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Myths and Costs of the English language - Outside View by Shekar Swamy

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Myths and Costs of the English language
Feb 25, 2014

In India, the mass of people have been kept out of participation in the development of the nation by a linguistic wall. A unique form of apartheid on the basis of language is unwittingly being practiced in the country.

In the previous column, it was established that people overwhelmingly prefer their own language to English, as evidenced by the language of newspapers and television they consume. Yet since independence, the leaders of India have retained English systematically in government, business, law and all important affairs of the country. In many respects, English is the holy cow. Anyone questioning its predominance gets branded as anti-development and backward. At the cost of being ostracized by friends and family, I venture to wonder about this.

There are three predominant myths that the proponents of English perpetuate. All three don't stand up to even minimum scrutiny.

Myth 1: English needed for the modern world

The argument goes that all levels of current-day learning and scientific advancement are mainly in English. Therefore India needs to conduct its affairs principally in English. If this were the case, the top nations around the world should all be doing the same. Yet we know that this is not the case. There can be no argument about the success in science and modernization in Japan and Germany (and dozens of other nations), and these countries conduct their affairs mainly in their own language. Education is primarily in the natural language of the people, and all the scientific knowledge is available easily in their language, making everything inclusive. The contribution made by these countries in their respective languages to scientific progress is unquestionable. Global experience shows that English is not a pre-requisite for progress.

Myth 2: English needed for a global world

People argue that English is needed as the main language for India to participate in and benefit from a global world. This is true only when it comes to international affairs, which is but a small part of the nation's activities. This is also true for the Indian diaspora that has left these shores, and that number is but a few million in a nation of 1.2 billion. To suggest that the English language is the only way in the global world does not add up. A look at the main exporting nations of the world (Table 1) shows that eight out of ten of these countries do not conduct the affairs of their nations in English. They do what they have been doing for centuries, which is to conduct their affairs in their own respective languages and are hugely successful and respected on the global stage.

Top Ten Exporting countries (2012) Value of Exports and main language
China $ 1,971.0 bn Chinese
United States 1,561.0 English
Germany 1,460.0 German
Japan 776.6 Japanese
France 567.4 French
South Korea 552.7 Korean
Netherlands 540.3 Dutch
Russia 528.0 Russian
Italy 478.9 Italian
United Kingdom 473.0 English
Source: CIA Fact Book

Myth 3: English in the IT industry

India celebrates its success in the Information Technology industry. We continuously hear that this is only due to the predominance of English in the country. While it has been useful to have a pool of English-speaking people to draw from, to conclude that English should be the dominant language in society for India's IT success is hugely misleading. Take the case of Samsung Electronics, among the predominant IT companies in the world. It hails from South Korea with its dominance of the Korean language. Set up in 1969, Samsung in 2012 recorded global sales of $189 bn, which is higher than the sales of the two tech giants IBM (sales $105 bn) and Microsoft ($78 bn) combined. This demolishes the theory that English has to be the predominant language of the country for success in the global IT world. What is required for success is a clear intent converted to powerful strategies backed by relentless execution (exactly what the Indian IT industry has done), and not the English language. Doing all of this in the natural language of the people can only be beneficial and not a hindrance.

The real cost of English

The history of imposition of English into India is well known. It was a way for a small expatriate group (in 1900 it was only around 130,000) to rule over the 300 million plus Indian subjects. A tiny group of Indians was trained in English to help the British rule, and act as the go-between with the people. English became the ticket to a better life of privileges during British raj. After independence, the imposition of Hindi as the national language was opposed by the non-Hindi states. English was justified as the link language, and kept as the language of business and law and government.

The negative impact on the country has been huge, with the masses kept out of participation in the development of the nation by a linguistic wall, resulting in perhaps the largest underutilization of human capital ever. Where it was needed to be participative, democratic and all inclusive, the emphasis on English has kept the nation a preserve of the exclusive and elitist. It would not be incorrect to state that a unique form of apartheid on the basis of language is unwittingly being practiced in the country. Elite schools and colleges perpetuate this practice. India is rare as a country where the local languages are classified as vernacular. Merriam dictionary defines vernacular as "a dialect native to a region rather than a literary or cultured language". Imagine Japanese or German being called "vernacular"! The correct thing to do would have been to declare English as the "foreign" language.

There is an argument advanced that no one is being denied anything and that the mass of people should learn the English language and get into the economic mainstream. This argument is only from those who are proficient in English. India should have followed the Japanese/German/Korean model when it came to language. In these countries, the people can learn anything and everything in their own language, and learning a foreign language was never a requirement. Consequently the collective strength of the entire population has been harnessed for economic progress. The confidence of these nations is high, compared to India which is always looking west and making its people feel less if they are not proficient in English.

The political parties today talk of inclusive growth. If they are serious about this, they should put linguistic inclusion on the nation's agenda. While English can remain optional, every Indian should be able to make progress on the basis of knowing his own language and not feel alien in his land. There can be a surge of growth if people are freely able to learn and grow and participate in their own language. Thinking afresh on the language issue can be hugely beneficial. Is any national political party seeing this opportunity?

Shekar is the Group CEO of R K SwamyHansa. His area of specialization is in developing business, marketing, and communication strategies globally. He has worked with leading companies in various parts of the world and has helped them launch, manage, and grow their brands and businesses significantly. Shekar holds an MBA (Delhi), and an MS from Northwestern University. He has served on the faculty at the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University's Medill School for the past 14 years. Northwestern University inducted Shekar into the Alumni Hall of Achievement in 2002, a rare honor.

The views/opinions mentioned in the Report are of Mr Shekar Swamy only and not of Equitymaster.


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1 Responses to "Myths and Costs of the English language"

Gautam Patel

Feb 26, 2014

I completely agree with Shekhar.
Any child can learn new things easily in his/ her mother tongue. Other languages can be learnt easily if one has good grasp over his own language. Lack of it can result in lack of self confidence & mediocre personality. Our children are 'relentlessly forced' to receive primary knowledge in English (an alien language)which is not spoken in most of Indian families.It should be birth right of every child to receive at least his primary education in his own mother tongue...
Something needs to be done urgently, Or very soon, we'll become a nation full of mediocre people.

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