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The English-Vernacular Divide: Postcolonial Language Politics and Practice

reviewed by Thomas Ricento - 2006

coverTitle: The English-Vernacular Divide: Postcolonial Language Politics and Practice
Author(s): Vai Ramanathan
Publisher: Multilingual Matters, Clevedon
ISBN: 1853597694, Pages: 143, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

The English language assumed a pivotal position during the Raj in India.  It separated British rulers from their subjects, but also Indians who spoke English from those who did not.  This legacy of division—between Indians who speak and are educated in and through English, and those who are educated in vernacular languages—persists to the present day in Indian society.  In this fascinating, well-written, and closely argued book, Vaidehi Ramanathan provides a nuanced analysis of how language—English and Guajarti, in this instance—is tied to class distinctions, and how these distinctions are maintained through tertiary education  in India.  She also shows some of the ways in which tertiary educational practices contest these class-based and language-linked asymmetries in an attempt to ‘bridge’ the English-Vernacular divide.   I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the complex role of language policy in (post) colonial contexts, whether in India or other parts of the world.

The setting for Ramanathan’s study is the city of Ahmedabad located in the state of Gujarat, India.  As is the case in many Indian cities, residents of Ahmedabad speak a variety of languages, and most residents are able to converse in at least two of the three officially recognized languages:  Gujarati, Hindi, and English.  The author is a native of the city and spent the first 23 years of her life there, receiving her K-12 and BA education in Ahmedabad’s institutions. (She received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in Linguistics.) As a professor at an American university, she returned to her home town as a researcher to investigate, in part, how more than 50 years after Indian independence, English continues to be associated with upward social mobility largely as a result of  better educational opportunities available in English, especially in business, economics, technology, science, and engineering. Using a combination of ethnography and sociocultural theory, Ramanathan investigated the ways in which Vernacular languages (such as Guajarti) are relegated to subordinate positions and how English is seen to open social doors (p. 5).  She applies the term “voicing” and its variants “de-voicing” and “en-voicing” to the postcolonial context in India to characterize the complex ways in which English and Vernaculars co-exist in Indian society, focusing on the domain of tertiary education.  In considering the topic of postcolonial voice(s), Ramanathan argues that the following questions need to be addressed:  “Who is given the opportunity to speak and how?  Who is simultaneously rendered ‘voice-less’?  Who assumes the power to speak back?  What (divisive) role does English literacy—writing/reading/speaking—play in this general (dis)empowering process?” (p. 5).  To answer these (and other) questions, Ramanathan spent more than seven years in Ahmedabad collecting data (always mindful of the difficulty and dangers of being both an insider and outsider, a researcher and participant, a member of the English-speaking/educated class who is (critically) investigating the (often) less-privileged Vernacular-educated class), which consists  of a range of data types including interviews with over 80 Gujarati and EM (English Medium) students, 21 faculty members, over 100 hours of classroom observations and extensive written documents (including university-mandated syllabi, sample examination questions, student responses, textbooks, notices, circulars and advertisements of various programs, and newspaper articles and opinion pieces on educational issues) (p. 11).  Interspersed with detailed discussions of language-in-education policies and practices at all levels of education in Gujarat is information and analysis of the complex politics of language, with political parties variously supporting or opposing English or Hindi in education and civic life.  There is also the legacy of Gandhi, a native of Gujarat who promoted the teaching and use of Vernacular languages as part of his program of non-violent resistance to British hegemony in all aspects of Indian life.  

Ramanathan isolates three strands of inquiry for detailed investigation and explication:  (1) divergent pedagogic tools (chapter 3), (2) divergent pedagogic practices (chapter 4), and (3) divergent tracks (chapter 5) for Vernacular and English-medium students.  The upshot of her analysis in these three areas is that students who have received English Medium instruction through high school are far better prepared to succeed in English-based curricula in college, especially in business and the ‘hard’ sciences.  Part of the reason for this success is that the expectations of the teachers/professors of EM-educated students is generally higher; this is reflected in the different types of classroom policies, practices and materials afforded EM students compared to VM (Vernacular Medium) students.  These differences were observed even in the Jesuit College where Ramanathan herself studied for her BA degree in the 1980s.  The college today is committed to advancing social justice for lower caste (especially Dalit) students by (a) admitting a certain percentage of Dalit students who otherwise would not qualify for admission, and (b) by providing a learning experience designed to dispel stereotypes and help lower caste students improve their English and academic success.  However, Ramanathan found that the tracking practices adopted by the college, while well-intentioned, in some ways actually helped to reinforce the academic deficiencies of Dalit students relative to EM students.  Among other differences she found that in the English curriculum for the so-called B-Streamers (mostly lower caste VM students) there was extensive use of translation and an emphasis on grammar, in comparison with English classes for EM students in which there was a preference for English literature.  But Ramanathan does not dismiss the efforts of faculty and administrators at the Jesuit college as being totally counter-productive.  The fact that most VM students stopped studying English in the 9th grade means that there are unavoidable difficulties in bridging the educational gaps between them and EM students, who received English-medium education through high school.  As she points out, “the most crucial way in which this institution serves the VM student population is by reaching out to the most disadvantaged of this group, namely those of Dalit backgrounds, and validating their Vernacular backgrounds” (p. 109).  By providing special classes for Dalit students, the Jesuit college is going against the norm of other EM colleges in the state, demonstrating its commitment to change in the social system in India which historically has provided advantages for EM students.  

One of the great strengths of this book is the way in which the author honestly confronts her own position as a researcher, often wondering aloud whether she has the right to investigate, categorize, analyze, and indeed ‘speak’ for VM students as a postcolonial, EM-educated subject herself who now resides in the West.  This is a self-reflective journey on the part of the author as much as it is a critical ethnography, and the author’s voice is never far from the surface of the text.  Ramanathan’s ability continually to question her position and motivations and to resist falling into convenient categorical traps or binaries, for example, by understanding that the role of English and Vernaculars in India (and elsewhere) is complex, intertwined and constantly evolving, gives this account a credibility and power that is often missing in other treatments of the postcolonial condition.  As to whether or not she has the authority to write about VM students, Ramanathan answers in the following way (p. 121):

Am I assuming the right to speak for VM students, and to what extent do my

caste, class and EM background give me that ‘right’?  I could of course have

chosen not to write on this project:  the issues and my own positioning in

relation to them can be seen as questionable.  But can I now, understanding

what I do of some of the unequal realities on the ground, really be quiet?

Readers of this book will be very glad that Ramanathan chose not to be quiet because, as she notes in the book, as a native of Gujarat, India, as a long-time resident of the West, and as a scholar with expertise in linguistics and critical ethnography who can communicate effectively with the English-speaking world, she is well-suited to weave a very rich tapestry for the benefit and edification of (especially) those of us who were educated on the English side of the English-Vernacular divide.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 70-72
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12069, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 12:39:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Ricento
    University of Texas, San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS RICENTO is Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Texas, San Antonio. He has published widely in the field of language policy, politics, and ideology. His most recent publication is An Introduction to Language Policy: Theory and Method (Blackwell). Other books include Language and Politics in the United States and Canada: Myths and Realities (co-edited with Barbara Burnaby) and Ideology, Politics, and Language Policies: Focus on English (editor). He is founding co-editor (with Terrence G. Wiley) of the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education (Lawrence Erlbaum).
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