Why India Must Move Beyond English


A couple of weeks ago, a major (though seemingly contrived) controversy broke out in India over the increased use of the Hindi language on social media. Language is a contentious issue in India, and has been since Article 343 of the Indian Constitution declared “Hindi in the Devanagari script” the official language of India in 1949. English, which was official during the British Raj, has remained co-official with Hindi, despite efforts to phase it out.

English remains entrenched in India and is widely used by India’s elite, bureaucracy, and companies. It is particularly important in its written form, as the official versions of most documents use English. Most pan-Indian written communication as well as many major media outlets use English. However, at the spoken level, English is much less prevalent and Indian languages are more widely used, with Hindi serving as a lingua franca for most of the country except the its northeast and the deep south.  It should be noted that English is spoken or understood by about 150 million Indians, or about 10 percent of the population. This means that around 90 percent of Indians do not understand or speak English.

English’s association with the elite and corridors of power and its status as the language of documents and serious literature has led to a craze for English-medium schools across India. Proponents of the English language in India argue that English will serve as the vehicle of India’s economic growth and lead to the empowerment of hundreds of millions of individuals. Nothing, however, could be more incorrect. India’s obsession with English holds back both its economic development and the quality of its education.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In a country where most people do not speak English and where few families speak English at home, it is logistically impossible for everyone to learn English or access an English education. Therefore, English will continue to be the province of a minority of India’s society, while most Indians will use their native languages in every facet of life. Yet, most major written work in India is done in English. As a result, educated Indians who are creating or utilizing modern knowledge are doing so in a language alien to the majority of their countrymen, and are in effect seceding from their society and participating in another form of modernity. As a result, the majority of Indians who use their native languages — whatever those languages are, and not just Hindi — are cut off from modern discourse and thought.

The lack of intellectual discourse in India’s languages has led to their underdevelopment and underutilization for modern usage. Many Indian languages have little technical and educational material. This denies the average Indian the knowledge that a non-English speaker in another country would have access to. This prevents the average Indian from using the Internet. The Internet has barely reached a tenth of India’s population in part due to the lack of Indian language material on the internet. Despite the fact that several of India’s languages are among the top 20 most spoken languages in the world — Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, and Tamil to name a few — none of them are among the top 20 languages used on the web.

Many Indian families have tried to remedy the problem of lack of information and opportunities in their native language by sending their children to English-medium schools. Countless such schools have mushroomed across India, many of which are of dubious quality. Unfortunately, only children from relatively affluent families learn anything at English-medium schools, and these are the children that belong to the self-perpetuating elite to begin with. Because English is almost everyone’s second language in India, only children from affluent families hear or read enough of it to be able to learn concepts in it by the time they begin primary school. Most other children are burdened with learning a new language at the same time as learning new concepts, which leads to minimal learning outcomes. Imagine if American children had to begin learning in Chinese in kindergarten!  As a result, a shockingly large number of Indian students are functionally illiterate, the result of studying in a language they have not mastered.

It is no surprise then the lack of emphasis on native language education and the inability of many children in English language schools to learn have produced a poorly educated population. Empirical data backs this up. In 2009, India came in 73rd out of 74 countries surveyed for educational performance in the Program for Educational Assessment (PISA), way behind East Asian countries, most of which ranked in the top 10, as well as leading European countries. There is a major correlation between this outcome and India’s attitude towards language, backed up by cognitive research. Learning in a foreign language slows down learning since it takes the mind a few seconds to translate knowledge into a familiar language. Absorbing new information through multiple languages at once prevents the systematic development of knowledge that is necessary for advanced thinking.  Of course, there are benefits to being multilingual but this should not come at the cost of learning thoroughly in one language, usually the language that the learner is most familiar with. There is evidence that children process knowledge and a second language such as English better when they have a sound educational base in their native language to begin with.

Despite these facts, India’s aggregate human development has been neglected in favor of the success of the elite, who have global aspirations. This is why the elite holds on to English and why the rest of India aspires to it. One of the most prominent arguments in favor of English education and use in India is that it connects India to an increasingly globalized world, giving it a comparative advantage over other developing countries. However, this is not a justification for putting millions of students through a difficult learning situation so that a few can be hired by global businesses. The majority of Indians, like the majority of Americans, will likely not travel far. It makes more sense to equip them with the skills and knowledge they need for success at home.

The key to this is education that actually leads to positive learning outcomes. A poorly educated population cannot meet their full economic potential or stand up for their rights. In short, India cannot hope to become a developed country until it invests in its people. India’s path to economic development lies in greater industrialization and agricultural modernization. For this to occur, enough of India’s citizens need to learn enough to read a manual to assemble a product and work in a factory. This alone will lift millions of Indians out of poverty. The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi means that India’s economic growth will revolve mostly around expanding agriculture and manufacturing as opposed to white-collar labor. Previous governments and economists in India mistakenly assumed that only white-collar jobs would fuel India’s economic growth.

It is essentially a waste of time and resources to teach hundreds of millions of people a new language that most will struggle with in order to achieve the goal of development. How many jobs actually need knowledge of English in order to function? Not many. India’s growth cannot be powered by the service industry and call-centers alone, many of which are saturated anyhow. A very minute percentage of Indians will work in such industries and those that do can learn English as a skill for their job, which would ultimately be more efficient than trying to educate a large portion of the population in the language. With a new government that is friendlier towards Indian languages dispelling the myth that English is necessary for political power, it is likely that soon more and more Indians will realize that both economic and political success isn’t tied to learning English but can be achieved through their native languages. This realization will allow more Indians to be successful by freeing them from this additional cognitive hurdle they face today in order to become successful. Narendra Modi realizes this, which is why he himself is increasingly using a language other than English in the public sphere, in order to make the point that development is possible without English.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief