India: National Knowledge Commission recommends adding English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 17 13:37:32 UTC 2007

The National Knowledge Commission's recommendation to include English
compulsorily in school curricula across the country from Class I could not
have come a moment too soon. Government must implement it right away if
India is to realise its potential as a knowledge economy. As things stand,
Indian professionals are much sought after globally because of the
linguistic edge they are equipped with, but a majority still does not have
access to English.

Both as a taught language, and medium of instruction, English has been
part of the Indian education system for a long time now. But the project
that seeks to empower through English is neither coherent nor universal.
It exists in pockets, and has been pursued in fits and starts. Often, it
has been the casualty of the perverse brand of identity politics practised
by satraps across the political spectrum. According to the Knowledge
Commission, no more than 1 per cent Indians use it even as a second

The handicap is brought into relief when school-leavers seek higher
education where English is, almost exclusively, the medium of instruction.
It is further accentuated at the workplace where it is the preferred
language of transaction. Alarm bells are already being sounded about the
lack of skilled graduates the Indian education system is churning out. It
is simply not in step with the requirements of the global marketplace.
The time is now to put in place a comprehensive language policy that will
include and equip those currently left out. While English must be actively
promoted, it would be foolhardy to let regional tongues fall off the
radar. Indeed, most urban Indians are bilingual and speak a smattering of
at least a third language.

Migration to where opportunity beckons is the order of the day and Indians
are constantly shifting base within the country; our cities reflect this
reality. To be able to integrate socially and excel in the great Indian
bazaar, it makes good sense to be conversant with regional languages other
than just one's mother tongue. A willingness to adopt and adapt to another
tongue will not only enrich the individual but also help blunt regional
chauvinism. In the 21st century marketplace, languages are the new
bargaining chips.  They are tools of trade, no less or more; that is
precisely why we must embrace them. Linguistic proficiency is the key to
unlock doors of access and opportunities in a world where borders are
blurring at a blink.


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