English in India: Its Present and the Future

English, the much loved and hated surrogate child of the British rule in India, has managed to remain in the centre-stage of controversy even after 47 years of the country's independence. To an impartial observer, it seems that it can neither be thrown away nor can it be adopted completely.

The controversies on English abound because there are not many in the country who have well thought out views on the subject. In most cases, the statements for or against English are either an integral part of the political stratagem or mere emotional outbursts of their protagonists. Therefore, the controversy always hangs around the favourite 'English Hatao' slogan given every now and then by a politician who has exhausted all the other repertoire or by a Sabha who would like to be seen as fighting for Indian culture and values. However, a personal investigation into the education of the children of these politicians or the affairs of these Sabhas and societies who raise the bogey of English would reveal quite another face.

Thus it is that now in the 1990s, the question of doing away with English still continues to haunt the nation. There are many who are on the either extreme -- some want to totally do away with it, while the others would like to retain it. The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle.

Undeniably, when English was introduced in the country in the early 19th century, the purposes were far from harmony with the ideals of the country today. Lord Macaulay introduced the teaching of English in India to produce what he called "a class of people Indian in blood and colour but English in opinion, in moral and in intellect." Post independent India naturally witnessed a great deal of anger against English since it was seen as a tool of oppression in the hands of the foreign oppressor. Perhaps much of it was also to do with hatred against the British rulers.

However, the role of English as a utility language not only in India but through out the world has since then become an acknowledged fact. According to a report, 20,000 new teachers of English are needed in Poland alone. The collapse of Soviet Russia has created a huge demand for English in nearly all countries in the Central and Eastern Europe, Vietnam and in some parts of South America and Africa. The eastern part of Germany is estimated to have nearly 17 million `new' learners of English, almost the entire student population in that part of the country. In Japan, English is today an "optionally compulsory" subject, being virtually the only language for all the 800 hours of foreign language slot in junior and senior secondary schools. In Austrian primary schools, since 1983 English is being taught as a "compulsory exercise". It is so in Switzerland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe too. English is the most popular foreign language in the entire European community which has officially eight languages.

Former French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies like Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Vietnam, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Mauritius, etc. have now taken the view that proficiency in English is important for success in international competition. The demand of English is also rising in Malaysia and Philippines in South East Asia, and in many countries of West Asia. The People's Republic of China has resumed the teaching of English and it is selling there in any channel - radio, television, correspondence or conventional classroom. The open classes there, supported by the British Council, has millions of students. There is no doubt that English is at present the lingua franca of our `global village'.

With in the country, despite its great opposition, English was adopted by the Constituent Assembly to continue as the `associate official language' for 15 years from the date of the adoption of the Constitution (that is, 1950) after which Hindi was to take over. However, in 1963 on vehement opposition to Hindi from South India, the Parliament enacted the official Languages Act providing for continued use of English for an indefinite period. In this connection, the views of Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru are worth quoting: "...English is likely to have an important place in the foreseeable future.

There are many important functions which English continues to perform in India today according to the reports of various commissions appointed by the Government to assess the role of English in India. The following pertinent conclusions can be drawn:

English is the language in which nearly all contemporary knowledge is accessible. It is the language of development. Obviously then, for healthy development in all fields of our national life, our scientists, technologists, doctors, engineers, agriculturists, economists and experts in numerous other fields must have access to the international professional literature in their respective fields, be able to contribute to it and exchange their views on important issues with their counterparts in other parts of the world. Most of these functions can, at present, be performed only through the medium of English and therefore it would not be wrong to say that it is our "window on the world".

English enjoys the status of the "associate official language" and the de facto link language in our country. It is the language favoured by the industrial houses, legal and banking systems, trade and commerce and defence.

English continues to be the medium of instruction at many post-graduate institutions, All India Institutes and other professional and technical institutions of higher learning. It is expected that English will continue to perform these functions for a long time to come. It is therefore necessary to provide facilities for learning English to those students who may want to pursue their higher studies at these institutions. The role of English as a "library language" cannot be undermined even where the medium of instruction is other than English.

At the individual level English serves as the "language of opportunity". Any individual seeking socio-economic development would find in English an asset.

English is essential for the purposes of translating the relevant texts from and into modern Indian languages.

English is required to exchange views on and gain from various international schools of thought, diverse cultures and world literature as well as also to interpret Indian thought abroad. Hence English is found essential in India for its utility value and not necessarily for the purposes for which the British had introduced it.

However, the role and functions of English vis--vis national/regional languages has to understood. While the important role English continues to play in post-independent India is accepted the role of ones mother tongue cannot be undermined. Mahatma Gandhi, though he himself wrote a great deal in English, also made a strong case for instruction through the mother tongue that is of paramount importance especially at the school level. He is on record having said, "I must cling to my mother tongue as to my mother's breast.... It alone can give me the life-giving milk."

However, love for our mother tongue should not prejudice us against other languages. Current linguistic research has proved that no language is superior to any other language. All human languages have similar potential. The growth and development of a language depends upon its use. In the present circumstances, it seems only right that as a citizen of the world, every one learns at least two languages - one's mother tongue and an international auxiliary tongue. Of course, the more languages one can learn, the better it is.

It is only right and just that most of the States of India should have adopted their regional languages as Official State languages and also as media of instruction till the graduation level. Unfortunately the official language of the country is still not been decided. As far English is concerned it is indisputably the national and international language for our country.

Language tensions are normal in a world where over 6,000 languages coexist in 160 countries, and it is all the more normal in a country like India where 880 million people use over 1,650 languages and dialects (as mother language) including more than 200 classified languages and 15 constitutionally recognised languages of national importance. English is not the cause of cultural insecurity or ethnic prejudices in India. It is no longer the foreign oppressor's language, nor is it the exclusive possession of the elitist; it has become the common property of millions of ordinary citizens.

(Also published in the Hindu, under the title 'A Window on the World?)'