Going Globish

'English Vinglish' speaks of a language distilled beyond recognition to its native users

You did not even have to go see English Vinglish to know that it had got one touch very wrong in an otherwise timely reminder of the linguistic power framework that a multilingual society like India's inhabits. In a scene in the film's slick trailer, Sridevi is stammering apologetically through her visa interview with an American official, who demands to know how she will cope in his country with her scant knowledge of English. His Indian-origin colleague supplies an answer on her behalf, just "how you have been managing in our country without knowing Hindi". Strike one against the diplomat from the world's only superpower!

Not quite.

It so happens that Sridevi's later enrolment in an English-speaking class in the United States does not just give her the vocabulary — and, consequently, confidence — to negotiate people and situations in a foreign land. Ease with English also, and this is what EV's Indian wit at the US consulate fails to reflect, rewrites the domestic dynamic for her in India, a country where, in fact, it is currently not so difficult to get by without knowing any other language. Her need for English speaks not so much about the lingering traces of colonialism, but about the nature of the beast the English language now is: the dominant lingua franca.

We in India have internalised too deeply the debate on English as the vanquisher of our many languages versus English as a civilisational choice to tap into globalisation's opportunities. But as some of the set pieces in EV suggest, it is useful to rework our perspective on English as our "link" language in a larger context, away from the two extremes of our usual debate. Simply put, at this point in time, English is the language that allows us to comprehend the chatter around us, and to be understood. Should another language offer that utility more usefully anytime soon, it would be adopted in English's place.

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