India must shed intellectual colonialism to excel in science and technology
There is a major power imbalance in the world, which comes from the language that dominates the world of discovery, innovation, and science and technology. Today, that language is English. The intellectual domination of the West comes from the building of communities whose power comes from their deep connection with their native language. The language which they use to think, dream and shape the world is their own. This results in ideas that can change the world. If you do not use or have a mastery over your native language in science and technology, then, mere facility makes you a great follower and never a leader.
While overthrowing political and economic colonialism, we have failed to overthrow intellectual colonialism. In making English the sole language of intellectual discourse in science and technology in India, we have lost on many fronts. First, exceptions aide, as a community even our best institutions can never lead globally if English is the only language of high-level intellectual discourse. Our best minds will merely be eloquent paraphrasers of the ideas of others. Second, we close opportunities in intellectual leadership to huge sections of our population. In other words, as intellectuals we cannot be the best in the world. In addition to this, we lock the doors to even the second- level positions we occupy as elites. One of the many consequences of this is a poor connection of professional leadership with our society. Thus, we fail in being great intellectuals, we exclude and do not share a sense of purpose for society. In turn, our society responds to this elitism by undervaluing learning and the intellectual enterprise.
There have been many examples of countries which have successfully addressed the twin-challenges of developing communities of intellectual leaders in science and technology and are yet deeply rooted in using their native language for churning ideas. In Germany, science students would have had their principal language as German and yet be fluent in English. Many of the best German labs are international and the language of discourse may well be in English, yet, the advantage that comes from the ability that German scientists have to think in their native language, in the most advanced scientific subjects, is not small. Conversely, no country, including India, that has chosen English as its primary language of scientific discourse, ignoring its local languages, has become an intellectual powerhouse.
Whenever there is a discussion on this subject, two arguments are made against university education in one’s native language. The first is that English is necessary in today’s world, which is valid. The answer is not to diminish English, but to enhance the use of one’s native language at every level. The second argument is that the task is impossible to implement. This argument is both a cop-out and false. It is a cop-out because not taking this up forever makes us an intellectual vassal-state, while maintaining an elite that is both dysfunctional and disinterested. The argument is false because the task is entirely feasible with focus and investment.
What, then, is to be done? Currently, the bulk of our college education in science and technology is notionally in English whereas the bulk of our high-school education is in the local language. Science courses in college are thus accessible largely to the urban population and even when this happens, education is effectively, neither of quality in English nor communicated as translations of quality in the classroom. Starting with the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Nayodya Vidyalayas as test-arenas, we can ensure the training of teachers so that students in high-school are simultaneously taught in both their native language and in English. This already happens informally, but its needs formalisation. The student should be free to take exams in either language or indeed use a free-flowing mix. This approach should be steadily ramped up and used in all our best educational institutions in college and then scaled to be used more widely. Public and private colleges, in STEM subjects, for example, can lead and make bi-lingual professional education, attractive and economically viable. Technology, can of course assist implementation, but the primary driver is a will to change.
Our international partners envy the facility many Indians have with English. Without losing this, we must also have the ability to think deeply about complex and difficult subjects at the level of the best in the world. This can come only when communities in Rajasthan, Kerala or Odisha can wield, in their minds, their respective languages in the frontier areas of science the way in which the French, the Dutch or the Germans do. We should not conflate the use of English as the vehicle for communication and commerce with the use of language as the basis for the power of ideas.
K VijayRaghavan is secretary, department of biotechnology, ministry of science and technology, and former director of The National Centre for Biological Sciences
The views expressed are personal