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English Phobia Will Ruin India’s Economic Prospects

Countries that run on manufacturing can afford linguistic nationalism in education. Folks in factory jobs don’t need to transact with people from foreign cultures on a daily basis. But in recent years, even the Chinese have begun to drop their English phobia. For India, English is vital.

The New Education Policy (NEP) introduced by the Modi government has brought welcome change on some fronts: It has envisioned multidisciplinary learning in higher education, floated a common college entrance test in place of today’s cacophony of exams, and promised spending on education at 6 percent of GDP.

But let’s leave all this aside for a bit and talk about the elephant in the room: English instruction. In line with its passion for linguistic nationalism, the government has said that it would like the medium of instruction to be in the student’s mother tongue (or local regional language) until at least Class 5.

This is not new. For years, India has seen a long-running battle against English on misplaced sentimental grounds, including national pride and anti-colonial fury. More recently, the war on English has become a cornerstone of populist politics: English is the preserve of the ‘intellectual elites’, some populist politicians say.

The language war has been on since as early as the 1950s. Against much resentment at the time, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru fought to include English as one of India’s official languages. In the decades that followed, that policy reaped dividends. As much as people hate the British Empire, English is today the only really global language; it dictates global business, politics and even knowledge creation.

And the knowledge of English put India in a unique position.

While most other developing countries made their wealth through the manufacturing sector, India’s late economic bloom depended on the export of high-end services, such as information technology, pharmaceuticals, and even retail and hospitality. In the 1990s and 2000s, India’s equivalent of Chinese factories was call centres, which pulled in hundreds of thousands of young English-speaking graduates from second-tier towns and even villages. Heavy investment in technical education through the early decades of India’s independence also created a rich pool of engineers, who attracted foreign investment from multinational companies that were looking for inexpensive quality labour. Similarly, Indian scientists created the developing world’s most accomplished space agency – the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The role of English in all these was heavily underplayed but integral: English made it possible for Indians to access knowledge from around the world more easily. It allowed Indians collaborate with businesses everywhere and sell services to global markets more competitively. As Jack Welch, the late Chairman of General Electric put it, “India is a developing country with a developed intellectual capability.”

English also spawned the growth of a remarkably influential diaspora: Unlike other Asians, Indians assimilated quickly and easily wherever they travelled, lived and worked – in large part, due to their multilingual capabilities and knowledge of English.

Countries that run on manufacturing can, to some extent, afford linguistic nationalism. Folks in manufacturing jobs don’t need to transact with – or speak to – people from foreign cultures on a daily basis. But India is likely never going to develop a manufacturing sector; its geography and polity are simply too complex to provide for easy allocation of land resources and efficient bureaucracy – the pre-requisites for manufacturing.

Yet, a services-fuelled boom – albeit against historical odds – is not beyond India’s reach. India has already shown the ability to send people several rungs up the social mobility ladder within a generation. ISRO’s Chairman K Sivan, for instance, is the son of a farmer.

The primary reason India hasn’t been able to scale up its services-fuelled growth story so far is that it hasn’t managed to deliver quality education – including in English – to the masses, which would have enabled them to compete globally. It makes no sense today to deprive future generations of English proficiency. By waging a war on English, India is squandering away its demographic dividend and depriving its youth of global opportunities.

Some people argue that children learn better in their mother tongues. But in truth, mother tongues are not genetically transmitted; languages are learnt around the ages of 3-4 and beyond. That means, in order to develop English proficiency, children should be instructed in English at the preschool level.

The NEP’s insistence on regional languages through primary school flies in the face of this science. As children get older, they find it progressively harder to pick up new languages – and that puts such students at a significant disadvantage in university, where they must spend more time figuring out English than on learning the subject that they are there to learn. Worse, as students graduate out of university, they will find it harder to compete for jobs in the global market or pursue higher education abroad.

The result of all this is quite simple: Class-based inequality will widen in India, as those who are able to afford posh English-medium education in the cities pull further ahead of talent from the hinterland.

In recent years, even the Chinese have begun to agree. For most of history, China has been among the most culturally protectionist countries on earth – and its attitude towards English was no different. Yet, a 2017 report pointed out that China now leads the world for the number of English-medium international schools. And that market continues to grow: Studies have found that the demand for English education is high amongst the Chinese, even at the primary school level, owing to the global opportunities that it opens up.

Some critics would argue that the emphasis on regional languages is useful because it is difficult to find quality English teachers to teach other subjects. But countries like China have been filling that gap by engaging young graduates from the West, who travel and teach across China for a year or two out of college. This is a policy worth replicating in India. Besides, India is already well ahead of the rest of Asia in this regard; it can engage young teachers from within its own urban middle class for the purpose. The government should be looking to develop a programme to involve them.

The war on English might make political sense, but it betrays India’s natural economic strengths. This is bad news for India’s demographic dividend.

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Mohamed Zeeshan is a Founding Partner and the Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette. He is the author of Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership (Penguin 2021). He is currently a foreign affairs columnist for The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Haaretz, and writes 'The Z Factor' - a monthly Sunday column in the Deccan Herald. He has previously worked at the United Nations in New York and with the global consulting firm Kearney in Dubai. He is a graduate of International Affairs from Columbia University.