6. The Problem With The English Language In India

Sahith Aula (Sahith Aula, graduate of the University of Cambridge, The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and Emory University) argues as follows in his article “The Problem With The English Language In India”:

Imagine living in a nation where you, a member of the majority, are unable to read the label of the medicine you must give your child, the menu at a local restaurant or even the warning signs of the road; a place where you are unable to comprehend the government document officiating your driver’s license, tax filing or marriage. This is the world that hundreds of millions of Indians live in simply because the elite prefer English. This discrimination has become so systemic that the elite and middle classes send their children to English private schools while the vast poor send theirs to the government schools of their mother tongue. One need not mention that universities and even government jobs require fluency in English, as mandated by the ruling elite. Therefore, a person’s socioeconomic status in Indian society is approximately in line with his or her fluency in the language. In other words: a new caste system.

It is incomprehensible that the majority of people in India are being oppressed by the mere lack of knowledge of a language. By not having medical instructions, food ingredient labels and nutritional information, government forms, access to the courts and politicians, street signs, and even movie tickets in their mother tongue, they are being harmed in the most discriminatory of manners. This goes beyond a basic democratic right to just being inherently illogical and prejudiced. Make no mistake, simply because an auto driver, a maid or a store employee knows his or her numbers, colors and a few other cursory words in English does not mean they truly speak it, let alone read it. Moreover, the academic conversation on this matter is controlled by those in the cities while the situation is much more dire in the towns, villages, hamlets and tribal regions.

Why English has become the language of the elite

There is an enormous range of nuanced reasons as to why English has become the language of the elite and of governance in India, even putting aside the original Macaulyism. It remains that Indians have come to believe that their nation’s prosperity, as well as their own, is wholly dependent upon not just learning English, but exclusively learning it as a first language. It began with the travelled elite, boomed within the middle class that was hired by multinational companies, and trickled to the vast majority hoping to escape their destitution but unable to afford private English education. Curiously, many states in India have attempted to make English the medium of instruction for all schools in an attempt to assuage the demands of the poor; however, the shortage of teachers who can even speak English is surreal. All of this while the vast majority is able to communicate in their respective mother tongues.

The most spoken languages in India, according to India’s census data, are Hindi (422m), Bengali (83m), Telugu (75m), Marathi (71m), Tamil (60m), Urdu (51m), Gujarati (46m), and Punjabi (29m). As such, the states in India are generally drawn on linguistic lines with each state having a history of literature, art, dance, politics and value system that is its own; being similar to the European Union in this regard. Take Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, for example, where Telugu is the local language: These two states combined have a larger population than France, South Korea and Turkey. However, unlike these nations, the language of the majority is falling into disarray because of strict English use with a prejudice due to

governments and companies needlessly conducting intrastate business (with great difficulty) in English when they could reach far more people in the local language. While it is true that English is integral for communication between states, the Central Government and foreign companies, is it really necessary to use it within a state where most people have the same mother tongue? To be perfectly clear, no reasonable person could advocate that English should not be taught. In fact, it would be imprudent not to teach the modern lingua franca (or inglese if you so please) but there is no reason to believe that people could not be fluent if they learn it from their early years onwards as a second language. That is what is done in so many other nations like Sweden, Germany, Japan, Thailand, Greece, Finland, Italy, Egypt, and so forth.

Only about 30% can speak English

The statistics on English speaking ability tends to be unreliable for a host of political reasons, but it is generally accepted that somewhere in the range of 30% are able, to varying degrees, speak English—though only a third have some semblance of reading and writing aptitude. Still, it is unadorned disenfranchisement and an embarrassing plight for the other 70-80% of Indians. Contextually, this would mean anywhere from 770-900 million people are being oppressed on a daily basis. Even if one subtracts the 25-30% who are illiterate (another matter entirely), this is still about 577-630 million. For argument’s sake, let us say that this affects only 200 million people: this is still thrice the population of the U.K. Is this acceptable for a purportedly “socialist democracy?” Of the myriad of India’s social constructs this is possibly the simplest matter to amend and remedy.

To explore the matter at a more foundational level, all development begins with education, and education, of course, stems from language. Yet, language is much more than a means of communication; it determines the books one reads, the television programs one watches, the ideas one is exposed to, the values one holds, one’s personal interests, and one’s career opportunities. In essence, it defines our identities. Therefore, what is perhaps most damning is that because of this favoritism afforded to the English language the cultures of India are dying as they lose out on generations of authors, activists, actors, artists, playwrights, innovators, orators, and businesspersons who would have otherwise contributed to, and enriched, their own language.

What the private sector is doing to help

What is most fascinating in all this is that it is companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Samsung which are reaching out and providing the tools to the people and the state governments to advance the local languages. Consider that Google revamping Andhra Pradesh’s IT system to make it Telugu input friendly or that Samsung is leading the charge in providing phones with local language capabilities even while local leaders post their campaign signs in English.

It seems evident that in the case of India and elsewhere, multiple languages ought to be taught and be taught well to allow individuals not only to operate in a globalized world but to also bring together local communities that have been fractured and segregated by the economics of language. It remains the obligation of the local governments to guarantee the enfranchisement of the people, remove the artificial socioeconomic barriers of language, and encourage social mobility. In the mean time, Indians have private sector ingenuity to thank for the advancement of their languages.


The social and pedagogical aspects of using the native language as medium of instruction are discussed in the following article by Dhanaraju Vulli of the Department of History, Assam University (Central University), Diphu Campus, Assam, INDIA:

Mother Tongue as the Medium of Instruction

There is a popular perspective that advocates the use of mother tongue as media of instruction in early education as well as to encourage linguistic diversity in schools. This perspective argue that mother tongues are not merely speech varieties but are languages that provide social and emotional identity to individuals, express the essence of their cultures, and give them a sense of rootedness. Schooling in the language of the child reflects respect for her and an appreciation of her culture. The exclusion of the mother tongues from school hence is seen as ‘harmful to the child’s self esteem’. According to Pattanaik5 children are thereby “reduced to minorities in their own homes”. Extending the realm of pedagogy, the argument links the acknowledgement and acceptance by the school of the language and culture of the child to a positive identity of self and thereby to effective educational achievement. As Edward says, “the rejection of a child’s language is unlikely to enhance feelings of self worth which are important for educational success”6. Further, this perspective argues that “the right to education in a language that the child understands is a basic human right and an essential ingredient of equality in education”. Pattanaik forcefully observes that to “control and dictate the language of access” to knowledge is a “positive suppression of human talent. It deprives individual and society of free choices, curbs creativity and innovativeness and restricts participation or potential participation in multiple spheres of human interaction, thus imposing limits on freedom”. The Chennai Declaration (2012) has emphasized the importance of mother tongue in the multi-lingual country like India as “One of the significant commonalties of the Common School System will be the plurality of mother tongues in dynamic interface with multilingualism of child’s neighbourhood. This would duly include Braille and other sign languages as well. According to this radical and dynamic conception of language education, mother tongue with a multi-lingual interface is acknowledged as the most potent medium of education to enable the child to i. think, analyze and act; ii. acquire, internalize and transform modern language knowledge critically; iii. Learn other languages, including English, proficiently; iv.catalyze cultural and literary renaissance; v. Negotiate with the dominant process of alienation with advantage, thereby avoiding being pushed-out; and vi. Question and resist oppression and explore the path ofliberation”7.This approach believes in quality education. The quality education begins with mother tongue. Mother tongue is very important that gives high levels of ability in learning many languages in India. Indian constitution also acknowledged the importance of mother tongue language as the National Curricular Framework, 2005 and the Right of Children to free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 provided the mother tongue as tool for development critical thinking. However, for most children, particularly for the tribal and minority language children, there is no provision for education in the mother tongue. Education of such children imposes an unfamiliar school language on them, which often leads to large scale dropouts. Mother tongue based multilingual education for at least 6 to 8years is education of quality for all children. This position was vehemently criticised by Dalit discourse in Indian Education. The present paper argues in favour of English as the medium of teaching in school education in India.


© Helge Tietz 2017