One area where India always outperformed China, with whom we can never resist measuring ourselves, was in English proficiency. It was with glee that we could point out how Indians were ahead of the Chinese in the IT and IT-enabled services sector, which also brought a fair measure of prosperity as call centres proliferated. Indians with their greater familiarity with English were much quicker to take advantage of the opportunities in the services sector in a globalising economy. But in what should come as a wake-up call, a new report says English language proficiency among the Chinese improved significantly in the past one year while India’s ranking among non-English speaking countries that use the language dropped a couple of notches. China rose eight ranks to be placed 39th among 72 countries, while India went down by two ranks and is now 20th, says the report on English proficiency prepared by the Swedish education company Education First. The report is based on the EF Standard English Test results of 950,000 adults from 72 countries and regions.
While we need not resort to hand-wringing that all is lost on the basis of one report, there are other worrying markers. The RSS and its affiliates, and several regional parties who thrive by inflaming parochial passions, have been aggressively pushing for education in the mother tongue, Sanskrit or Hindi. Macaulay putras is their derisive term for people they see as the English-educated elite. The 19th century English administrator TB Macaulay may have promoted English education in India to serve the colonial enterprise better, and may have been dismissive of Indians and their languages, but it cannot be denied that India and Indians benefited from the spread of English.
It can even be argued that English, which serves as the link language, helps preserve the unity of a country that resembles the Tower of Babel with its multiple languages and even more numerous local dialects. It can be nobody’s case that local languages should be ignored and allowed to die. India is home to two of the great mother languages of the world – Sanskrit and Tamil – and has given birth to several more.
And it is up to governments and educationists to promote India’s rich literary traditions, but does it have to be at the cost of English? Isn’t English too an Indian language now? Why would we want to lose the edge our bright young minds have in competing on the global stage, whether in academia or the world of business and commerce where more and more Indians are coming into their own? We should aggressively promote English in tune with the aspirations of millions of Indians.