When George Bernard Shaw wrote ‘Pygmalion’, it was an attempt on his part to scorn class distinction and disparity prevalent in England at the time. An Irishman himself, he used the English language — and its many dialects which determine the speaker`s status — as a tool to show his audience, society’s shallow standards of judging a person.
Shaw was fighting Britain’s class privileges which separated the feudal, landed gentry with the working classes and where speaking the ‘King’s English’ reflected superior lineage. Post colonial generations ended up adopting that same legacy of the British who believed that the rich notes of Urdu were heathenish compared to the simplistic sounds of English with its mere 26-letter alphabet.
And so it is that in Pakistan and India particularly, being ‘Urdu medium’ as opposed to ‘English medium’ comes with an ugly social stigma. Fluency in English represents a higher status, a claim to good education and by default leads to the general assumption that the English spoken person would for some reason naturally possess a better intellect. Nearly all post-colonial nations still have English as the official language and the urban elite lives in a misguided sense of superiority because of their fluency in their master’s tongue.
A new Indian ‘Minglish’ movie called English Vinglish, addresses this rather thorny issue in a smart manner. It is the story of an Indian housewife, Shashi, with a successful corporate professional as a husband, who patronises her exceptional cooking and other housewifely skills. Her poor mastery of the English language turns into a critical issue with her family.
The movie made a successful debut at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year as many Canadian newcomers know just what it is to survive in an English speaking society while not being conversant in English. The loud laughter of the Chinese journalist next to me was proof that the depiction had found its mark. Artfully exposing the political necessity of English in today’s world, Shashi’s fearful journey into the English speaking realm reveals the pitfalls present at every corner for a non-English speaking person.
The film makes many intelligent observations and the scenarios are heartrending and comical at the same time. The protagonists do a great job of exposing the arrogance of the English speaking world which believes that all other nationals are Stone Age imbeciles who should retire to their caves!
At its TIFF premier the film received a standing ovation, clearly an acknowledgement that it hit the right cord with Sridevi, the former queen of Indian cinema’s comeback in this movie after nearly 15 years. Depicting perhaps her own travails of struggling with English at the peak of her stardom, her performance is poignant.
Miscommunication brought on by language barriers can lead to serious issues. In Canada, the Citizenship and Immigration Ministry has become stricter in language requirements for newcomers. Reason being, many newcomers remain marginalised because of their inefficiency to communicate in English and — despite higher professional qualifications — remain relegated to blue collar jobs and sometimes, are rejected even for those lowly positions.
However, the good news is that current times have broken some of these old language barriers. Language skills have new standards now and internet communication allows you to get by with the slang form of English as well. In fact, a new language is evolving which is being defined by everyone from six years old onwards.
Incidentally, some of these short forms have made it to the Oxford Dictionary and can now be found within its hardbound, haloed pages. Some examples; LOL (laugh out loud); OMG (Oh my God) and the heart symbol (<3) which though is not even a word, can be found in the dictionary to mean, ‘with love’.