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India’s Future Depends on English

India’s Future Depends on English

Saturday, 15 August, 2020 - 05:00

India has a new national education policy, the first since 1986. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s first Hindu nationalist majority government seems determined to shift the policy direction set by the secular nationalists who ran the country since independence; many rightly expected officials to focus on education at some point. In the end, the new policy is more cautious than anything else — except when it comes to one crucial element of India’s future: English.

The policy says, “Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language or mother tongue or local language or regional language.” Now, in most parts of the world, this would be an uncontroversial statement. Surely everyone agrees that it is best for younger children to learn in the language they speak at home?

Things are not so simple in India. This is, of course, an incomparably polyglot country; the census counts 122 “major” languages, each spoken by more than 10,000 people. There are 23 “official” languages and 17 languages on the rupee note.

Sub-national politicking often revolves around language as much as ethnicity, even as migrants move freely across the country, carrying their own dialects with them. In other words, a child’s “home language” may not be the same as the “local language” or even the “regional language.”

Consider India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, a magnet for migration: The “local language” is technically Marathi, but the vast majority of the city’s residents probably do not speak it at home.

The central language dispute in India involves which common language the country will pick to overcome these barriers. For much of India, particularly the populous north, the answer has always been Hindi — which is spoken, albeit in sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects, by a narrow majority of the population. For the rest of the country, the answer is equally obvious: English.

The first draft of the new policy, last year, provoked outrage in non-Hindi speaking areas by suggesting students there had to learn Hindi. That seemed in keeping with the origins of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the Hindi “heartland” of the north. Wisely, that Hindi-first inclination has been carefully scrubbed from the final version. One wishes the administration was as careful about other aspects of federalism.

Yet what has been preserved — and even strengthened — in the policy is an unwillingness to accept the special status of English. And English does indeed have a special status for Indians, not only as a less controversial link language within the country but also as the first step for many Indians on the path to prosperity.

Across the country, schools that teach conversational English have mushroomed. Most are more than simple language schools. Through English, they promise to teach aspirational young Indians multiple abilities: interpersonal skills that an earlier generation might have called “deportment”; the ability to communicate across cultures; even basic self-confidence. For today’s young Indians — and, indeed, for their parents — the ability to communicate in English is seen as the key to attaining a set of globalized skills that transcend the circumstances of one’s birth.

This is a particularly desirable outcome for those from historically disadvantaged Indian communities, such as Dalits. Chandra Bhan Prasad, a well-known Dalit intellectual, famously hosts a party every year on the birthday of the 19th-century English bureaucrat Thomas Babington Macaulay, who introduced English-language education into India. For many like Prasad, English offers access to a larger cultural and economic world than Indian vernacular languages provide — a world less patterned by centuries of oppression. For hundreds of millions of Indians, learning English is not about getting a job or two: It represents their best chance at righting historical wrongs. It is the path to equity.

Moreover, as India enters the 2020s, its choices will be increasingly shaped by its geopolitical and geo-economic competition with China. Most of the cards — a two-decade head start, a more effective state — are held by China. One of the few advantages India can claim is its familiarity with and hunger for English, which can make it easier for Indians to embed themselves firmly and effectively in multiple cultures, and reduces the costs for Indian enterprises to become part of global services and trading networks.

Many noticed that, amid India-China tensions, Mandarin was removed from the draft education policy as an example “third” language for students. If Indian bureaucrats and politicians really wanted to strengthen India and its citizens, however, they would have understood that their path to greatness lies through English.


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