For India, English Is a Cure, Not a Sickness

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For India, English Is a Cure, Not a Sickness

Post by confuzzled dude on Sun Sep 23, 2018 5:09 pm


First the nativist case: In no other major country do leading businessmen, public intellectuals and movie stars often speak to each other in a language not their own. An unhealthy obsession with English as a tool of social mobility—including among poor parents who don’t speak it themselves—is producing a generation of semiliterates unable to express themselves clearly in any language. Some activists decry the Indian love affair with English as a mark of “mental slavery.”

This argument packs an emotional wallop for those who feel excluded by English, but it’s misguided. For starters, it’s a stretch to call English a foreign language when millions of Indians have spoken it fluently for generations. The British Council estimates that India’s 125 million English speakers make it the second-most spoken language in the country, behind Hindi but ahead of Bengali, Marathi and Telugu. This also makes India the world’s second-largest English-speaking nation, after the U.S.

The economic case for English is familiar. According to EF Education First, one of the world’s largest private education companies, India’s “moderately fluent” English-speaking workforce places it alongside such advanced economies as Italy, Spain and South Korea (but far behind the “very high proficiency” Netherlands, Scandinavia and Singapore).

If not for English, India would not host a multibillion-dollar IT-services industry, observes Minh Tran, EF Education First’s Hong Kong-based senior director for research. For India, whose shoddy infrastructure and notorious red tape have long put off investors, English offers a rare competitive advantage over China.

Less commonly touted but arguably more important are the political benefits. Not counting English, India houses 22 major languages, 16 of which are printed on every currency bill. Unlike the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, which splintered after the end of the Cold War, India’s multilingual union has held. English deserves part of the credit. It’s the only Indian language that puts a Malayali from the south and a Bengali from the east on an equal footing with the vastly more numerous native Hindi speakers from the north. The existence of a pan-Indian English-speaking elite saps the strength of potential linguistic separatists.

An Indian union without English would be dominated by Hindi. According to the 2011 census, 47% of Indians—about 563 million people—live in the Hindi-speaking states of northern India. By sheer weight of numbers, Hindi already looms large over much of national life. It is the language of Bollywood, of four of the five largest-circulation newspapers, and of the most widely viewed news and entertainment channels.

In day-to-day life, Hindi often edges out regional languages. Although more than 83 million Indians speak Marathi, it’s not uncommon to see a Maharashtrian journalist interview a Marathi-speaking celebrity such as the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar in Hindi. Only English, which serves a smaller but more affluent demographic, acts as a check on Hindi hegemony.

Not surprisingly, regional politicians often find it easier to stoke resentment against Hindi than English. In Karnataka last year, the government pulled down Hindi signage from the local metro. In Mumbai, thugs from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a chauvinist political party, have attacked migrants from the impoverished Hindi belt drawn to the city’s prosperity.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/for-india-english-is-a-cure-not-a-sickness-1537481134

confuzzled dude

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