The Role of English in Modern India

The New York Times has a piece India Faces a Linguistic Truth by Manu Joseph

English is the de facto national language of India. It is a bitter truth.

The article goes on to depict this battle between people who want to make English a national language and those who don’t. If English becomes a national language then

Accepting that English is the national language would have benefits that far outweigh soothing the emotions of Indian nationalism….

The chief beneficiaries if English attained this status would be the children who attend the free schools run by the central and the state governments. An overwhelming majority of such schools are not taught in English.

This was news to me. I thought English was an official language. The Wikipedia entry on India says that both Hindi and English are official languages. English is a ‘subsidiary’ official language, whatever that means.

I think the English genie is out of the bottle. It is the language of the aspirations of young Indians. Cultural jingoism is not going to be able to push back the economic drive of English. To get ahead in India today, to get a well paying job, you need English.

There are issues with this situation, of course. From an earlier post

One, English is a self-perpetuating advantage that creates haves and have nots across generations. If your parents can speak in English, if their friends and their children speak in English, you are much likelier to grow up to speak English. This self-perpetuation is true about education in general (if your parents are educated you are likelier…) but while better access to books, schools and teachers can, to a large extent, break the cycle for general education, this is really hard to do when it comes to speaking a non-native language.

Two, an English medium instruction may actually be detrimental to a child’s education. There must be millions of children who sit through say, a History class in English, not understanding much of what is being taught.

From another post English Medium Education Can Lead to Poorer English

Across the cross section of India, I think English medium education works to disperse educational outcomes. For a small minority, it results in better English skills but no better general educational outcomes. This small minority, who have an “English friendly” environment, an English medium education poses no hurdle, or a very small one. But the rewards are linked to opportunities in the global marketplace for higher education and jobs, including the export oriented service industries in India.

For the large majority, however, according to the research, English medium education works differently and leads to poorer educational outcomes and poorer language skills. If this is the case, it must be a matter of great concern to education administrators.

If things continue as they are today the future will see:

  • English, not just talent and hard work, will be a key determinant of income. Did your parents speak English? Could they afford to send you to a English only convent? These factors will determine the kind of job Indians will get perhaps more than their capabilities. Class mobility while not being engrained for generations, will be restrained.
  • We need a well educated population – for a 21st century economy, for a well informed electorate. Is a forced diet of English medium education going to get us there? Will children learn elementary school science better in English or their mother tongue? Do we even have the teachers who can teach Biology in English, in the numbers needed?
  • Will English medium students actually join the work force with good English skills? If you go by the writing skills that one sees in the comments section of Indian websites, I seriously doubt that all the years of English medium education has done them any good.

If there is any policy direction that we need here it’s that India has to pay serious attention to the manufacturing side of the economy. Sophisticated manufacturing industries value skills. Factory workers don’t need English skills to work with global clients. Just like Germany’s world-beating machine tool industry is all German speaking. While the capital markets industry, being integrated into the global capital markets, speaks English.

And if we focused more on teaching English better, rather than teaching every subject in English, we just might turn out better workers.


  1. Krishna says:

    Poor English skills of Indians can be attributed to the rote learning ways of the language… They teach and learn English not much different from the way they do Math or Physics, blissfully ignorant of the element of emotional and cultural underpinning a language calls for… Mastering a language involves learning-to-think-in-that-language which our academics don’t insist… They all teach the alphabet and basic grammar and leave you to build on it… As a result, Indians think in their respective tongues, do a mental linguistic conversion Ju-Jitsu and spit it out in unwholesome lumps… So every state in India has its own English that is a slightly anglicized version of their own language and if the teacher ever bothers to correct them, all of them end up yelling “You only told me” where the natives would have said “It was you who told me”…


  2. giri Rao says:

    “And if we focused more on teaching English better, rather than teaching every subject in English, we just might turn out better workers.”

    And better citizens. Absolutely; couldn’t agree more! Yet another study confirms this, this time with examples from relatively resource-poor contexts like Ethiopia, Nepal and Orissa. Multilingual Education Works: from the Periphery to the Centre. Kathleen Heugh and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (eds) New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2010. The essays in this book too recommend

    – 8 to 10 years of education mostly in the mother language
    – High-quality teaching of the main language of the region
    – Taught by bilingual teachers in non-fee-paying, government schools.

    This is the most effective, inclusive and just package of practices to acquire firmly their own languages as well as the “livelihood” language(s). The “either-or” paradigm is a false one. High-level multilingualism is indeed possible.


  3. Milind says:

    Good thought.. liked the way it is presented. Helpful for parents to take decision in debate over vernacular or English Medium schools for their kids.


  4. I agree to a certain extent. However, to talk about high quality teaching is one thing and to get it is a different kettle of fish. We have to also remember that “Indian English is sometimes far removed from lets say British English. I am of the opinion that the more people that learn English the better. It is about communication above all else. Don’t misunderstand me though. Quality of teaching and learning is very important, but so too is access. English as a national language in India? Why not?


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