WASHINGTON, September 23, 2011—India has a rich linguistic history with more than 22 different national languages spoken throughout the length and breadth of the country. The 1991 census recognized 1576 mother tongues and grouped them into 114 different languages. Imagine the plight of a linguist trying to study all the languages of the country. So how does English survive in this linguistic caldroun?
India’s tryst with its “own foreign language” (English) dates back to the 17th Century, when Emperor Jahangir welcomed the East India Company into the country. Considered a language of the elite in the pre-independence era, English managed to gradually percolate down the complex, multilingual and multireligious Indian society after independence and reached its peak in the post liberalization period.
Languages almost have a biological existence, they are born, live, breathe, reach their youth and die too. English seems to be enjoying its youth in India, with the ubiquitous middle class of the country embracing the language as their own. It now serves as an integrating force and a link language which unites the country and provides a beacon of hope to youth.
India has more than 100 million English speakers, not taking into account others who can converse in English but are unable to read or write in English. It is a common site to find tourist guides in Agra fluently explaining the history of Taj Mahal in English to tourists from different parts of the world. If you are an international traveler on your maiden trip to India, you would be fascinated to see English, not Hindi (which is India’s official language), used along with the states regional language at the Railway Stations, Airports, on advertising billboards and all across the city.
Even the names of brands that sell in rural India are inscribed in English. Classes to teach English are mushrooming in cities and towns all over the country. Aspiring students in the semi rural areas are making their best effort to learn the language by typing pages in English and translating them in their native language. Mr. Chandra Bhan Prasad, a dalit activist has gone so far as to build a temple dedicated to Goddess English, as he thinks the goddess is powerful enough to bless them and help them successfully navigate the otherwise rocky path towards social progress and economic liberation.
Wonder what motivates the so called ordinary people to learn English? The answer lies in the simple fact that English has become the goddess of empowerment. It contributes to the social mobility of Indians; it is a language of Science and Technology, economic progress and globalization. The young ordinary Indian no longer wants to travel through the by lanes of the regional languages, preferring instead to take the English expressway and reach the destination comparatively faster.
The service sector, which accounts for more than 40% of India’s GDP, employs two million people and is expected to employ six million more in next ten years, has adopted English as its de facto business language. Given the slow growth of multilingual computing and the rapidly increasing access to internet, English has become a common strand that connects the youth to technology and gives them access to the job market which would otherwise elude them. Learning English is increasingly seen as a professional skill like learning Windows; employers demand recruits with good communication skills in English.
History does not necessarily provide evidence of empowerment of a community linked to its linguistic skills in a specific language. China and Japan embarked on the growth trajectory without a major chunk of English speaking population. Sounds strange to outsiders that in India your English prowess can not only secure employment but also place you well in the corridors of power!
However, it does not come as a surprise when the language continues to lure industry, whether in real estate or Bollywood you will find an influx of English names everywhere, the film industry does a commendable job of mixing English with its Indian cousins in songs and movie dialogues. No regional language strikes the chord with the Indian market like English does, so how do you blame the middle class for placing it on top of the Linguistic pile?
The attitude towards the language has changed in India. English is no longer an adopted child, but a biological one that commands equal respect and affection from its parents as their mother tongue. Exposure to English translates into global exposure, as English is one language used across the globe.
India’s language of empowerment does face some challenges, however. There is an army of archaic politicians and vernacular chauvinists who fear losing their identity and culture with the increasing influx of English in their daily lives. English Language teaching in India has still a long way to go, as there is a severe paucity of English teachers, especially in the government schools in rural and semi rural areas.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2009, released by Pratham—the largest non-governmental organization in the education sector— shows only 43.8% of students in class I could read the English alphabet, and that ability was limited to the upper case letters. Despite the government’s resolve to promote the teaching of English in schools and colleges as a key to vocational education, the state of English teaching remains abysmal in most of the Indian states. David Graddol in his book English Next India argues that India has to keep pace with global development of English or it may loose its edge over other developing countries. China pays handsome salaries to English teachers, Japanese, tired of facing scarcity of English speakers have introduced English as a compulsory language in primary schools, and Russia is already using English as a working language.
In the world where boundaries are increasingly porous, learning a global language should not be viewed as threat to one’s own culture and identity, but a way to integrate oneself with the world. In fact, empirical evidence shows that Multilingualism would be viewed as a professional skill in the future. People who can speak more than one language have better analytical skills and greater intercultural competence.
In the case of India, when a language affects the fortunes of its speaker community, it is obvious that the community would linguistically migrate towards the language of prosperity and embrace it as its own, while the vernacular chauvinists’ keep thinking (often in English) how to counter the English influence.
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