English rises again as India's power language

This month a diplomat in Delhi reluctantly let his cook go. He knew the woman's husband worked little. He had even attended their daughter's wedding and gave a nice gift. The cook's salary, $120 a month, allowed a good living in Delhi.

The problem: The cook didn't speak English - and the diplomat needed someone to answer the phone when the new housekeeper was out.

The incident illustrates the growing power of English here, despite the fact that only 5 to 7 percent of India's 1 billion people speak it.

After a decade-long "Indianization" to teach regional languages in the schools - and remove British-era names of streets and places (Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta is Kolkata) - a middle-class consensus to spread the learning of English is emerging. For 50 years, English has been a language of privilege, but today it must become a more common vernacular, say intellectuals, business executives, and parents alike.

Already, as India continues to liberalize its economy, English is the language of commerce - of the stock exchange, Bombay deals, and job rsums. It is not only a symbol of cultural authority for the urban elite who pick up the patois of Indian English TV or gossip knowingly about Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, but also for an aspiring middle class who want to participate in politics and government.

"If we wish to be a global cyberpower, if we want a larger share of the world markets, if we want greater political relevance ... we could start out with a crash program to promote English, not Hindi," argues Shekar Gupta, editor of India's largest newspaper, The Indian Express. He points out that among the more prosperous populations of East Asia, English is becoming a compulsory second language.

Such calls ring louder in light of Indian President K.R. Narayanan's unusual warning to the nation last month in a Republic Day speech, in English, of "the fury of the patient and long-suffering people." President Narayanan - the first Dalit, or untouchable, to hold the ceremonial high office of president - cautioned about neglect of the poor at a time when the upper classes are getting wealthier. "We have one of the largest reservoirs of technical personnel, but also the world's largest numbers of illiterates," he said.

Acknowledging these realities, in December the government of Maharashtra, whose capital is Bombay, announced compulsory English lessons for all students from grade 6 onward. The move, like a similar one in West Bengal two years ago, reverses a policy of the early 1990s to teach only the local Marathi and Bengali languages in schools. Parents in Bombay were a major part of the lobbying effort to change the system.

Ajay, a father of three and a clerk in a Delhi firm, says he went to a Hindi-language school as a boy, but his children are learning English. "My kids say that people will respect them if they speak English."

In the rapidly proliferating info-tech schools, particularly in cyber-rich South India, where Hindi is not widely spoken, English is the language of instruction, not Hindi.

English is, in fact, the principal "link language" between Hindi-speaking north India and the non-Hindi speaking South. When Indian politicians from Delhi hold rallies in Tamil Nadu in the south, they speak in English - partly because they do not speak Tamil, but also because the Tamil people are historically anti-Hindi.

Even in marriage, the most powerful Indian institution, English plays a new role. In matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers, even in Hindi-language papers, more and more ask for brides who attended "convent schools." This does not signal religious sentiment. It implies the young lady will be English-speaking, more employable, and able to travel into the dual and upwardly mobile English-Hindi worlds.

"Those who have no English understand that certain avenues of power are closed to them, that there are many jobs they are instantly considered unfit for, and that they are socially marked," says Vikram Chandra, an Indian novelist. "It is still possible to become powerful and rich and content without English. But to be poor without English is to know that this is the language of opportunity."

Accordingly, "Even the Dalits in this country have started to assert that denying them English is to deny them power," says G.J.V. Prasad, a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Still, some promoters of English warn that a headlong attempt to teach the subject could be harmful. An English-language juggernaut, based on commercial values, could be akin to the superstore phenomenon in the US, where low-priced megashops move into a neighborhood and drive out small stores. In this case, the regional dialects could be harmed. "I don't think people have thought through how this trend is going to affect our cultural life," Mr. Prasad adds.

Others feel that South Asian culture is too complex and diverse to be destroyed by a more widespread use of English. Indeed, each region of India has several languages, and the nation has more than 1,000 minor languages and dialects.

The status is typically complex. Currently, more than 400 million Indians speak Hindi. Hindi is regarded as India's official language, though not the official national language. Instead, according to the Constitution, which is in English, India has 18 national languages. English exists in a sui generis category: It is regarded as a "language of state."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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