LEADER ARTICLE: Myths About English
17 Nov 2007, 0000 hrs IST
SMS NEWS to 58888 for latest updates
It has become gospel amongst India’s elite that English is good for India. They say that English is good for development, it’s good for people, and it’s good for empowerment. Our prime minister said at Cambridge: “Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system”. There are many benefits to learning English but it is neither a panacea for economic development nor a freebie.
There is no greater a myth than that English is important for the development of the economy.
Undoubtedly, English has helped jumpstart the Indian economy. The outsourcing boom has been driven by the fact that so many Indians speak flawless English. But one billion people aren’t going to be uplifted through call centres. We will progress by becoming more educated and productive members of society. And remember that education and productivity come regardless of language. It’s a solid foundation in math, science, arts, history and literature that will drive productivity. Not familiarity with the English language.
Japan, for instance, is a textbook example of productive growth. Any visitor to Japan will quickly realise that few speak or write English well. Japan’s growth has been driven by an education system with an emphasis on the basics: maths, physics, chemistry, biology, literature and history — and all done in Japanese. I don’t know about the issues of Japanese individuality and whether Japan stifles creativity. However, the rise of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Thailand and even the recent rise of Russia show that English is neither a sufficient nor a necessary component of economic growth.
Development and progress come from the foundation, the tried and tested tradition of learning: an ancient Indian concept. That is what is truly driving growth now and will continue to drive growth. We sell a false promise when we sell English as magic mantra for advancement. What’s important for productivity and growth is the basics and as Abhishek Bachchan said in Guru, an understanding of “dhandoo”.
The second myth is that English unites us. Maybe, but it also divides us. English splits this country into two. There is the upper crust elite that, to paraphrase another Bachchan, Amitabh, speaks English, talks English and walks English. But most importantly, it reads English. The reader of this newspaper is unlikely to have read anything in any native Indian language in a long time. Not a book, not a newspaper, not a magazine. The elite of India read English. The rest of India reads Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Assamese, etc.
We have developed a common cultural currency through television and Bollywood, but the discourse of the nation remains divided. The bestselling book in China last year, Wolf, sold upwards of six million copies. The sum total of all general fiction literature books sold in India since Independence may come close to that number. As a nation, we don’t read together. The headlines of The Times of India and local language papers maybe the same, but the stories and focus are different. If English provides a medium for discourse across India then it also divides in many ways we don’t realise.
The third myth is that learning English doesn’t cost India anything. It does. Our familiarity with English comes at the expense of our own languages. Go to any major museum in the world and you will find Indians, but you will not find Indian languages. Growing up in Washington DC, we saw the Smithsonian museums add language to its foreign language tour groups. Inevitably, the addition of a language was driven by the rise of the country’s economy.
Today, the language guides are in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese (for Brazil), Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Hindi isn’t there. Neither is Tamil or Gujarati or any of the other 16 official Indian languages (save English). The lesson of this is that Indians who travel abroad better learn some English before going there (or at least some Chinese or Spanish or Japanese). But the nuance is more than that. Jim Rodgers, the investor, proclaims that his daughter will learn English and Mandarin.
Private schools across the US compete on how early they will teach Chinese. You can Google it all you want, but you won’t get any more than 10 high schools in the US that teach Hindi. But the problem isn’t that foreigners won’t learn our languages. It’s that we won’t learn our own either.
There is no reason that Tamil shouldn’t be taught as a second language in Uttar Pradesh or that Hindi shouldn’t be taught in Kerala. Or at least the choice should exist. Our languages are rich, imbibing millennia-old tradition.
We learn English at the expense of our own languages and culture. If we don’t make our languages a priority, no one else will either.
We should learn English, but we should also learn our own languages. The key to economic progress isn’t spelled out in English, but it can be found if we establish a grounding in math, science and literature at the core of learning in any language.
(The writer is a management consultant.)