Saturday 13th July 2024,
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India’s English obsession must end

India’s English obsession must end

India is like Europe. The European Union has 24 official languages. All 24 are used for outbound communication. All laws are released in 24 languages. Each state has engineering, medicine, business in their own language. India’s languages serve a larger number of people than many European states. There is no reason why we cannot adopt this model, says Sankrant Sanu.

I was part of the English privilege system of India.  I went to an “elite” English-medium school and looked down upon those who could not speak English as well as, or as fluently as I. English opened doors.

People in India, from government officials and hotel receptionists, would treat those speaking English with “convent school” accents more respectfully. I mouthed platitudes about the global use of English and the necessity of widespread English-medium education.  I nodded my head when people said that India’s software success was due to English.  Through my experiences internationally, I learned that most of my ideas about the necessity of English-medium were wrong and came from a deeply colonised view of the world.  In India, we suffer from an English-medium class system. We need to move beyond it for our economic, cultural and social development.

One challenge to my worldview came when I visited Israel. Microsoft had a software team in Haifa that reported to me and I went there to check up on them. I was surprised to find that Microsoft, one of the biggest MNCs in the world, used Hebrew for its internal communications in Israel. Emails were in Hebrew; PowerPoint was in Hebrew. Technion, Israel’s foremost engineering college, is Hebrew-medium.  It is ranked much higher globally than all the IITs in India.

Israel has a population less than Delhi’s, yet they find the resources to create Hebrew medium scientific books and resources. Israel’s business services exports (including BPO, R&D and software programming) are a fourth that of entire India, from a country with less than one per cent of India’s population. India imports sophisticated defense technology from Israel, developed by scientists who studied in Hebrew medium. Israel has software and bio-technology companies making a global impact, creating innovative products while Indian software companies are still mainly engaged in coolie labour, doing work for other companies and brands.Israel’s software success is due to a culture that values education and learning. India has a similar culture, but our success is relatively limited (less than 1/25th of Israel’s success per capita).

China is touted as an example of learning English. China, too, like most other countries, is not switching their medium of instruction to English. Less than one per cent people in China know English, yet their computer literacy is 40 per cent versus barely 10 per cent of India’s. The Chinese are learning computer use in Chinese-medium, not English. China, with $200 billon plus of software exports (external link) is already leaving India behind in software as well. Our obsession with English and the non-availability of world-class science and technology education in Indian languages is a barrier. India’s English-medium obsession makes us act like a country the tenth of our size.

The reasons given for our English-obsession is that “the world is moving to it”, “everyone wants it”, and “it is inevitable.” These are all fallacies. Only about 375 million people in the world (two-three per cent) know English as a second language. The largest number of these is from India. Only about 350 million people speak English as a first language, mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Other parts of the world are learning a smattering of English as a foreign language, enough to speak a few phrases to travel and get around.
They are decidedly not switching their medium to English.

Switching our primary language medium is creating a deep civilisational wound. Language carries culture. English is born in and suffused with Western Christian culture just as Indian languages embed India’s Sanskritic culture. Recent studies show that people’s morals change when they switch languages. People not using their mother tongue are more likely to be emotionally disconnected from their environment.

Also, English writing is non-phonetic; its grammar is illogical. It is learnt by repeated exposure, not available in rural and semi-urban settings. The proliferation of English-medium schools is creating a nation of linguistic cripples, not able to communicate well in any language and disconnected from their environments.

Yet we are rushing to English-medium because we believe, quite rightly, that English will give us an advantage in India.Why is English such an advantage in India that “everyone wants English-medium”? This is not because of its “global inevitability” or “superiority.” Few countries, even quite small ones, are abandoning their own languages for English-medium education. It is because the Indian State, continuing the policies made famous in the Macaulay minute (external link), deliberately favours English.

The most sought-after institutes — IITs and IIMs — are English medium. Medical colleges, unlike in Japan or Korea, are in English medium.
In the Supreme Court and many high courts, you can only practise in English. Our laws are still written using English as a primary language. To be an army jawan you can pass an exam in an India language, but to join the IMA and become an officer the exam is in English. The CAT is only in English.

Many government websites are in English. Product labeling is in English. China recently fined Walmart because one of the products on it carried had a Chinese language label that was smaller than the English one. The Indian State has no such policies. People are demanding English in India because of the bias of the Indian State, not its global inevitability.

Countries like Japan and South Korea learned science, technology and business in Japanese and Korean without switching to English medium. Toyota is the largest automobile brand in the world. Its executives, travelling worldwide, would use translators for Japanese. It did not prevent their global success. More recently, Samsung has become the largest electronics brand worldwide. This global multi-nation came out of South Korea, where its executives and employees studied in Korean medium. A child in a South Korean village can become a doctor using Korean-medium, but a child from a village in Tamil Nadu cannot dream of doing this in Tamil.

Tamil Nadu has a larger population than South Korea. Hindi is one of the largest languages in the world. Yet we hold a billion people back in our English-medium obsession.For India to make economic success broad-based, we must provide world-class education, science, medicine, business, law, accounting in Indian languages.The division of Indian languages simply for “literary value” and English for professional fields was also an Orientalist prejudice, mentioned in the Macaulay Minute. Indian languages are far more scientific than English. Their grammar is more structured, they are phonetic; their alphabet is based on a systemisation of sound. If Japanese and Chinese with their multi-thousand letter writing system can be used for modern knowledge, there is no reason that Indian languages cannot.

Volumes have been written on the Indian “caste system” but relatively little study has been done on the English based “class system” in India, even though this is an active axis of discrimination in India. Candidates complain of bias in job interviews, for instance. At Microsoft, I used to interview programmers I flew in from Russia in the hunt for global talent. Some of them could barely speak a word of English. So I conducted interviewers in Russian with an interpreter. I am sure they could pick up the basic English they needed in the US.

Great programmers were hard to find. Yet, our social scientists have hardly studied linguistic prejudice as they have “caste discrimination” because the latter was a colonial project. Like wind-up toys we keep doing what our colonial masters had us do.

All major civilisations promote their own languages. There is a great advantage for the US and UK for India to remain an English colony.
The British Council specifically studies (external link) the spread of English in India. China is giving international scholarships for students to study Mandarin. France has Alliance Françaises institutes worldwide. Saudi Arabia is promoting Arabic studies. The US and the UK see India as a huge market for their English media, for their books and films and for continued cultural hegemony over the world’s oldest civilisations. Book awards controlled by Western institutions, such as the Booker, are given and celebrities like Arundhati Roy are created for us. Never mind that these “heroes” may be completely inimical to our culture, our media laps it up.

Ford Foundation funds a study that English-speakers earn more in India (duh) and the Times of India holds it up proclaiming the superiority of English is now “official”. What is left out is that this English hierarchy is not inevitable, but engineered by the Indian State and perpetuated by its elite. The UK and US continue to cultivate this elite to perpetuate the dominance of English in India.

I am not against learning English. It is great to learn it as a second or foreign language. It is good to have reading ability in English to read current research. English as a second language allows us to study the West on our own terms, English as a primary medium continues its civilisational dominance on our psyche. We must dismantle English privilege and the hegemony of English-medium professional education in India. People in Japan learn English but it is not a marker of privilege within their society. We must provide equal access to all the institutions and disciplines in India in all the major Indian languages.

We can emulate the EU model for this. India is like Europe. The European Union has 24 official languages. All 24 are used for outbound communication. All laws are released in 24 languages. Each state has engineering, medicine, business in their own language. India’s languages serve a larger number of people than many European states. There is no reason why we cannot adopt this model.A language policy that encourages the growth of all Indian languages will have a significant economic and cultural impact. The time to make a change is now.
by Sankrant Sanu

Sankrant Sanu is a former Microsoft manager and an IITian. His detailed language proposal is at bhashaneeti.orsg. On Twitter: @sankrant.


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