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On Language and Communication

An old email in a group I participate in, had this woman write something really wonderful, in less than perfect English. Frankly, I had no problem with it, but when people praised her, this is what she wrote:

Well I’m a bit shy and my english is also not so good and to add to it I get very little time for mails so I may not respond frequently but I do catch up whenever I get time.

And my response:

I can understand the time bit, but don’t worry about language. Its communication that counts. I loved chatting with an Israeli, whose English was like “Chai possible baba?” and one of my favourite trekking guides was this guy who spoke with foreign trekking clients like “tommorrow breakfast ready 6am. no late”

I think Indians stress good English too much (and consider ‘bad English’ with contempt). Another hangover from the British Raj education. Language is about communication, not grammar and spellings. My standing invitation to all people worried about ‘not good enough English’ is to think of themselves as foreigners and exotic. After all, it IS true. English is not your main language. That is not inadequate. It is exotic 😉

These days, immersed in human rights and living conditions as I am, I invariably get “You should write about….” and I invite them to write what they think is needed and I will publish it. Most of them refuse saying that their English is not good enough.

A few brave it, and astound me and my readers with their words. Witness the Afghan Life series on this blog itself. Gity Yousafi, an utterly incredible woman, speaking up for women’s rights in a place where she describes women as being traded like cattle in marriage…. you think anyone who matters cares about grammar and punctuation and spelling more than that?

Aware that I am, that this is a much silenced voice, I find it more important to let it shine through and love it as it is, rather than rephrase it in my words – as usual someone else speaking for them, even when they try to speak for themselves – not a chance I will do that. I would rather eat my keyboard.

Reminds me of a party conversation:

Confirmed Bachelor: Kids are these messy, stinky monsters who lack volume control and tact and live to contradict you.

Evangelist Mom: You mean you don’t like them.

Confirmed Bachelor: Heck no! I respect them for it. I wish I could be exactly who I am.

Correction is a process of changing something unacceptable to something acceptable, or applying your own meanings to something someone said. I would never correct a voice speaking up with much courage, breaking through shrouds of silencing oppression. It doesn’t get any more real than that. The woman was not educated at Oxford, she never picked up fancy HBO slang. It is what she was saying that was more important. As long as it was understood, language was just the tool, and it was working excellently.

One of my readers was aghast when I started this series. I used to put the article, and then below, mention the writer. Gauri thought I’d gone mad to write like that, but she loved it when she realized it was a real Afghan woman. Now, in the beginning of the post, I introduce the writer. That is all it takes for the writing to be recognized as the reality rather than careless language.

British english has its flavour. US english has its flavour. Indian Hinglish has its flavour. Similarly, Baloch and Afghan people do English in their own styles. Even people with good English have their eccentricities, and I know plenty of doctors who not only write illegibly, but type awful grammar. Just as I know many people who write gracefully, eloquently. In every case, I find that the writing tells me much about the person. Why discriminate and respect one kind of English and correct the other according to that?

That said, when I do chat interviews, I end up correcting a lot. Chat or SMS writing is often shortened to phrases and butchered words (one huge reason I’ve never done an interview on Twitter :D), which don’t make sense in the article. Then, in the interest of communication, I string things together, fix grammar glitches that emerge, Capitalize, punctuate as needed so that the meaning comes across. But I still don’t change the words. If the purpose of listening to someone is understanding what they say, then we must listen to them as they are, not as we would like them to be.

Comments 4

  • Just some random clicks made it possible for me to read this blog. Its amazing, indeed ! I know I am running 2 years late but after reading it I think I should write something.

    As far as English and the mockery/contempt related to it is concerned, I find myself a victim of the same. This is primarily because of the irrevocable damage done by the education system of 90s. I can’t blame it to anyone because I was in the best school of the town, which unfortunately was not affiliated to any Board. Till 10th neither my school, nor even my family cared much over the kind of education I was getting, which was completely normal in those dark ages. After 10th, I entered in the arena of fortunate masses and my HInglish made sure that it gave plenty of mockery moments to them. I knew I was going to entertain many people with this special hingability and I keep on doing that 🙂

    I didn’t mean to write an autobiography but I am trying to make a point. When you are laughing at some one’s English then not only you are laughing at that person or the language of that person, u are laughing on his family, his educational background, his father’s income, living standard and resources, and every little things which neither that poor boy nor his family can control. You have no Idea, how it feels to carry that moment of embarrassment to grave.

    Believe me Karma is very kameeni cheez, Bhagwan naa kare kal ko aapke life mn earthquake aaye aur aap sadak par ho, wahi socio-economic cycle aapke baccho ke saath bhi repeat ho sakta hai. So please respect every one and don’t laugh at anyone’s english.

    • I think it is quite special that you spoke up. This “autobiography” that you are being self-depreciating about makes the point I was trying to convey with far more simplicity. Thank you!

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