Sunday, August 16, 2009

Speaking "Indian" at work and public

When the Australian race attacks happened, as I noted here, commenters said that Austalians did not like Indians talking in their native languages in public.
In India itself, there is an uniquely Indian aspect to this controversy that refuses to die. This post is about that controversy and what it means for our society.

The Stereotype
When I left for the United States back in 1999, one of my HR briefers in India told me not to talk in Tamil at work. At that time I did not question that. I just accepted it.
In the States, some of my colleagues were from North India, and we fell into the habit of talking in Hindi when together(I learnt Hindi from them).
But I was surprised that in the online forums and chatrooms there was always an accusation that if a group of people speaking Indian language X got together they were very rude and continued to speak in language X at work (where X could be Tamil, Telugu, Hindi or Malayalam). That is, almost every Indian group was accusing other groups of talking in their own language at work.
When I came back to India I myself had an argument with a drunk guy who made the general accusation at Tamil speakers and I wrote about that here.
It was obvious to me, then, that like several other derogatory stereotypes about the diferent ethnic groups (such as North Indians smell or South Indians speak bad English), this was simply another stereotype. No particular ethnic group "uniquely" misbehaved at work and nor was any other ethnic group "well-behaved". Just as Telugu people are unfairly accused of faking resumes (everyone does it; it is a competitive country) similarly the stereotype is that when a bunch of Tamils or Bengalis get together at work, they talk in their native languages.
But stereotypes have consequences.

The English-Only company
Recently a company I know passed a HR "policy" that all conversations other than water-cooler types or at lunch time, should be in English. I have no idea how they would implement this in practice, without imposing a kinder-garten like atmosphere. But this post is not about that.
The question I have is this. Who decided that talking in your native language among other people who speak that same language is somehow "rude"?
India has 200 different languages and within every three or four hundred kilometers you encounter a new language. When we were growing up, there were people speaking different languages all around us. And this is definitely true in this day.
When you went to public places or in school, you always came across people who speak in different languages among themselves. It never "offended" anybody.
On the other hand countries like America and Australia have a "melting-pot" metaphor. In these countries racism takes different forms - ONE of those forms is the anger against people speaking in different languages among themselves.
That is, the INTOLERANCE that Americans, the British or Australians show to linguistic diversity is not a GOOD feature of their society. It is actually profoundly insensitive and xenophobic.
My point is that we have taken this remarkably stupid insensitivity and then tried to develop the same insensitivity in INDIA - which is against any common sense. This is a country which should be celebrating linguistic diversity. Instead, the modern Indian at work and in public is encouraged to frown on people speaking a different language among themselves. Why? Because they do so in the West.
So, now we have people turning up their collective noses when a few developers talk in Tamil or Telugu or Hindi.
What is the result? As I explained in this post, it is not as if we are all trained by super English teachers. Most of us talk bad English anyway. So we end up talking butler English at work just to prove someone's point and power.

If you are in a meeting and a bunch of people are talking in a language you don't know, then why not simply let them know you don't know the language? Why is that such a bad option?


Anubhav said...

Good one.. imposing English only rule sounds KG.
On 62nd yr of Independence, Freedom of Language is nothing too big to demand.

Anonymous said...

The said company actually encourages employees to rat on their colleagues if they find anyone talking in a language other than English. It would be hilarious if it weren't true.