The colonisation of the mind

SHEKAR SWAMY | Updated on February 19, 2014 Published on February 19, 2014

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The obsession with English has kept the masses from participating in the development of the nation

In last week’s column, it was established that people overwhelmingly prefer their own language to English, as evidenced by the language of the newspapers and television programmes they consume.

Yet, since Independence, the leaders of India have retained English in government, business, law and all important affairs of the country.

There are three predominant myths around the English language.

Myth 1

English is needed for the modern world

The argument goes that all current-day learning and scientific advancements are communicated mainly in English. Therefore, India needs to conduct its affairs principally in English. If this were the case, the top nations of the world should all be doing the same. But they don’t.

There can be no argument about the success in science and modernisation in Japan and Germany and other nations, and these countries conduct their affairs mainly in their own language.

Education in these countries is in the language of the people, making everything inclusive. The contribution made by these countries to scientific progress is unquestionable. Global experience shows that English is not a pre-requisite for progress.

Myth 2

English is a link language for a globally integrated world

People argue that English is needed as the main language to benefit from a globally integrated world. This is true only when it comes to international affairs which is but a small part of the nation’s activities.

To suggest that the English language is the only way does not add up.

A look at the main exporting nations of the world (Table 1) shows that eight out of ten of them do not conduct their internal affairs in English. They do what they have been doing for centuries, which is conduct their affairs in their own languages. All are hugely successful on the global stage.

Myth 3

English in the IT industry

We often hear that India’s success in IT 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 for the IT industry, to conclude that therefore English should be the dominant language is hugely misleading.

Take the case of Samsung Electronics. Among the predominant IT companies in the world, it from South Korea where the Korean language is predominant.

Set up in 1969, Samsung in 2012 recorded global sales of $189 billion which is higher than the sales of the two tech giants IBM (sales $105 billion) and Microsoft ($78 billion) 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 into powerful strategy and backed by relentless execution --- and not the English language.

The real cost of English

The history of the imposition of English in India is well known. It was a way for a small number of British nationals (in 1900 it was only around 1,30,000 in India) to rule over 300 million plus Indian subjects.

A tiny group of Indians was trained in English to help the British rule, and act as intermediaries for the Empire. English became the ticket to a better life of privileges during the British Raj.

After Independence, the imposition of Hindi as the national language was opposed by the non-Hindi-speaking states.

The use of English was justified because it was said to serve as the link language and it was kept as the language of business and law and government.

The negative impact of this policy on the country has been huge, with the masses kept out of participating in the development of the nation by a linguistic wall, resulting in perhaps the largest underutilisation of human capital ever. At a time when the country was required to be participative, democratic and all inclusive, laying emphasis on English made the nation become a preserve of the exclusive and the elite.

A unique form of apartheid on the basis of language is unwittingly being practised in the country. India is that rare country where local languages are classified as ‘vernacular’.

The Merriam dictionary defines the word ‘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 a ‘foreign’ language.

India should have followed the Japanese or German or Korean model which enables people to learn anything and everything in their own language; learning a foreign language is never a requirement.

Boosting confidence

Consequently the strength of the entire population is harnessed for economic progress.

The confidence level in these nations is high compared to India which is always looking West and where people are made to feel inferior if they are not proficient in English.

The political parties who talk of inclusive growth should put linguistic inclusion on the nation’s agenda.

While English can remain optional, every Indian should have the opportunity to get ahead on the basis of knowing his/her own language. There will be a surge in growth if people are able to learn and grow and participate in their own language.

Thinking afresh on the language issue will be hugely beneficial. Is any political party willing to see this opportunity? (Concluded)

The writer is the Group CEO, RK Swamy Hansa, and Visiting Faculty, Northwestern University. The views are personal

Published on February 19, 2014
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