English is too precious a resource to be thrown away for appeasement of Hindi-zealots

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is building an image of being a “unifier” in a vast country of pluralities and regional variations such as ours, his government reviving the mission of establishing the primacy of the Hindi language all across India could not have been more untimely. President Pranab Mukherjee wants our national leaders to deliver official speeches in Hindi. India's Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javadekar has threatened to throw away English from our school- syllabuses.

Predictably, these developments have invited adverse reactions in states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One is sure that not only other states but thinking-Indians too will raise their voice against this "imposition" of Hindi in the days to come.

It is nobody’s case that India should not have a link-language. Ideally, Sanskrit, with which almost all the major languages of the country, including Tamil, have some linkages — big or small— could have been such a language. But centuries of deliberate neglect of Sanskrit have few takers of it now. On the other hand, whether one may admit or not, English, despite being “the colonial language,” has been playing the “link” role in the governance of the country. In that sense, English happens to be the collateral victim of the promoters of Hindi. To put it differently, the most important component of the strategy of promoting or propagating Hindi is the systematic attack on the continuance or the importance of English as a language in India.

Prakash Javadekar. PTI

Prakash Javadekar. PTI

Ironically, this is a strategy that the previous incarnation of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) since the days of its previous incarnation, the Jana Sangh, and his bitterest political enemies at present, the socialists of various hue in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (the Yadavs and Nitish Kumar) have always believed in. That is why one still finds the outdated arguments that English is a colonial legacy that is insulting to the Indian nationhood and that great countries such as Japan, China and Russia have excelled in all spheres through their respective languages and not English.

However, let us note some facts about which the Hindi-zealots are either ignorant or highly dismissive of. Realising the importance of English as a global language, particularly in this age of digital revolution, and its linkage with the economic development, Japan has developed an educational promotion plan under which by fiscal 2017 half, junior high students are expected to have English proficiency equivalent to Grade 3 of the popular “Eiken English proficiency test” when they graduate. Similarly, half of high school students in Japan are supposed to have English proficiency equivalent to Grade 2 or Grade Pre-2 by the time of their graduation.

It may be noted here that following the collapse of the bubble economy in 1989, Japan experienced a recession, domestically referred to as the ‘lost decade’. It was realised that one of the important reasons why Japan fell behind was its incapacity to exploit the Information Technology (IT) because of Japanese workers’ poor English skills. In 1999, the then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi proposed declaring Japan a bilingual country and giving English official status. Accordingly, Japan developed “a strategic plan to cultivate Japanese with English abilities”, which, in turn, led to “an Action Plan” in 2003 to cultivate “Japanese With English Abilities.” In its objectives, it was stated, “With the progress of globalisation in the economy and in society, it is essential that our children acquire communication skills in English, which has become a common international language….For children living in the 21st century, it is essential for them to acquire communication abilities in English as a common international language. In addition, English abilities are important in terms of linking our country with the rest of the world, obtaining the world’s understanding and trust, enhancing our international presence and further developing our nation.”

English language has now become extremely important for the world’s highest rising economy, China, to keep the lines of communication open for trade and business matters. As one of the global powers, it is in China’s best interest to make English the preferred language for developmental purposes, the Chinese policy makers openly say. In fact, China is learning English in a big way. "English fever" took hold in China soon after Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reforms that went on to roil and reshape the country in the early 1980s. Under official edicts published in 1984 by the Ministry of Education (MoE), English became one of the three required main subjects in most middle and high school entrance exams. In 2001, the MoE issued a document entitled ‘Guidelines for Promoting English Language Instruction in Primary Schools,’ emphasising a new approach for using English for effective interpersonal communication. Then, in 2003, after two years of consultation and trials, a new ‘student-centred’ English language curriculum was announced for all primary and secondary schools. In an improved version in 2011, the MoE introduced “English Language Curriculum Standard” to further spread the English in the country.

Similarly in Russia, interest in English is growing very fast. English has become an important element in the Russian economy. In a poll in November 2014, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) asked Russians which languages should be studied in school, whether or not children will find foreign languages useful in everyday life, and which benefits can be gained from knowing foreign languages. The vast majority of respondents (92 percent) answered that children should study foreign languages in school. That statistic rose to 98 percent in Russia’s biggest cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg. And significantly, English was considered the most useful foreign language (92 percent of the respondents).

As a matter of fact, since 2011, in Russia, foreign languages (mainly English) have been a mandatory subject starting in second grade (seven and eight year-olds). Schools also have the option of introducing a second foreign language starting in fifth grade. It is estimated that in 2020, foreign languages will comprise a third mandatory Unified State Exam, after Russian and Mathematics.

It is against this background that it was quite distressing to hear Prakash Javadekar suggest the other day that Indians should give up English. At a function to promote Urdu language in India, Javadekar was reported to have reinterpreted the existing three-language formula. He said, “People ask me what is three language formula, I tell them, it is a formula for three Indian languages and not foreign language. It is not necessary to chose English as one of the languages, students can chose all three Indian languages also. This is the only way in which regional languages will grow. ” But this was not all. Javadekar went on to further say that there was no scope for Indian languages to grow as long as English was there.

It may be noted that after the linguistic riots in Tamil Nadu assumed dangerous and secessionist proportions, 'Three Language Formula' was devised in the chief ministers conferences held in 1961. On its basis, the National Commission on Education, known as the Kothari commission, examined and recommended a graduated formula which became a part of the National Policy on Education, 1968, the policy that has been reconfirmed from time to time since then. Under it, the first language to be studied must be the mother tongue or the regional language. At the secondary stage, it should be the study of a modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, apart from Hindi and English, in the Hindi-speaking states, and of Hindi and English along with the regional language in the non-Hindi speaking states. For the higher studies, suitable courses in Hindi and/or English are to be available in universities and colleges.

However, the three-language formula has never been implemented effectively all over the country. Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Tripura have openly shunned the teaching of Hindi whereas in non-Hindi speaking states, the study of any south Indian language has not been practiced. Obviously, strict implementation of the formula has been a sensitive issue, which is better left alone at this juncture. In any case, all this has not deterred the spread of Hindi all over the country, thanks to Hindi cinema — Bollywood.

Hindi is better propagated even in Tamil Nadu if you do not make it an active state-policy. All said, as TK Arun has rightly argued in the Economic Times (20 April), “Hindi and its variants form the mother tongue for 41 percent Indians. That leaves 59 percent of India’s population speaking other languages, and not just 21 non-Hindi languages recognised as official.” I will even go further to point out that if the geographic canvas of India is taken into account as whole then nearly in two/third of it, Hindi is not the mother tongue. Does it then make any sense to impose the uniformity of Hindi?

Yes, India does need a link language. We are fortunate to have English as one (which incidentally has been the official language of one Indian state — Nagaland — since 1967). In fact, it is our familiarity with and expertise of English that has given India an edge over China in the globalised world, particularly in the field of information technology, the locomotive of modern development. English is our precious resource; let us not throw it away to appease the Hindi-zealots. Let Hindi flourish, but not at the cost of English.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2017 18:53:07 IST

Also See