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Critical Response To, ‘The Politics Of Language’ By Chinua Achebe

Updated: May 30, 2023

By Dhairya Iyer

Chinua Achebe's essay explores the bond between language and power, along with the effects of colonization on the meaning and use of language in Africa. In his essay, he argues that language is an instrument of power that is often used to control and dominate people and it is not an objective tool of communication. He further highlights the essence of preserving indigenous languages as a way of resisting colonialism's linguistic and cultural imperialism. Achebe’s arguments resonate with the India as well, where the impact of colonialism on language and culture are still felt today. In this critical response, I will discuss Achebe's arguments and their relevance within the Indian context of language and education.

Achebe has expressed his thoughts aptly when he said, “Today, things have changed a lot, but it would be foolish to pretend that we have fully recovered from the traumatic effects of our first confrontation with Europe.”

Achebe was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize (2007), and is the most prominent author of African literature in English. Being awarded with the title of ‘The father of African literature,’ he is a writer, critic, professor, and linguist. Achebe’s first novel, ‘Things Fall Apart,’ published in 1958 by William Heinemann, continues to be the most widely read and studied African novel in history and has been translated into over fifty languages. He preserved the strong influences of his native Igbo culture through his work, celebrating its rich, centuries-long history and traditions. He wrote about both the politics of British colonialism in the region and on its lasting legacies in postcolonial Nigeria.

Achebe served as the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College in New York, where he founded the prestigious journal African Commentary. From 2009 to his death, Achebe was also a Professor at David and Marianna Fisher University and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Rhode Island. His work is commendable for its shaping of language and creation of new idioms to communicate African experience in English. Politics, colonialism, history, masculinity, family, the individual in society, and gender are a few among the many themes he has written about.

Achebe's essay points out how the colonization of Africa by Europeans had a significant impact on the languages and cultures of the continent. Colonialism imposed European languages like English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese as the language of education, administration, and communication, while local languages were often overlooked. This resulted in marginalizing local languages and cultures while privileging the European ones. Achebe says, “The way people speak reflects their history, their environment, and their values. To speak a language well is to understand its peculiarities, its rhythms, and its logic, and this requires a deep familiarity with the culture that produced it.”

Franz Fanon accurately argued that language was turned into a mechanism that separated children from their history since their own heritage was shared only at home, which depended on speaking in their native language. At school, they are taught that the sole way to progress is to memorize the textbook in the colonizer's language. By omitting their native language from their education, they are separated from their nation’s history which is replaced by European history in European languages.

Achebe wrote in English not because he wanted to write to the world in a world language or to write to white people in a white language. He wanted to write to Nigerians and felt he could only do that in English. If he wrote in his native Igbo he would just be writing to a part of Nigeria.

Leopold Senghor, a politician, poet, and theorist, like Césaire, believed that African cultures were communitarian and socialist at the core and that colonialism had destroyed native socialism and substituted it with capitalism. Edward Said argued that European identity was established only because it had the East to contrast itself with. The Orient was central to the formation of a European identity. His work portrayed how rhetoric and discourse, language and writing were significant to colonialism because rhetoric and writing are ideological. The ideology of the empire required precise forms of discourse to assist and defend it, and this discourse was Orientalism. Educational syllabi, anthropological studies and literary texts were all discourses that regarded the Orient and native cultures as subjects to be studied, disciplined, and administered.

India's experience with colonization is similar. It was the British who handed over the pen to India to draw its borders resulting in English as a necessary side effect. English became the language of power and prestige, and regional languages were considered inferior. This had the effect of erasing Indian languages and cultures, thereby creating a cultural and linguistic hierarchy that honoured English over local languages.

I would like to compare the use of English as a language of power in India to Harold Laswell’s ‘magic bullet theory,’ which states that the media can directly and powerfully influence individuals. In a similar manner, the English language has been used as a tool(bullet) of control and domination, with the notion that language can magically modify individuals and communities into more ‘modern’ and ‘developed’ units.

English is currently the only language that can hold everything together without favouring any one part of the country. The use of English in India is a disputable issue, with some arguing that it is necessary for economic growth and access to the global markets, whereas others argue that it is a fragment of colonialism that side-lines local languages and cultures. English has become the language of power and stature in India, and its use is often seen as a symbol of social status and success. This has had the effect of diminishing the authority of local languages and cultures, because English is regarded as the language of modernity and development. This has further led to a loss of cultural and linguistic diversity in India, since several languages are dying out due to lack of support and use.

The survival of a language depends on the preservation of literature produced in that language. Can we begin to start honouring our regional cultures right from home? Have we started the process of decolonization at all when the syllabus in Indian educational institutions excludes texts written in regional languages?

At present, there are hardly any funds supporting regional language writers. The inclusion of regional prize category would bring more local attention to these writers and their texts, and perhaps even redefine India’s public attitude towards regional literature. When we speak of reparation, it must include uplifting regional languages across India. The radical change should spring from the interior.

The task of translation is delicate and fascinating. It is an entry into a conversation of various cultures. The debate of writing in English by localising it as compared to not writing in English at all has been prevalent for a while now. There are significant cultural, economic, and political implications to the debate, but when we enter the realm of translation, we could find a path for compromise. As the British left, and the ambition to live up to the colonial standard began to arise among the middle class, the need for literature written in local languages declined. Schools adapted to American or British standards in their syllabi, and punished students who spoke local languages on campus. The market for writers of vernacular literature shrank, and translators refocused their attention. In short, a massive postcolonial linguistic fallout. Is India’s literary industry colonially grounded? There are grants, prizes and fellowships for Indian writers in the English language but writers of literature in regional languages are often ignored or given little importance and exposure.

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 in India intends to promote multilingualism and language diversity, acknowledging language as a crucial component of cultural identity and heritage. The NEP recommends that children be taught in their mother tongue or local language up to grade five, with a gradual introduction of English and other languages. This is quite a development from the previous policy, which imposed the use of English as the language of instruction and depreciated local languages.

Hence, the NEP's emphasis on multilingualism and language diversity is in accordance with Achebe’s arguments about the significance of preserving local languages as a way of fighting cultural and linguistic imperialism. But we return to the question once again, is this enough to empower the populace and encourage them to learn to speak, read and write in their regional languages? Does this guarantee the decolonisation of their minds which have been slaves of the imperialists for over two centuries?

There can be no answer. I believe each one of us must invent the answer for ourselves. It is hard to express Indian thought in English, but we can use that to shape English instead of letting a white English shape us or limit what we can say. We have invented the term ‘Hinglish’ where we write or speak Hindi in English. The first step was to realise and understand our situation, the second is to do something to improve it and of course there is absolutely no limit to the number of steps after that. Each one of us has the freedom to decide our actions, the question now is, what will we do with that freedom? Will we play politics with language too?

By Dhairya Iyer

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Unknown member
Jun 29, 2023

Extremely well written! Unique choice of subject!

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