Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Language of Colonization

By Girisha AroraPublished January 1, 2017

English as a language in India still serves as a reminder of colonial oppression - even after 70 years of independence.It is causing a neo-castist divide which can only be sought to removed if all languages were to be allowed to develop equally.

By Girisha Arora

India as a country, nearly seven decades after independence from British colonial rule claims to be the second-largest English speaking country in the world. Ten percent of the country's population is considered proficient in the language. These "fortunate few" are the elitists of the country — the government, the bureaucracy and the wealthier classes. The question posed to this developing nation is simple — why does India not follow a policy similar to China's where the national language is also the language of the government? Why instead, must it publish notices, issue drivers' licenses, manufacture medicine labels, all in a language which is a continued symbol of its colonial masters and which 90 percent of the community does not understand?

Mr. Aatish Taseer of the New York Times interviewed two students of the Banaras Hindu University when he was writing a feature on how English has ruined Indian literature .  The first was a student by the name of Vishal Singh who was pursuing a degree in a combination of social sciences- history, psychology and sociology and who had all his classes taught in English. However, on striking a conversation with him, Mr.Taseer  found that this student was unable to string together more than a single sentence of coherent English. When asked how being taught entirely in a language which he had no grasp over himself had any benefit — Singh informed him that if after his three years of college, he was able to pass off with a few English sentences, he would be able to get any job he wanted. The reason for this is simple. In India — the knowledge of English, the language of the elite translates to power.

The other student who Mr. Taseer met, Sheshamuni Shukla,  had been studying Sanskrit and classical grammar for the last decade. In comparison to the first student, Shukla found himself to be powerless. He had a great mastery over Hindi and this skill could have possibly allowed him to get respected positions in other countries, but in India the best job opportunity he probably had was as a teacher or a clerk at an office.

This social construct surrounding English has led to a cultural divide which is so vast that it leaves a lot of Indians still feeling as if even after 70 years of independence, they are still a colonial outpost.

This phenomenon is widespread and hence the strongest advocates for an English education in India are those who are from the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, presently being educated in Hindi or their vernacular language. It is true that in a country where there are nearly a 150 different languages spoken, English does serve as a lingua franca. The root problem is that instead of just learning English, Indians believe that their best interests lie in learning English exclusively as a first language.

To argue that English should not be taught in India is foolish. Instead what is being argued here is that there is no reason for Indians to not be fluent in English if it is taught to them as a second language from their early years with their vernacular language or Hindi being the dominant language they are taught in throughout. This is the policy being followed in nations like Sweden, Germany, Japan, Thailand, Greece, Finland, Italy, and Egypt. By following this policy India will be able to use a language like English to govern inter-state and state-center relations but for within a state the vernacular can be used, allowing each Indian to have the advantage of being bilingual and even trilingual in some cases.  

The problem with India is its characteristic diversity. Due to this, there has always been opposition to the imposition of a single language on the entirety of the country. Recent efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to spread the use of Hindi in the bureaucracy was met by protests stating that it went against the Official Languages Act of 1960 and hence had to be repealed. The only solution to this problem is what has been mentioned above — allow all languages to develop equally so that there is no linguistic barrier in correspondence to the socioeconomic structures and hence no resultant neo caste system.  
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