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Decolonizing the Language

By Maulshree Gangwar

“Knowledge itself is ‘colonized’: colonized knowledge perpetuates the hierarchical structure of society” – Martin Carnoy

Parimala V. Rao writes that indigenous as well as early English education in pre-colonial India was more accessible to the poor than in contemporary England. In Britain, education was a luxury of the elite and the poor did not have access to it. With the arrival of the East India Company in India, the prospects for better financial stability with the British government prompted Indians to be educated in an English school, without which they were not eligible to work with the Government (Willinsky, 1998). This English education came at a price that could only be afforded by the elite class of the society. The mandatory knowledge of English to get a job with the British government tempted more and more Indians to switch to English schools. Over time, this resulted in a class shift in the availability of education and also the destruction of the local village school system, described as ‘The Beautiful Tree’ by M. K. Gandhi (Dharampal, 1983). The responsibility of making education available to the poor remained in the hands of the powerful and elite class of the society.

Even after almost 60 years of independence from colonial rule, the Indian education system continues to be centralized and quality education is restricted to those who can afford to pay for it. Even though the national language is Hindi, the medium of instruction in most schools is English, except maybe the public schools that are run by the central or state governments. Macaulay’s effort to replace instruction in Sanskrit and Arabic/Persian to English still dominates the educational system. Sanskrit is taught in some curricula but other than that it has become a defunct language because nobody talks in Sanskrit in India. English continues to dominate as the instructional and conversational language.

I studied in an English medium convent school till high school following which I moved to an English medium private school. In the convent school I attended, there was a strict rule that the conversational language must be English, although we could speak Hindi during the Hindi class. I remember having to pay a fine of 25 paisa (approximately 0.4 cents) in grade 1 for speaking in Hindi during recess hours. It was not the meager amount I had to ask my parents for but the reason for which I had to pay it. I remember the shame it brought me when I approached the class-teacher to pay it. I made it a point to catch her while she was partially hidden behind the cupboards, so my other classmates could not see it. From that very young age, I was made to feel inferior for speaking in my mother-tongue. I dared not speak in Hindi anymore at least in school. The language in the school created a hierarchy: people who speak English were at the top and people who do not at the bottom. The English-speaking ‘superior’ people had the right to punish and embarrass those who chose not to speak English.

In a more recent experience, while I was teaching in a private school in India, it was quite the opposite.  The Hindi teacher always had concerns about students not being able to converse in Hindi in the class. He had a very difficult time promoting the use of conversational Hindi. This only shows that Macaulay is long gone but his legacy still remains and it is only being strengthened in the post-colonial times.  I am at a stage in my life when I cannot complete a sentence in Hindi, without including any English words. But is it really all that bad?

The current education caters to a system that, according to Susan Dewey, is “…designed to benefit only those who would eventually become part of the established power structure, whether via family or ethnic ties”. The British colonizers are gone, but they have transferred this hierarchy of power in the hands of Indians, who can afford to learn the language and thus pave way to a better future for them. Knowing the language has greatly benefited me in adjusting in the US, an English speaking country. It has taken one struggle off my list that other students face in learning to write well in a new language when they come here. Even back in India, I have better chances of being considered in the high socio-economic class. I have moved up the ladder of hierarchy by knowing the language of the colonizers. Even though I do not have the right to punish or embarrass someone for not being able to speak in English, I can definitely pass my judgment about them and consider them ‘inferior’ to me. Rephrasing Carnoy: ‘colonized language perpetuates the hierarchical structure of society’. 


Maulshree Gangwar is graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies. She also works as an Evaluation Consultant with the New York City Department of Education. She is from Lucknow and also pursues photography as a hobby. The collection of her pictures can be accessed at:

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