Let them learn English

In India's language wars, the poorest are deprived of the lessons that are the key to success
November 14, 2012

An English class at Rajyakaiya School in Narlai village, Rajasthan, northern India (photo: Getty Images)

Perched high up in an ugly Delhi tower block is a shrine to the newest deity in India’s teeming pantheon—the Goddess of English. She has been invented by Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist (from a caste formerly known as Untouchables). His apartment is crammed with icons of the growing cult of worship he has founded.

The goddess herself blazes forth from one wall in the lurid colours of a bazaar poster (see overleaf). Modelled on the Statue of Liberty, she is pictured against a map of India, wearing a sari and an English straw hat, standing on a computer and holding aloft a giant pink pen. Beside the goddess hangs a portrait of her unlikely messiah, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British Whig historian and statesman who brought English education to India in the 1830s.

Every year on 25th October, Chandra Bhan and his loyal band of devotees gather here to celebrate Macaulay’s birthday as English Day with a hymn of praise to the new deity: “Oh Devi Ma, please let us learn English! Even the dogs understand English.” Underlying such rituals is a growing conviction among India’s most disadvantaged communities that the English language could be their salvation from poverty and social exclusion.

India, unlike China, has no truly national language of its own. Hindi, the central government’s official language, is an artificial, 20th century construct created by purging Hindustani, the colloquial language of the north, of most of its Islam-derived Persian and Arabic words. Now, 65 years after independence, Hindi is still a little spoken officialese one grapples with on government forms. Even colloquial Hindustani, the language of Bollywood films, is spoken by no more than 40 per cent of the population. The rest of the subcontinent speaks hundreds of mother tongues, with 22 regional languages recognised in the Indian constitution, several with their own script.

Amid this Babel, English remains the only lingua franca in which Indians can communicate across their vast subcontinent. After half a century of trying to replace it with Hindi, in 2007 the Congress party-led central government finally swung round to embrace the goal of English teaching in all primary schools. But populist politicians from both the left and far right still condemn English as the language of a privileged elite and campaign to replace it with regional vernaculars. At the forefront of India’s language wars are fascistic parties like the Shiv Sena, which renamed Bombay Mumbai, and its even more militant breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (Army for Regeneration of Maharashtra State), whose storm-troopers go around forcing shopkeepers to replace their English signs with Marathi, the regional majority language. There are objections from more moderate quarters, too. In September, The Hindu, an influential newspaper, ran a passionate plea from a professor of English at Delhi University, complaining that both English and Hindi are “killer languages,” stifling India’s “healthy linguistic diversity.”

In India language has long been a potent banner around which to mobilise new forms of regional and national identity. When the Congress party won independence for India in 1947, its plan to make Hindi the national language soon foundered on violent, regionalist opposition, including anti-Hindi riots in the south. By the end of the 1950s, an uneasy compromise emerged. The boundaries of India’s states were re-drawn on largely linguistic lines; most of them adopted the vernaculars of their regional majorities as their official language, and English was retained indefinitely as the bridging language of central government.

Half a century on, English remains overwhelmingly the language of higher education, national media, the upper judiciary and bureaucracy and corporate business. India claims to be the world’s second largest (and some say largest) English-speaking country. The figures vary enormously, but the most reliable is around 10 per cent or 125m people. With projections that India’s middle class will continue to grow rapidly to 525m by 2025, most of that huge number will have at least a smattering of English. But it’s sobering to remember that only a minuscule number—just 226,000—claim English as their mother tongue and feel entirely at home in it.

Opponents of English argue that it will always be limited to a minority. “Even among the Dalits, it will only create a small elite,” says Ashish Nandy, a leading sociologist at the Centre for Development Studies in Delhi. “It will just be a privilegentsia.” He maintains that students learn best in their own mother tongues and that only the vernacular languages can help the vast majority of Indians to access the global knowledge economy. Regional languages like Tamil and Bengali, he argues, with their long history and millions of native speakers, could be just as viable as Chinese or Japanese in bringing science and technology to the masses.

In the language wars of 21st century India, there are loud echoes of the 19th century battles that Macaulay fought against his Orientalist opponents, who wanted to revive classical Indian languages like Sanskrit instead of importing English. Though less well known in the land of his birth, Macaulay is still a controversial figure in India today. Nationalists have traditionally accused him of colonising Indian minds to create, as he put it himself, “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” That anglicised elite is still derisively labelled as “Macaulay’s children.”

Macaulay would have been proud of the enormous impact that this tiny class of colonial intermediaries has had in the century and a half since he fathered them. For all his racist dismissal of India’s classical heritage, he was the first to foresee that the English language carried within it the seeds of the Empire’s own destruction. Western-educated Indians, he predicted, would inevitably absorb liberal political values and end up demanding democracy and independence.

Macaulay’s children include, whether they like it or not, prominent academics like Ashish Nandy, who champion the cause of regional vernaculars but still use English as their language of choice in their professional lives. According to Chandra Bhan, the Dalit activist, there is an element of hypocrisy here. “The underclass has realised that the few who knew English controlled India’s academies, mass media, stock exchanges and all that,” he says. “Those who are already in that elite now want to close the door on us.” He mischievously points out that Ashish Nandy even speaks English to his dog Rockie.

Most of the political hostility to English now comes from extreme regional chauvinists who condemn it as a Trojan horse of globalisation, trampling on local identities. But here, too, there are double standards. The Thackeray political dynasty, who lead Marathi chauvinism in Bombay (despite their peculiarly anglicised surname), have no compunctions about sending their own children to English-medium schools.

That may be because of the inescapable economic reality that English is a vital passport to white-collar jobs and social mobility. The gap between English haves and have-nots has created what economists now identify as two distinct and separate labour markets in India. “Even if you flunk your school finals, if you can speak decent English, today you can get a nice job,” says Jerry Rao, a Mumbai-based businessman and journalist. “But even if you have a masters degree and your English is poor, you’re likely to end up in a labour market where salaries are significantly lower.”

The importance of English has grown in proportion to India’s service industries, which now account for as much as 55 per cent of GDP, and the economic message has finally got through to the country’s political class. Most state governments are now responding to strong public demand for English as the medium of instruction in schools. A dramatic example this summer was the state of Karnataka, led by Hindu nationalists, which allowed 350 state schools to start offering English-medium classes, an increase of 290 on the previous year.

Take up at vernacular state schools has been falling, as India’s poor scrape together the funds to send their children to more expensive, English-medium schools in the private sector. Most aspirational of all are the so-called “convent schools” founded by various Christian missionaries. My own family’s domestic servants in Bombay (yes, well-to-do Indians still have them) are a good example of the lure of English for those who can least afford it. Our maid spends a third of her monthly salary to send her six-year-old boy, Joel, to St Theresa’s, run by Catholic priests.

Some months ago, when I visited the school to see if she was getting her money’s worth, it soon became clear that most of the children had little grasp of their medium of instruction.

As I listened in on morning assembly, they recited the school prayer parrot-fashion in a sing-song which was hard to identify as English. Later, an English literature class consisted of children standing up in turn and reading mechanically from an Indian version of Mills & Boon. Their teacher may have been indulging her own literary tastes, but their parents would not have approved.

* * *

When I met the school’s principal, aptly named Father Goodwill, I asked why little Joel could barely speak a few words of English after a year at the school and how he could possibly study other subjects in a foreign language. The answer was fatalistic: most of the children here were from vernacular homes where no English was spoken; but in another 50 years’ time better English would trickle down through the generations and India’s class hierarchy.

I couldn’t help wondering if Joel, and many thousands like him, would be better off going to vernacular-medium schools and learning English as a second or foreign language. A few days later, I visited a Marathi-medium school where volunteers run classes in spoken English. The project’s organiser, Nilambari Rao, was convinced that they were getting far better results than at many schools with the more aspirational English-medium label. “On the low salaries they get,” she explained, “the teachers themselves at many of these schools don’t speak good English. And since the children are first generation learners, there’s no way their learning of the language can be reinforced outside the class. That’s a major problem in learning any foreign language, and English for them is a foreign language.”

Teaching English to upwardly mobile job-seekers has become one of India’s fastest growing industries. One of the largest of these new language schools is a national chain called VETA. When I visited one branch in a crowded Mumbai business district, I met enthusiastic, young white-collar workers who were willing to pay as much as half their monthly salary to attend an evening class in spoken English. But I doubt they were getting their money’s worth, with no audio-visual teaching aids and teachers whose own English was far from fluent. Training centres like VETA churn out people whose English may be barely comprehensible, as many of us discover when we speak to Indian call-centres.

With most Indian employers complaining about a shortage of skilled English-speakers, that could have serious consequences for the economy as a whole. Skilled labour has been India’s primary comparative advantage during the so-called economic miracle of the last two decades. English, both as a skill in its own right and a fast track to other skills, is now considered crucial by policy planners; but the jungle of unregulated English teaching is producing widely divergent standards, and the only common denominator is what is sometimes derisively called “Hinglish” [see left]. Nissim Ezekiel, a poet from Mumbai’s now extinct Jewish community, captured its peculiar cadences in his poem “The Patriot”:

“I am standing for peace and non-violence,

Why world is fighting, fighting?

Why all people of world are not following Mahatma Gandhi?

I am simply not understanding.

Ancient Indian wisdom is 100 per cent correct,

I should say even 200 per cent correct.”

To the Western ear, what makes Hinglish especially quaint is its love of the continuous tense and the way it dispenses with articles like “the” and “a”, which don’t exist in Indian languages. My own favourite example is “Mother serious” (Mother is very ill), a handy excuse for skiving off work. My parents’ generation would have dismissed all this as Babu English or the language of clerks. But Hinglish has become an authentically Indian hybrid with a vibrant literature of its own. Its expressive synthesis of English with Indian vernaculars makes it the medium of choice for best-selling authors like Chetan Bhagat, who are hugely popular with India’s new middle class. “The new Indian elite is a very diverse, first generation elite,” says novelist Namita Devidayal, “and they don’t have that old snobbery about the Queen’s English. One finds a growing ease in recreating the language to suit one’s culture, which is a very hodgepodge culture, and one that’s also comfortable in its own dysfunctionality.”

The trouble with Hinglish and “broken” English is that they can cause mayhem when clear and precise communication is required, whether on a simple taxi ride or in more serious situations. India’s notoriously slow and inefficient law courts are a good example, with vernacular-speaking judges having to produce rulings in English, based on oral evidence translated from a variety of local dialects by Hinglish-speaking clerks. “The higher judiciary speak relatively good English,” says Mihir Gheewala, a leading criminal lawyer. “But quite often, when they hear a case on appeal, they can’t understand the evidence recorded by judges lower down whose English is poor.”

Given its regional diversity and global ambitions, India clearly needs to embrace a trilingual education system that turns out people who are fluent in at least two Indian languages plus English. For a country with a long history of linguistic pluralism and assimilation, that should be an achievable goal. But good, standardised English teaching, like the rest of the country’s creaking and overstretched infrastructure, urgently needs better regulation and new investment. Macaulay’s message about English as the global language of modernity and innovation seems as relevant today as ever before. But his Indian children will need to work much harder to stay ahead of eager new cohorts of English-speakers around the world from China to Poland