English Language – Boon or Curse for India?

By Ajay Kulshreshtha | Ajay@Kulsh.com |California, USA


More than half a century has passed since British rule ended in India but the language of those rulers has a much firmer hold on Indian society today than at the time they departed. This may not be a cause for concern. After all, English is the language in which most advances in the fields of science, technology, business, entertainment, etc. are expressed. It is the language of the most powerful and most developed nation on the earth. The greater the acceptance of English language in Indian society – the argument goes – the faster India would advance.


If this were true, India would already be more developed than East Asian nations where medium of instructions is non-English. In fact, quite the reverse is true, and how! It is not our fluent-in-English engineers who go and make cars and televisions in Korea. Rather, it is Korean engineers who by studying translated-from-English-to-Korean books somehow better absorb the knowledge and are able to make better use of it. One can give such examples in virtually any field of endeavor.


Could it be that mastery of the English language is not essential for progress? Japan has been demonstrating this for more than a century. Some may view this as an exception due to legendary industriousness of those people. But Taiwan and Korean have followed the same non-English path, with similar results and now China is growing by leaps and bounds to eclipse all other Asian nations, without mandating its citizens to learn English.


Of course, India is different! Not so in the sense that our languages are too primitive to be fit for translation from English; far from it since all Indian languages are either directly-derived-from or greatly-influenced-by Sanskrit, which had one of the richest word-stocks in the ancient world. India is different in that it has many languages and there is pervasive apathy and even animosity between these languages. In this discordant atmosphere, a language of foreign lands rules even though an average citizen can barely comprehend a sentence or two in it.


(How the acrimony between various Indian languages may be remedied and we may have a true national language with recognition for other languages, is discussed as an addendum to this article.)


English, of course, is very important as a foreign language but in India, it is hardly treated as such. We teach English as if it were our mother tongue – blindly following the curriculum adopted during the Viceroy days. For example, students are asked to explain the meaning of English verses with-reference-to-the-context at a time when they are barely able to express their most simple thoughts in properly formed English sentences. What an odd and inefficient method of teaching a foreign language!


In the major cities of India, there are schools where foreign languages like French and German are taught. In such schools, the emphasis is always on grammar and on enhancing the vocabulary. Students learn to converse and comprehend these languages without studying any literary pieces. This is how English, too, is taught in other non-English-speaking countries around the world. But in India, we insist on following the British way of teaching English – which is fine for someone living in London – and waste immense amounts of time and energy of students, with so little to show for their efforts.


This is not to say that we should not familiarize our students with literature of other languages. We certainly should, but by first translating those works to the mother tongue of the students, as is done everywhere else. In most other Asian countries, students are not only better acquainted with works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth; they even understand poems of Rabindranath Tagore better than non-Bengali students of India do. This is so since in India, Tagore’s poems and stories are part of English textbooks and as a result, most students grasp a fraction of the meaning even after consulting their “kunji’s” (guides). Could translation from Bengali to Hindi or Telugu be more cumbersome than to English and Korean? Why should any writer of an Indian language like Tagore or Premchand ever be taught through English translation to us? This bonehead approach prevents students from appreciating the works of these writers in less time and more fully – and also takes time away from strengthening the basics of the English language, for those who desire it. Similarly, it makes little sense to read translated stories of Russian Chekhov and French Maupassant as part of English courses, unless we cannot shake off our servility to the language of our ex-rulers.


Our subservient attitude towards English is, of course, the big part of the problem. In India, English is not a foreign language but the language of the privileged. As such, it perhaps contributes to the gulf between the haves and the have-notes more than any other single factor. The people who wish to promote English even further are the same people who get elated talking about the 200-million-strong emerging upper-middle class in India. What about the rest 800 million? Is there some yet-to-be-disclosed plan somewhere to push them into the Indian Ocean?


If we were to think about India as a nation, we must concern ourselves with the disadvantaged majority – and this populace would never have a “level playing field” in terms of opportunities in life, as long as a foreign language remains the medium of governance and of superior education. And even the success of the (English/Hinglish-speaking) top tier of our society pales in comparison to achievements of similar segments of East Asian nations. The yoke of English is by no means the sole cause of the present sorry state of our motherland, but it certainly is a major component that wastes resources, hampers advancement for the vast majority and contributes to socio-economic disparity in the nation.


Yes, we are currently ahead in the software industry but there is no relationship between being fluent in English and being a good programmer. Those who have talent in the computer-programming field would certainly be bright enough to learn necessary English within-a-year-or-so at graduate level, even if primary and secondary education was entirely in native languages. In fact, that is how scientific/technical subjects are taught in East Asian countries and it has been predicted that China will catch up with us in software field in four years. (NIIT staff, which shuns Indian languages and employs only English in India, is learning Chinese to teach in China!) Also, note that despite their non-English medium educational system, Taiwan and South Korea send many-times more students than India, in terms of percentage, to American universities for higher education.


Those who think India would be rudderless without the power of English seem unaware of its own history: About 500 years ago, English-speaking people were limited to a small island and no one outside knew or cared about the language. Even within England, Latin was the language of the scholars and amongst the ruling class, the favorite was Italian – the ‘daughter’ of Latin. However, these people soon grew away from their preference for foreign languages by translating all major books of the time – the Bible being the best known – into English. Based on foreign books and tales, they created their own literature, enriching and empowering their language. It is no coincidence that, at the same time, they started making great strides on many other fronts as well. We all well know the rest of the achievements of those people.


Indian languages, with their rich Sanskrit base, are more capable than English was 4-5 centuries ago. What is lacking is national resolve – and, of course, the ability to put an end to the mutual animus between Indian languages. The later, as mentioned before, is the topic of the addendum.


It is interesting to note here that the often-maligned Lord Macaulay, who in early 19th century recommended English as the medium of educational instructions in India, did not view English as a permanent solution for India. He had compared English to ancient Greek or Latin – a language that should be learned so that knowledge contained therein can subsequently be translated into native languages:


"At that time (15th, 16th century) almost everything worth reading was contained in the writings of the Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, of Cicero and Tacitus, would England ever have been what she is now?"

…..   …..

"To that class [Indian in blood… English in intellect…] we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from Western nomenclature and to render them, by degrees, fit vehicles for the conveying of knowledge to the great mass of the population."


In today’s India, those who oppose the all-encompassing English influence are pooh-poohed as parochial and anti-progress. There is also a presumption that such people are merely showing their envy and frustration, not having the means or ability to learn English. Thus, it is impossible to launch any movement opposing English rule from within India. Just as struggle against British rule was, quite often, started by overseas Indians, a movement against English rule in India would have to be initiated by non-resident Indians, especially the ones here in the U.S. After all, no one can accuse us of being backward-minded or of being unable to speak English.


Addendum: How to Bring Linguistic Harmony in India

Officially, Hindi is the national language of India, as it is understood by the majority of the people. Opposition to it comes mainly from the southern states – and for good reason. In the Hindi-speaking northern region (from whence the author hails, for the record), there is no curiosity about the languages of the South India. What is worse, reference to these languages, if ever made, is quite likely to be derogatory, as in the phase “haapdille-saaprille”. No wonder, proud South Indians, whose languages have a distinct and rich literary tradition, resist ‘imposition’ of Hindi on them.


In the Indian Army, those officers who command troops from southern states must learn one of the four regional languages of the south. A similar policy – of making students learn one southern language – must be adapted in the educational system of north India if we ever want to create an environment conducive to acceptance of Hindi in the South. Learning a South-Indian language would be a breeze compared to plodding through English textbooks.


As all northern languages are direct descendents of Sanskrit, differences between them are often due to regional inflections and idioms. Many examples can be given of their proximity:

  • Meerabai’s bhajans are as popular in Gujarat as in Hindi regions.

  • Both Hindi and Bengali consider the Bihari poet Vidyapati as their own.

  • Punjabi’s Guru Granth Sahib contains many verses of the Marathi poet Naamdev. Also, language of most couplets of Nanak Dev is such that they would be considered Hindi if written in Devanagari and Punjabi if written in Gurumukhi.

The differences between the languages virtually disappear when a writer decides to use Sanskritized words – as seen in songs like ‘Jan Gan Man’ and ‘Vande Mataram’. Hindi and other languages of the north should include the best literary pieces of each other in their curriculum to enrich the students, as well as to familiarize them with the closeness of these languages.


Nothing would unite India in terms of languages more than the implementation of a common script. Many decades ago, Vinoba Bhave had proposed adoption of Devanagari script for all Indian languages. However, it would perhaps be more equitable if we adopt a simplified hybrid script. This is not as far-fetched an idea as it may seem. After all, all Indian scripts are derived from Brahmi. (Brahmi-based scripts are national scripts of other countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.) A few examples of a possible hybrid script are shown below:


Northern Scripts                 Southern Scripts                National Hybrid?


Indian scripts are entirely phonetic and have been called “scientific” by Encyclopedia Britannica and others, and thus replacing them with a Roman script – as suggested by a few – makes little sense.


Even though it would cause short-term inconvenience, long-term advantages of having a uniform Indian script would prove enormous. It would make it much easier to learn each other’s languages. (Imagine how onerous it would have been for Europeans to understand each other if each European language had its own script. Linguistically, India is like Europe.) The common script would also bring out in the open the nearness of many languages and create an amicable environment so lacking today. Finally, this script would get International recognitions like Hebrew, Arabic or Chinese. And, may be, the computer software companies that now make products in all world languages except ours, would no longer consider Indian languages unworthy.



This article is based on the accompanying Hindi article and the subsequent feedback.
Please contact us if you can help in translating either of these in other Indian languages.