India: Is English the language of success?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 13 16:25:21 UTC 2007

    English: Is it the language of success?

 Rama Kant Mishra  12 September 2007, Wednesday     In multilingual India,
English continues to be the premier language in higher education. The
English speaker commands more respect. According to the National Knowledge
Commission of India, English, the bargaining chip, should be taught from
Standard 1.

INDIA HAS INHERITED a multicultural and multilingual society where
bilingualism and multilingualism have become the order of the day to be a
part of the main-stream. While mother tongues and regional languages were
part of the curriculum from the beginning, English made inroads into our
educational system as a second language. Slowly, realising the importance of
English as an international language, many schools upgraded it as first
language in the curriculum. Little information is available, however, on the
number of people who "know" English and the extent of their knowledge or
even on how many people study English at school. According to the 1981
census, 202,400 persons (0.3 percent of the population) admitted to English
being their first language. Less than 1 percent admitted to English being
their second language while 14 percent admitted to being bilingual (in two
of India's many languages).

The Fifth All-India Education Survey conducted in 1992 explored the avenues
for studying English in India. According to the survey, only 1.3 per cent of
primary schools, 3.4 per cent of upper primary schools, 3.9 per cent of
middle schools, and 13.2 per cent of high schools use English as a medium of
instruction. Schools treating English as the first language (requiring ten
years of study) are only 0.6 per cent of rural primary schools, 2.8 per cent
of rural high schools, and 9.9 per cent of urban high schools. English in
India is offered as a second language (six years of study) in 51 per cent of
rural primary schools, 55 per cent of urban primary schools, 57 per cent of
rural high schools and 51 per cent of urban high schools. As a third
language (three years of study), English is offered in 5 per cent of rural
primary schools, 21 per cent of urban primary schools, 44 per cent of rural
high schools and 41 per cent of urban high schools. These statistics reveal
a strong desire to study English on the part of people exposed mostly to
vernacular education, even in the countryside.

English continues to be the premier and prestigious language in higher
education because the resource and guidance available in this language are
abundant compared to that available in the regional languages or even the
national language. Careers in business and commerce, government positions of
high rank, and science and technology which attract the brightest, continue
to require fluency in English. English is another passport and provides the
visa for overseas study.

English is reckoned as a prestigious language and the tongue of first choice
and continues as medium of instruction in elite schools at every level.
Private English medium schools are mushrooming in all large cities and many
smaller cities. Even government schools run for the benefit of senior civil
service officers, use English because only that language is the acceptable
medium of communication throughout the nation. It serves even better while
one migrates to exploit opportunities and Indians are constantly shifting
base within the country.  Our cities reflect this reality.

The working-class, comprised of rural and urban migrants and who perhaps are
bilingual in their village dialect and the regional language, perceive
English as the tool for their children's advancement. Schools in which
English is the medium of instruction are a "growth industry." The English
speaker also commands more respect and draws courteous responses in some
situations than does a speaker of an indigenous language.

However, in recent times in the global marketplace, Indians have become the
obvious choice of the knowledge-based industry because of their sheer
knowledge of the English language and the ability to effectively use it on
the job. The trend is showing positive and upward growth and even the
European and American companies have been showing greater interest in
offering jobs to Indian professionals. Not all credit is to be given to
English alone; knowledge of the subject is important too; yet expression and
communication are being powered by English. There is no denying this fact.

Realising the importance of this imported language which can bring benefit
to the society and the nation, the National Knowledge Commission of India
has proposed to the government of India to strongly recommend the inclusion
of English from Standard I in the school curriculum. The Commission is of
the opinion that "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." The learned scholars do feel that
"linguistic proficiency is the key to unlock the door of opportunities in a
world where borders are blurring in the blink of an eye."

Via the edling-list:

Harold F. Schiffman

Email:  haroldfs at

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