“I am very good. Thank you. Aur Aap bataaiae.”
“Main tikh hoon.”
“Acchaa aur angrezi me boliie…” (Okay and please say it in English)
“Oh haa Jii. (Yes sir) I am fine! No, ek (one) minute… I am very good!”
My Wednesday and Friday afternoon typically begins with this chorus of Hindi to English, English to Hindi check-ins with my ‘extracurricular’ language class. As I hope was apparent in my previous blog, I am extremely excited about my main project developing a curriculum for the Nizamuddin Basti’s government school that is relevant to the community’s heritage and culture. However, one of the aspects of my position working with the Aga Khan Foundation that I particularly enjoy is the fact that I am not exclusively assigned to this particular role. Rather, recognizing that I would be more productive, engaged and perhaps even useful if I am working in a variety of environments and with a variety of people, my supervisor asked what other initiatives with AKF I might be interested in working with. And so, after discussing my past experiences teaching English as a second language, I landed a biweekly gig teaching English to the community health workers in the Nizamuddin Basti’s Polyclinic.
In the United States, I frequently volunteered with the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s Welcome Center in Philadelphia. There, I had the wonderful experience of teaching English and citizenship courses to immigrants from a variety of Latin American and Eastern European countries. I vividly remember the slow crawl through North Philly to Allegheny Avenue and the chilly winter air as I stepped out of my car and into the row home turned language center. I remember the constant laughs we shared as we pronounced English words in a variety of accents as well as my students’ frustrations and pure exhaustion from learning an extremely difficult languages after a 12-hour workday. Despite the challenges, I admired their longing to speak the language their children were forced to speak in school. I was impressed by their desire to advance their work lives by understanding this language of finance, power and wealth. And I was saddened by the fact that they felt the need to learn English to feel safer in an America that was increasingly less welcoming to immigrants.
“Aur aap ji? Aap angrezi sikhna kyon chahati hain?” (Why do you want to learn English?)
During my first or second week working with AKF, I went to the community Polyclinic and asked the 12 community workers the same question that elicited such a wide range of emotion in my Philadelphia classroom. Each of these women reiterated feeling like English would be beneficial for their career development and critical to their relationship with and advocacy for their children. Just like the women in Philly, these individuals were devoted to the idea of learning English because they saw English as the language of the future, the language to learn if you do not want to be left behind.
Besides feeling inspired by my students dedication to spending additional time and energy bettering themselves and their loved-ones lives, these sorts of responses stir up a range of mixed emotions for me. I love teaching English. Although it requires a whole lot of energy that can sometimes be hard to dig up, I also always finish my classes feeling far better than I did before they began. However, I also feel uneasy about the way we in the U.S. necessitate English as a starting place for business dealings, education, and cross-cultural interactions. Why should a woman living in Delhi feel like she has to learn English? For that matter, why should an immigrant living in Philadelphia? Can’t I try harder to learn Spanish? I certainly should try as hard as possible to learn Hindi given that most of my community members feel most comfortable speaking Hindi rather than English.
In fact, when you look at the world’s 7.2 billion people, you will find that more people speak Hindi/Urdu as their first language than English. (Noack and Gamio, “The World’s Languages, in 7 Maps and Charts,” 2012). And yet, English is spoken in 101 countries (nearly twice as many as Arabic, the next most widespread language) and taught as a second language to 1.5 billion individuals (compared to French with 82 million learners) (Neeley, “Global Business Speaks English,” May 2012).
Since the spread of British and American imperialism, engagement with centers of politics and economics have been primarily conducted English. As a variety of researchers point out, English has continued to spread not as a first language but rather as a corporately-mandated language of transaction and business interaction. In a similar way, during my previous experiences living in India, I noticed that it is extremely common for people in prestigious positions (think CEOs, department heads, project directors, etc.) to speak English as comfortably as they speak their first Indian language. While I enjoy learning languages and think that everyone should make an effort to learn new languages, why does it seem that the burden is always on the non-English speaker?
Is there really anything we can do to change this? Isn’t it more efficient to have a single language spoken across cultures and corporate spaces? What’s the issue really? I admit, being able to travel widely with minimal difficulty and read/listen to most information on the Internet and in books is a convenient privilege to have. But I also think we have a responsibility as beneficiaries of this inequitable system to try to connect with people in their native languages. I am excited and happy that, in addition to my AIF Fellowship project, I have the opportunity this year to do something I love. I continue to believe that English can empower these women to pursue their objectives and sense of confidence. But I also think that as a global community, we (especially those of us in the English-speaking world) have a special responsibility to learn the native languages of the places we travel as well as create inclusive spaces for individuals in the United States who are not as comfortable speaking English. If I have learned anything during my three trips to India, it is this: language can be a barrier but it can also be an opportunity for connection, trust and learning. And I mean all languages, not just English.
- Neeley, Tsedal. “Global Business Speaks English.” The Harvard Business Review, May 2012. https://hbr.org/2012/05/global-business-speaks-english.
- Noack, Rick and Gamio, Lazaro. “The World’s Languages, in 7 Maps and Charts.” The Washington Post, 23 April 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/04/23/the-worlds-languages-in-7-maps-and-charts/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.82c1ab989546.