instagram: @booksnher.