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Simply English

Business Standard 

Language is a slimy beast. When I begin my class on adverbs, I tell my students: “One must have a ear for the language. It’s good to know the rules but rules take you only so far. An ear for the language, the rise and fall of words as they slide against one another, as they whisper secrets of intimacy, is something that will carry the day for you. When in doubt, trust your guts, not rules.”

The trouble is, guts are subjective. Students decide accuracy on “what sounds right”. And what sounds right is determined by what they have grown up hearing, which has little correlation with what is right. In Mumbai, the joke goes, English moves northward in time. The eighties and nineties were decades of SoBo English. Stiff upper lip, convent education — the kind that looked askance at sentences that ended in a preposition. (It was Winston Churchill who led the fight against this particular rule. Miffed by his stenographer for pointing out this error in a speech, he shot back: “This is precisely the sort of nonsense I object to.”)

The noughties were the age of Bandra English, popularised by that absurd expression: “going around”, as in, “I can’t believe he is going around with her”. Going around what, you might ask, in which case you clearly are not up to speed with matters of the heart. Today’s Mumbai English is being slowly encroached on by the Borivali/Thane variety, which is not English really but a Marathi inflection of the Queen’s tongue. Its anything-goes syntax and liberal mixing with Hindi would send purists teetering on the brink.

My job as English faculty is to adduce instances of the importance of speaking prim English for success in Common Admission Test, or CAT and beyond. How I miss Delhi, with its academic bent, Indian Administrative Services aspirants and Delhi University snobbery. Students there are sharper, if less courteous, but I am willing to forgo expectations of civility if my Mumbai students showed the same inclination to learn English as a language and not merely as a conduit to clear CAT.

After the basics (“Fast is both adjective and adverb: he is a fast runner, as also he runs fast.”), I discuss the most frequent question type in CAT: putting adverbs in order. “He often meets Anjali,” I say, “but he has often met Anjali. When the sentence has only the main verb, adverbs of frequency come before the verb, but when the sentence also has an auxiliary verb, in this case ‘has’, the adverb comes between the auxiliary and main verbs.”

Don’t you see? It sounds so artless when framed as a rule. Also, so dreary. Thank heavens I didn’t learn English this way or I would forever be stuck in a miasma of verbose rules going around in circles of unedifying reasoning.

At any rate, students take down all I say with the eagerness of a beaver. That at least is a much-desired outcome of the way Indian children learn in school. Take down notes religiously for reading (mostly mugging) later. I am not the biggest fan of the Indian system but there is no denying that it lays great store by industry — and that can never be a bad thing.

Some of my students have had their primary education in Hindi or Marathi. They feel shortchanged not simply by their lack of skill but by the unsettling realisation that the absence of English from their lives has stunted them culturally. Knowledge of English, as the row over compulsory reservation for poor kids in private schools showed, is much desired since it allows entry to a global elite club whose members converse, think and feel in the same idiom.

I advise my students to read newspaper editorials and see how arguments are framed and conclusions drawn. They have been tasked with keeping a register of words that they haven’t encountered before for repeated reference. A book is assigned every month for detailed reading and critical analysis.

A generation of earlier Indian Institute of Management (IIM) passouts – the Rama Bijapurkars and Harsha Bhogles of the world (both IIM Ahmedabad, by the way) – would laugh slyly at the way CAT is approached today. An exam that tests advanced language skills in the guise of jumbled sentences and reading comprehension has spawned an industry that focuses, in spite of its best intentions, on learning by rote — an idea inimical to all true learning.

It is a statement on the state of Indian education that our best institutes – the Indian Institutes of Technology and IIMs – are up against a setup that does not allow the dovetailing of their blessed aims with the reality on the ground. I wish there was a way youngsters could join these communities of the best and brightest after going through a fulfiling phase of genuine learning, but that is simply impossible in today’s context.

The author has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one

First Published: Sat, December 01 2012. 00:45 IST