English in Kerala or Kerala English?

Published in the writer’s column in the New Indian Express, September 23rd 2010

“Hello Ma’am, what is your good name?” has been the question I have been asked most frequently during my time in Calicut. This is a question that makes me want to scream at the formality of language used here and illustrates some of the failures of the education system.

My experiences listening to Keralites speak English are often painful, difficult and not dissimilar to pebbles shaking in a can. I confess, on occasion I have pretended to be French and unable to speak English just to avoid enduring another conversation about my “good self”, “which place” I am from and “how” I like Kerala food, unable to bear yet another grammatically incorrect question.

English has a firm presence in Kerala society, starting at Primary school, through to its use as a medium at University and its use in corporate sectors, government institutions and in the print media. It is perceived as a tool necessary for global communication, yet this fact remains ignored when students are learning English as I discovered earlier this week when I met Dr. Nayar, a British linguistics specialist.

Despite leaving University with eight years of exposure many students are unable to string a sentence together and are left, well, speechless when asked even the simplest of questions. This is due to bureaucratic factors and the fact that English is taught as a subject, rather than a communicative tool. Students in Kerala are constantly reminded of the need to succeed and many study largely in order to jump through hoops to secure a job and pass exams, rather than to develop any communicative ability. The rigid implementation of teaching material and purely text-book teaching is also to blame and it is little wonder that many students leave their education with poor speech.

High teacher-student ratios mean students are spoon-fed the required syllabus material to enable them to pass exams. Despite Universities teaching in English, there is a lack of importance placed on the continuing importance of learning. For example, I have students that enjoy reading Shakespeare (difficult for even a native speaker), that have severe problems with basic sentence structure.

Even the most educated Keralites have problems with spoken English and probably feel more comfortable writing than speaking. For a native English speaker, listening to a Keralite speak English is difficult and markedly different from other versions of Indian English. As Dr. Nayar identifies, a continuing problem is the persistent ignorance towards word stress as essential to word identity; words are pronounced as if they were written in Malayalam. A lack of exposure to spoken English has resulted in a lack of sentence intonation and end-weight-focus pitch pattern for processing and makes a Keralite’s spoken English difficult to understand.

As an outsider, it is frustrating to experience the over-formality of Kerala English. “To scold”, rather than to tell off and to “expire” rather than to pass away are two of the most regular offenders and illustrates that English is taught in an outdated and fixed way. With my postgraduates I repeatedly find basic problems with sentence structure and the wrong use of verbs, in particular, the application of the present tense to past and future sentences.

What is surprising, however, is the confidence with which Keralites speak English, despite being considered as confused and incorrect to outsiders. They are able communicate using this medium in their own contexts and I have witnessed students using grammatically incorrect English with entirely unsuitable vocabulary, yet being understood by their contemporaries. As Kerala is integrating successfully into the wider globalized economy, English intelligible to the outside world is essential. Spoken English should be given greater priority in education, for Kerala’s development to continue.

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