Friday, February 18, 2011

What language do you speak?

It is an inescapable fact that English has become the dominant language in India. After all, in a country that houses call centers for British catalog companies or the IT department for Apple Computer, English has become a necessity to function in the Indian economy. While everyone in India can agree that independence from the British was a victory, the other side of that double edge sword is that the British made such economic expansion possible.

Nonetheless, despite India’s efforts to ensure protection over its 432 national languages through nationalist movements, English has taken over as the de facto national language. The real question to be asked then is what effect does this have upon the rural Indian population, and are they being afforded the opportunities that come with the infiltration of English?

In this New York Times article, a company executive explicitly states, “A villager has more respect for a brand that is written in English.” The real issue, however, is whether the rural villages in India are being left behind in a country where English has become the dominant language.

Several attempts have been made to help empower these areas to ensure that they are on the same level as the urban English speaking regions of India. For example, Carnegie Mellon started a program in 2004, which designs learning games on cell-phones that are modeled after traditional village games that are familiar to rural children. The reason the program used cell-phones are because the device is a good mechanism for out-of-school language learning. Most importantly, the program is tailored to local practices to ensure that the rural culture and rural life is taken into account for children.

Additionally, the Indian government has recently built several English medium schools in several areas across the subcontinent. English medium schools are specifically tailored to teach the curriculum in English to the students. Unfortunately, these schools do cost money, and despite their recent availability to rural areas in Punjab, Maharashtra, and Kerala, these schools may still not provide the necessary English education to rural children.

As the New York Times article discusses, the push to educate the rural areas of India in English is to liberate the poorest segment of the population. The history of India, considering the culture of the Caste system, reinforces the distinction between those who speak English and those who do not. By ensuring that all Indians attain the ability to speak English, the result most likely would be empowerment – not only economically, but also culturally and politically.


Sarah J said...

When I was teaching English in rural Malaysia, I found myself in pretty much the same situation. My students' English language skills were inferior to those of urban Malaysians, who took multiple subjects in English and practiced the language every day simply because they had more exposure to international businesses and tourists. My students definitely felt that they were somehow isolated from the world, from social progress, and even from personal success. On the one hand, I think this dependence on English makes sense in our ever-globalizing world, but it also feels unfortunate. Along with great cultural and political empowerment, English also brings homogenization, and can diminish important cultural differences.

RH said...

This is only a minor point but when the article mentions brands getting more respect when written in English it made me think of something similar I was told in Korea. A few people told me that many Korean companies feature Roman script in their logos and branding just because it is more aesthetically pleasing and flexible than Korean script. Obviously, India has a much different history in its dealings with English speaking nations, but it is interesting to think about whether Roman script really does have branding advantages or if the preference is really just a byproduct of American cultural hegemony.

Chez Marta said...

Thanks for the great post, N.P. Just last night, after I tucked in my children, I realized with a pang of guilt that I failed to teach them Hungarian, despite my feeble attempts, and we almost exclusively communicate now in English. My husband talks to them in Spanish, but they respond in English and the conversation quickly morphs to be conducted in English. I wish I had the mental agility to teach them my mother-tongue, but when they were little, and I was exhausted, really that was low on my list of priorities. I can tell first hand how much it hurts not being able to share the same folk stories with them that I grew up on... I hope to be able to move back to Hungary for a summer or a year, and teach them the language my family spoke for centuries... so that they could one day share their mother's native tongue... and perhaps laugh at my quirky Hungarian jokes.