Life is full of surprises of every kind. The pain of being frequently corrected by your young child as you hold normal everyday conversations is hard to overcome. The corrections I am talking about involve simple conversational English. “Papa,” my daughter often says, “this is not how you say this..” 

Granted English is not my first language; it is not even my second, third, or even fourth language. I grew up in the ancient city of Pataliputra – modern day Patna.  Before I was exposed to any English, I learnt Hindi and Bhojpuri in my neighborhood, Magahi from my mom and her side of the family, and Maithili from my dad and his side of the family. Sanskrit was a requirement to receive a high school (10th grade) diploma. I learnt English as a foreign language in India and never used it on a daily basis until I landed one day in a remote campus town surrounded by cornfields called Champaign, Illinois.

Learning English was not a pain-free exercise for me. Understanding the grammar, memorizing all those irregular verb patterns, SVO word order, pronunciation – you get the idea. But I did just fine and got my degrees from accredited American universities. Yet, after living here for almost a quarter century, I have not been able to reconcile the differences between my “Indian” English and “American” English. So, I am still faced with the question — who is right? — me whose English is Indian at best, or the teenager at the checkout counter of the local grocery store who looks at me every once in a while as if I have just landed from Mars? Or the clerk at the Secretary of State’s office whose face oozes with disgust every time I either open my mouth or she has to pronounce my first name?

But before you make up your mind, let us dig a little deeper into the subject. In an era of rapidly growing technology, where the entire world rests on your palm and a veritable sea of knowledge is only a tap away, this old Indian saying वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम (the entire world is truly just a family) is as modern as the technology itself. As we keep expanding our “global village,” with giant leaps in the fields of science and technology, the world keeps getting smaller and smaller. In our “village,” we come in contact with others across the length and breadth of the globe and conduct business with millions of people who are of different colors and races, speak thousands of different languages, and follow a number of different religious and cultural beliefs. Because of this socially, culturally, and linguistically diverse population, the task of communicating effectively has become increasingly challenging. Much time, energy, and resources is devoted to achieving what is referred to as “effective communication.”

But effective communication may not, and in most cases does not, come easy. The root cause of ineffective communication, which can lead to misunderstandings and confusion, is that all human languages are inherently ambiguous. It requires much experience, context, and other background information to clarify the ambiguity in all languages. The problem of communication is doubly compounded in English because of its status as a “world language.” English is spoken all around the world and it serves as the common language in almost all fields. From American sales executives to Indian software programmers, from Peruvian air pilots to African entrepreneurs— everyone needs and uses English in their day-to-day lives.

English has many varieties. It’s native varieties include British, American, Australian to just name a few variants. English has non-native varieties as well, such as Indian, Nigerian, Singapore, and Chinese to name a few others. The number of non-native speakers of English is much higher than native speakers. Considering all these varieties, the problem of clarity in the English language becomes acute. Each of these varieties of English, native or non-native, from all over the world, carry with it not only the language, but also layers of social, cultural, and political values. It is imperative to at least be aware of and try to grasp these differences in order to be a successful communicator in this global village. Differences in accent or choice of words are more obvious to the listener. However, the differences at the level of discourse are subtle and therefore are much more difficult and complex. When, as a child, I first read Cecil Frances Alexander’s poem “All things bright and beautiful,” I could never understand how the summer sun could be described as being “pleasant.” Similarly, when I first told my students here at the University of Illinois that India has several festivals celebrating the rainy (monsoon) season, I got looks that seemed to say –  “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Communication problems are not only confined to the level of miscommunication, but without the appropriate linguistic-cultural awareness, it may even be incommunicable. Additionally, a native speaker of English may feel that his or her linguistic norms have been violated. The real issue, however, is that many native speakers may consider such differences deviant at best and possibly altogether incomprehensible and inferior. However, in many of these non-native varieties of English, it is actually in the deviation that language acquires its contextual appropriateness. So, next time you hear someone say, “I have preponed my India visit by a week” or “We will be shifting to our new house next month,” pause for a moment before you pass your judgment on his or her English!

Afters spending several years in IT, Avatans Kumar now works as a Columnist and PR professional.  Avatans frequently writes on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, Language, Culture, and Current Affairs in several media outlets. Despite being in America for about a quarter century and having earned graduate degrees in Linguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where he also taught Hindi) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Avatans frequently gets called out by his daughter for stressing the wrong syllable ), and overgeneralizing the use of the indefinite article ‘the’ (‘Did you finish the homework?) Twitter: @avatans

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient...