February 27, 2023 ☼ The Intersection ☼ culture ☼ economy ☼ public policy
Appropriating the language serves India's interests better than rejecting it as a foreign one
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
A discussion over the role of the English language in India is a difficult one to have, because it means different things to different people in different places at different times. These include overthrowing residues of the Raj, finding a common language to communicate across massive linguistic diversity, contesting snobbery and condescension towards Indian languages, managing the rural-urban divide, driving a vehicle of social justice and choosing the best medium of instruction in the education system
At the same time, there has been—and continues to be—a massive gap between politically correct positions of the type of people who have the luxury of taking positions on issues, and the revealed preferences of people who are more concerned with the straightforward matter of improving their life chances. Whatever experts might say and politicians might legislate, lots of people—not least among the poor—shell out hard-earned money to gain an English proficiency that they are denied at public schools.
English continues to make a difference to how much people earn. For jobs within India, the difference can be somewhere between a conservative 40% to a massive 300% depending on the demographic and other qualifications. English also makes a difference to job mobility. I frequently see online advertisements that go, “Do you speak English? Work for a USA company, Live in Bengaluru.” Call centres and business-process outsourcing jobs might not be as hot as they used to be, but the pandemic accelerated the trend for global companies to increase remote workforces. These dollar salaries are not only for customer support and back-office work, but for mainline functions in engineering, design, finance and management. The more Western governments tighten their immigration policies, the more such jobs will be available to English-literate Indians.
It would be irrational for aspirational Indians to ignore these realities, and immoral for others to put roadblocks in the way of people struggling to make a better life for their children. I do not think India’s domestic market, no matter how large, is big enough to transform us into a middle-income country in a generation. We need the global market and this means English proficiency.
So it is important that we view English as a vocational skill that opens up opportunities for our citizens. One way to address the demographic challenges of our highly populated, lower-income states is for their governments to support English language skills—as opposed to English ‘medium’—in public schools. Thus, it is painful to see political leaders in the states that will most benefit from English take the most dogmatic attitudes against it.
There is a strong case to teach children in their mother-tongues, and state governments are well-justified in running government schools where the local language is the medium of instruction. But there is an equally strong case to respect the choices that citizens make, and not put hurdles and restrictions on private English medium schools. Bilingual education is not only possible, but has cognitive effects far beyond merely language proficiency. In fact, those compelled to study three languages end up benefiting more. A language, after all, opens a doorway to different cultures, knowledge traditions and economic opportunities.
Instead of marginalizing English as an unwanted colonial legacy, India will be better off appropriating it as its own. If there is a thing as Australian English, there certainly is Indian English. There are far more English-speakers in India than there are people in Australia. It is the enduring failure of English departments at our universities that they have not asserted this claim. Words like ‘prepone’ and ‘co-brother’ might not exist in English (UK) but are part of English (India). With over 150 million people comfortable in it, English is an Indian language and we must proclaim it as one.
While the anxiety is understandable, I do not think English will replace Hindi or any other language. The Union government conducts its affairs in Hindi and English and state governments transact in their respective official languages. More importantly, across India there are strong cultural connections between language, geography, religion and community that English cannot replace. Many of India’s prominent public intellectuals, civil servants, political leaders and entrepreneurs are comfortably bilingual, if not multilingual, and easily straddle multiple worlds. So are business people. When faced with a multiple choice question, India’s traditional answer is “all of the above”. Indian society is remarkable in its ability to absorb new entrants while preserving and modernizing incumbents, until the former becomes the latter and the cycle repeats. So it will be with English.
Technology has already made many old debates redundant. Real-time translation is easily and inexpensively available, and getting better by the day. A few decades ago, Douglas Adams imagined a babelfish, a brain implant that would make speakers of all languages in the galaxy mutually intelligible. Implants, thankfully, are some distance away, but we already have babelfish in our phones. Artificial intelligence is able to translate among Indian languages. People will be able to communicate across them. The politics needs to catch up.
There are many more The Intersection columns here
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