An Old Issue

Narendra Modi has decided to speak with foreign dignitaries in Hindi—even when they are English speaking. This is a departure from Vajpayee who spoke in English with English-speaking dignitaries and in Hindi with non-English-speaking dignitaries. Speaking in Hindi certainly makes a major cultural statement. No doubt it is assertion of Indian culture. There is a flip side, however. Speaking with an English-speaking dignitary in Hindi through a translator would not be able to establish the one-to-one chemistry that may be developed by speaking directly in English. One has to weigh the gains from this better chemistry against the gains from assertion of  Indian culture. Modi has also issued orders for Central Government officials to do work in Hindi. Use of Hindi will certainly put  non-Hindi speaking countrymen at a disadvantage. True, increasing use of English in national discourse will put vernacular speaking persons at a distinct disadvantage. Here again one will have to weigh the gains from national integration obtained by the use of English versus the gains people will obtain by assertion of national identity.

Use of vernacular may also endanger India’s global economic prowess. An article in the Harvard Business Review gives startling statistics from a different perspective. The writer asserts that "there is a direct correlation between the English skills of a population and the economic performance of the country. Indicators like gross national income go up." Statistical data provided by him indicate that the average per capita income rises from US Dollars 10k to 60k per year as the nation's English Proficiency Index (EPI) rises from 45 to 70. To cite a specific example, Russia has an EPI score of 50 and Income of US dollars 20k per person per year. In comparison Singapore has EPI score of 60 and average income of 60k per person. This shows that countries that adopt English have higher incomes. At an individual level, recruiters and HR managers around the world report that job seekers with exceptional English compared to their country's level earned 30-50% percent higher salaries."

There is a vast body of anecdotal evidence that indicates a positive impact of English on income. Japanese Company Rakuten implemented 100 percent use of English. Swiss food giant Nestle saw great efficiency improvements in purchasing after it enforced English as a company standard. When Germany's Hoechst and France's Rh6ne-Poulenc merged in 1998 to create Aventis, the fifth largest worldwide pharmaceutical company, the new firm chose English as its operating language over French or German. These and many other examples indicate that global economy is inexorably moving towards the use of English. This is happening because the driver of the global economy is technology which has largely been developed in the United States in the last century in English language. Therefore, abandonment of English means losing in the race of technology and of prosperity. These costs, however, are of a short term nature. The pain of adopting English and some losing the race would persist for a decade or so only. The gains from adoption of English come over the long run.

The objection to English more seriously comes from the argument of cultural diversity. It is feared that adoption of English will smother India's native cultures. English-speaking children, for example, appear to have lesser knowledge of the Ramayana and the Koran. This connection between language and culture appears dubious.

The way forward is not to reject English and encourage desi languages only. The way forward is to adopt the middle path of bilingualism.

The Congress Party was established by the British rulers to provide a platform for the native leaders to vent their feelings and thereby stabilize the British Empire. Gandhiji turned it around and used that same organization to throw the British out of India. Similarly people must use English to spread Indian culture across the globe instead of letting it become an instrument of the death of indigenous culture.      [contributed]

Vol. 47, No. 1, Jul 13 - 19, 2014