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Kanika Datta: The language of progress

Independent India's genius must go beyond leveraging a colonial heritage

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Foreigners visiting China tend to return with amusing stories of the Middle Kingdom’s idiosyncratic grasp, or lack thereof, of the English language. India by contrast is considered “fortunate”; as descendant of Macaulay’s Children, educated Indians have a passable working knowledge of English.

Thanks to Britain’s globe-girdling colonial rule — of which the Commonwealth remains a rag-tag reminder — and the USA’s domination of global business after that, English as the world’s lingua franca became received wisdom from the nineteenth century onwards. The implication that flowed from this, especially in India, is that knowing English is somehow a passport to economic success. Today, academics and policy wonks plugged into the global conferencing networks may find this easy to believe. But the examples of India and China suggest that it is a fallacious notion.

True, the Chinese, with their ingrained sense of realism, have trained their sights on learning English. But the country’s rise to world domination was established long before its people started educating themselves in the so-called language of global business. It is also worth reiterating the obvious point that the language barrier did not dissuade US multinationals from directing their employment-expanding manufacturing investment to China, a circumstance that powered it up the rankings to become the world’s second-largest economy.

If you run an eye down the world’s 20 largest economies, 13 of them are non-English-speaking countries. Of the top ten, there are just two English-speaking countries (the US and Canada, where French is also a dominant language). Narrow the list to the top five and only the US remains.

Japan, now the world’s third-largest economy, remained a solidly Japanese-speaking nation despite being under American post-war occupation for seven years. By the seventies, it was Japanese shop-floor management concepts that stormed the world. This was, as Sony’s iconic co-founder Akio Morita wrote in his readable memoir Made in Japan, largely the outcome of the country’s collective sense of humiliation after its defeat in World War II. There was a time when US consumers bought more Japanese-made cars than American-made ones (as General Motors discovered to its dismay), just as they buy more Chinese- than US-made products.

Ditto for Germany; it remains the world’s hub for high-end engineering technology despite a long-standing and historical aversion to the English language. Working there is truly a struggle for non-German speakers, as businessmen attest. Surinder Kapur, chairman of auto-component group Sona, has resolved to direct his other overseas buys to English-speaking countries after reviving a highly-regarded Munich-based manufacturer because of his struggles with the language. During his stint in Germany, Karl Slym, the current British head of General Motors India, recalled how the head of operations of GM there agreed to hold meetings in English only for two weeks as a concession to him before reverting to German.

First-time Indian visitors to South-east Asian countries tend to return with a lingering sense of irritation at the obviously superior human development indicators in those small “tiger” economies where the staff of even five-star hotels struggle to understand basic English. South Korea, ranked 26 in the UN’s Human Development Indicators, is similarly linguistically opaque to foreigners — and proud of it.

The tenuous link between economic progress and knowledge of English does not, however, mean that Indians shouldn’t focus on learning it. The Official Languages Act mandated to continue using English for official purposes and in Parliament. In a country with no less than 22 languages recognised in the Indian Constitution, several with different roots, this is probably a practical option. It is worth remembering that the dialects of America’s polyglot European- and Asian-origin immigrant population were gradually stamped out in favour of the homogeneity of English in the early years of the twentieth century.

All the same, knowledge of English is probably an over-rated virtue. As the crisis over the Commonwealth Games has demonstrated, it cannot act as a guarantor of execution ability, efficiency or even honesty. Increasingly, it is becoming an alibi for the lack of enablers within the Indian system for talent to rise, irrespective of linguistic provenance and patronage. India makes much of the fact that its English-speaking population base has been turned to profitable use in the vast information technology (IT) and back office industry. In many ways, IT defines the dynamic new India. But surely independent India’s genius must go beyond leveraging a colonial heritage.

First Published: Thu, September 30 2010. 00:58 IST