On Speaking English

One of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked during my time at the College is how I learned English and why I speak it “so well.” My instinct is to feel exasperation and indignation, which are immediately followed by guilt at my lack of generosity towards the well-intentioned asker, who was, after all, “just curious.” The residue of this amalgamation of feelings tends to stay with me, constituting a vague bother, and this is why it was of interest to me to examine this scenario and my own reaction to it. Also, this is an experience most international students face at some point in their time here, so it appeared to be a topic worth pursuing.

First, I’ll give a serious answer to the question that started me off to begin with. If you are curious as to how I learned English or wonder what are the means by which I acquired the fluency needed to write an article on the matter, the easiest response would be for me to ask you in turn how you learned to speak English fluently. This is not meant to be flippant but rather is intended to demonstrate the difficulty of articulating a response to such a question. Giving it some thought, you might respond with some of the following: parents, siblings, classes at school, classmates, movies and television shows, music, books or the internet. That’s exactly how I learned, too.
Likely, most international students asked this question learned the language through some combination of the factors above. Having established how absurd the question seems when asked in return or how necessarily mundane the response will be, it is easier to explain why one might feel exasperated when asked. It is disconcerting to have to think about — and tedious to have to explain — how one came to learn a language and speak with native fluency, in that very same language. Take into consideration the fact that this happens dozens of times, and it is a small wonder that the reaction stays at exasperation and doesn’t morph into something more negative.
The indignation is harder to explain and more troubling. It is also less generalizable because here, in particular, it is important I acknowledge I only speak from my experience. Although I know that some others feel the same way, I cannot presume to speak for the larger community. The only way I have found to explain this sentiment is an internalization of the notion of English as a mark of development and prestige. This is not at all hard to believe in the case of India, where the British used a narrative of bringing civilization to primitive people to justify their colonization, and one symbolic way in which this was achieved was through the introduction of an English curriculum in schools.

There is currently a largely misunderstood anti-English movement in some states in India, largely motivated by this historical circumstance and resentment at its implication. What might, therefore, sound like a fairly innocuous question on the surface could unintentionally invoke sentiments that do not make sense outside the context of understanding that in some ways a question about language can become a question about status, intelligence, ability or worth. Of course, this association is deeply problematic, and has no reasonable basis, but regrettably, at least in me, it exists. Acknowledging this, and including it to form a less than banal explanation might be important if we are to take curiosity and a desire to understand one another seriously, rather than something we merely go through the motions of.

A second question that interests me is what the implicit assumptions that underlie the curiosity of the well-intentioned asker are. Are they curious about me as Shruthi or as an Indian? I fear it is mostly the second that seems to be the case, and this is an issue for two reasons. First, the idea that an individual can speak to the experiences of an entire group of people is something we are guilty of assuming in several different contexts, but if the goal is truly international understanding, we must abandon grounds with soil fertile for stereotypes.

Second, it is likely that international students at Amherst in particular are the ones we must be most careful about assuming represent the ‘typical’ citizen of their respective countries, insofar as such a thing exists, because as many cases, the fact that we are here and the dizzyingly complex combination of circumstances that had to fall into place to enable our presence at an elite liberal arts institution potentially halfway across the world, puts us firmly outside the norm. Whatever our relative privilege in the College, it is likely that we come from privileged backgrounds in our countries and this is an important caveat to consider in trying to understand where we come from.

Maybe the reason so much feels at stake when these seemingly innocuous questions are asked is that, for most part, these constitute the majority of dialogue I’ve been a part of about where I’m from and my cultural identity, so it seems important to get the answers right. But perhaps if I were to respond with some of the above the next time I were asked the question, it would indeed spark conversation that went beyond the mundane and actually made progress towards improved cross cultural awareness.