More of us want to learn English to be seen as equal participants in a growing economy.
' You see sir, I can talk English, I can walk English, I can laugh English, I can run English, because English is such a funny language’ said Arjun Singh, played by Amitabh Bachchan, in the Bollywood hit Namak Halal.
And, the one thing is clear – more of us want to learn English, in our own inimitable style, to be seen as equal participants in a growing economy. English is seen as the key that unlocks doors to opportunity and is a passport out of poverty and into the middle class. It is about the aspiration of Indians, equal for the first time in millennia, that wants to adopt a foreign language to communicate with each other without the baggage of the past. And, it works mainly because most of us have no emotional, cultural, or historical baggage with English.
Yes, we had emotional baggage with the British – they colonised us, enslaved us, set our economic story back by a century or more. But, we threw them out, and kept their language as part compensation. It is estimated that over 125 million Indians speak English
and a lot more mix it with their language, to create new languages – Hinglish, Tamlish, Banglish and more. When families move out of poverty, into the lower rungs of the middle class, one of the first things they try and afford is English education for their children.
Because, English education will get their children higher up the middle-class ladder, faster. And, it is in this context that one should see the Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu’s statement on Hindi Diwas that English is a disease that the British left behind, and we should get rid of this disease. Most Indians don’t see English as a curse. They see it as a foothold to climb up the ladder of success. And, getting rid of English, as the vice president suggested, to promote Hindi is fraught with multiple issues.
Primarily, the resistance of non-Hindi speaking states to what they see as imposition of Hindi and North Indian hegemony on the rest of India. While there is merit in the argument that children who learn in the mother tongue, learn better and faster, the fact remains that state language schools is purist, and rarely the dialect spoken by the student. There are 22 major languages, and 720 major dialects in the country. A child whose mother tongue is Maithali will be better off learning in that language, than Hindi – the state language; or a child who mother tongue is Konkani will be better off learning in Konkani than the state language Marathi.
It would be good if the medium of instruction was changed to the local dialect, but there are too many emotional linguistic issues around this. In a country where language and identity are intermingled, it is easier to work with a foreign language, learning which has little bearing on identity. In addition to the terribly tricky political hot potato that language imposition is, there are very good business reasons why English should not be dumped. World over, English is the language for business. Multi national corporations across the non-English speaking world are adopting English as the link language in their organisations.
Nissan and Honda, both Japanese companies with strong Japanese traditions have English as their language of official communication. Siemens, a German company, and Sodexo, a French company, have switched to English to handle global business. Not only that people in these countries are preparing their children for a world where the de facto language of business is English. It is estimated that 77% of primary school students in the EU learn English.
While China has introduced English at the primary level, more and more parents are getting their kids to learn the language earlier. There is a direct correlation between English skills and national income. The higher the level of English skills, the more the growth in Gross National Income. The Indian experience bears it out. Given all this and given that India has a competitive advantage because of being the second largest English-speaking population – after the United States of America – it is surprising that people like Mr Naidu want to bury English, and replace it with languages that may not be so conducive to business.
It is not an either or, it is an and. Mother tongue, Indian link languages, other Indian languages are all important. But, so is English. Promoting other languages cannot be at the expense of marring the future of millions of Indians. And political dogma should not come in the way of securing a better future for the coming generations. In fact, one of the first things that Adityanath did when he became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh- the home of Hindi - was to introduce English from the nursery level. He did this because he understood the aspirations of the people of the state. In many ways, the best thing that the government can do for languages is to leave them alone.
More people are likely to have learned Hindi with Bollywood, and TV dramas – both of which were private sector enterprises – than they did with focused government attention. Disparaging English may gain political brownie points but getting rid of it will be retrograde.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
First Published: IST