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Everyone in India speaks English… Right?

Is the English language losing clout in India? photo: Gregory Melle/flickr

A recent BBC article takes up the debate that has been ongoing in India on whether to teach English in schools and colleges. The issue is like a double-edged sword. In a trend towards “Indianization”, many schools and colleges are putting increased emphasis on teaching and even academic writing in vernacular languages. Yet those schools and colleges that teach exclusively in English are often considered of higher quality, and the students of these institutions are privileged because they can get better jobs, rise in social status and get a piece of the cake of India’s tremendous economic growth. Such is the role of English as a social divider that there are plenty of politics involved in preventing the lower classes and castes from learning it.

When the (British) East India Company first came to India, members of high castes became intermediaries between the British rulers and Indian society at large. They were privileged and acquired good positions during the British rule. Today, those who are proficient in English are privileged because they can get one of the numerous jobs created through the outsourcing of services from the western world to India. Knowing English is a crucial skill on the Indian labor market. Even university graduates can’t hope to get a decent job if they don’t know English, which is one reason why educated unemployment is so high.

Though English has become part and parcel of Indian society, the impression in the West that “everyone in India speaks English” is simply wrong. There are 22 constitutionally recognized languages in India. And while India has two national languages for central administrative purposes, Hindi and English, it is Hindi that is the national, official, and uniting language of India. English is an associate official language, useful in particular because while Hindi is spoken and understood in most parts of North India, this is not the case in the South.

Apart from being the glue that holds the large bureaucracy together if all other languages fail, English is popular in the Indian parliament, judiciary, in the media, business and of course in the world-famous Indian IT industry. Generally, the growing role of the internet in all these fields has only contributed to the popularity of English as a lingua franca. English has also made its way into the ordinary language of people who would consider themselves non-English speakers or are illiterate: Time kya hua, bhai? (What’s the time, brother?); aaj date kya hai? (What’s the date today?); kya tum school jaate ho? (Do you go to school?); or, election kab hai? (When is the election?) etc.

The sad thing is that English has also become another tool to deepen existing inequalities within Indian society. Many of the political leaders and civil servants send their sons and daughters to English medium schools and colleges either in India or abroad. But when it comes to English for ordinary people and ordinary schools in India, the same people play the colonialism card (appealing to the feeling that English is the language of foreigners who ruled and exploited India for 300 years.) They show an almost ironic concern for ordinary students when they argue that English should be an optional subject for them because many students fail because of English.

English then has almost become a tool for higher and upper middle class Indians to acquire the high profile jobs in India or work abroad. They tend to think that lower class and caste Indians are meant for menial jobs, for which they do not need to learn or speak English. High caste Hindus fear that once lower caste or Dalits (“untouchables”) learn English, they could break the social barriers of the caste system that is so rooted in Indian society. Once this barrier is broken, the dominance of Brahmins and other high caste Hindus would be challenged and they would lose the prime position they have been enjoying for thousands of years socially, economically, culturally and religiously.

So, is English the “smouldering dog-end of colonialism or the passport to economic growth”?

2 Responses to “Everyone in India speaks English… Right?”

  1. I will put the whole problem in a larger context. Languages, in general, are rendering the communication possible. Maybe economy and businesses in general should be considered more under this angle of the dialogue and communications. For the whole region, English is their gateway to businesses and it is how this language is perceived, beyond the historical and sociological context.
    What we ignore sometimes in the West is that in India, many people are at least bilingual, which it is an important asset in evaluating the human potential. People know English because they want a better future, including a better economic status. In some regions from India, where it is a high percentage of Israeli tourists, people are fluent in Hebrew, because they are aware of the importance of offering better services to their customers.
    I think globalization is already bringing a big wind of change into India, and for this you only have to think about how many women are permanently increasing the ranks of entrepreneurs.

  2. Thank you! I mentioned your article at http://twitter.com/4qlearning