India and English

Multilingual sign in India. From Wikipedia


In a recent article for The Diplomat, Akhilesh Pillalamarri makes the case that India’s promotion of English has negatively affected the quality of education in the country as well as impeded its development. Pillalamarri makes what is a nearly convincing argument that English should be done away with, but ultimately many of his points do not stand up to scrutiny. More importantly, his analysis completely ignores the reason why English was chosen as a lingua franca in the first place. But first, let us deal with the arguments that Pillalamarri has presented.

1) English is not as prevalent as local languages with Hindi serving as the lingua franca in most areas of the country. It is worth nothing that English is the second most spoken language in India with about 125 million speakers in the country (a number expected to quadruple in the next decade). The only language with more speakers is Hindi, with an estimate of 400 million speakers. The regions that Pillalamarri identify as Hindi speaking are the regions with languages already similar to Hindi. Although there are some important differences between the languages of Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, and Gujarati, they also are mutually intelligible to a certain degree. Some of my aunts who are Punjabi and Gujarati (but born outside of India) are able to understand Bollywood movies with some effort despite never formally learning Hindi due to the similarities in the language. Similarly, my siblings and several of my uncles who have never studied Tamil (we can barely speak Malayalam (I’m working on changing that though, keep you fingers crossed)) are able to understand some Tamil movies with some effort as there is some similarity between the languages. The region that Pillalamarri identify as speaking Hindi already have the advantage of having a native language in the same language family. The regions that Pillalamarri identifies as non-speaking areas together contain about half a billion people. Promoting the use of Hindi would effectively put nearly half the country at a disadvantage for national jobs and higher education.

2) The promotion of English decreases the quality of education in India. There are many problems with the Indian education system, the promotion of English is not generally considered one of them. Multiple authors and other experts have discussed the problems with the Indian education system. Between absentee teachers, the lack of encouragement for innovation (so well known that movies have been made about it), and a general lack of accountability (here is a report discussing the problems as well as possible reforms that can be enacted in the education system), there are plenty of problems that plague the Indian education system instead of the English language. Along with the the supposed problems of the teaching of English, one point he makes is that teaching English at such a young age is bad for children. Except most countries teach their students at a very young age. In fact many studies have shown that there is an advantage at a younger age.

3) The use of English has led to the under utilization and under development of Indian intellectual discourse in other languages. This is also questionable of whether English is responsible for this. If an intellectual published some research in Malayalam, how would this be able to spread to the rest of India? Only 38 million people speak Malayalam, preventing it from spreading throughout the country. The reason why intellectual discourse started to be published and carried out in English was because of the spread it had with the elites in India.

As I pointed out above, Pillalmarri does not address the reason why English was adopted in as an official language in the first place. Language politics is an emotional subject in India (indeed in many parts of the world). When it was first proposed to make Hindi the official language, there was strong resistance in multiple parts of India, especially in the south led by the Tamils. By promoting one native Indian language over others, it puts those who do not speak that language at a disadvantage. The promotion of Hindi would also escalate tensions between the North and South (here is a good article on southern perceptions of north Indians) as an attempt by the North to force their culture and lifestyle on others, or even an attempt by the North to marginalize the south. This is not unusual in South Asia.  A major grievance by the Tamils (helped lead to civil war) in Sri Lanka was that the promotion and use of Sinhalese would marginalize the minority Tamils. A similar issue was present in the tensions between West and East (now Bangladesh) Pakistan. English turned out to be a language that served the purpose of a compromise on the issue of official language in India.

That said, there are many valid points in Pillalamarri’s article that should be taken seriously. One is the promotion of native Indian languages on the internet to help encourage access to those who don’t speak English (though it is worth asking whether the lack of internet usage among a large amount of Indians is because of the use of English or other reasons). Another point he makes is whether English will be required for the jobs used by the majority of Indians. Either way, while I do disagree with much of the arguments that he makes, his proposal is one worth considering.

For further details on the use of English in India and why it is helpful for its development, read Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani (also one of the best books on India’s development there is).



Akhilesh Pillalamarri has given a followup to his original article. While I do agree that access to services could be better improved by using the local languages, ultimately he rehashes similar talking points to that I have already discussed above.


One thought on “India and English

  1. Malaysia has similar problems. Both were British colonies that when they became independent, English was the thing that wouldn’t change, but it did, …..finding the best teachers are the key.

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