From 1857, when English was introduced by the Imperial Government as the only medium of education, the English language has played a significant role in the lives of Indian people. After a long struggle by national leaders, in the 1920s, the British rulers reluctantly permitted school education through the medium of Indian languages (designated as vernaculars). In 1947 when India gained independence from the British rule, English was to have been replaced by national languages. Yet, in the Indian Constitution, English found a significant place. In the last 60 years, English has continued to dominate Indian political, educational and social realities. In the present globalizing world, English has become an important ingredient in the economic development scenario. The introduction of English to the Indian linguistic landscape opened with the dawn of the British colonial era, English began to develop roots in Indian education. More than one and a half centuries later, English has overcome its status as merely the language of the colonial power and has become an integral part of the Indian linguistic variety.
Contrary to the most popular pre-independence consensus, that Hindi would over power the English language after independence, English has not only continued to flourish in the educational and official network of India but has also become one of the official languages of the nation and thus continues to enjoy the support of the Indian elite. English is used extensively in education, law, government, media, science, and technology. Although it is widely spoken as a second or third language, only a tiny minority of the population has English as a first language or mother tongue. But despite all that, English is incredibly important in India and is spoken by more people here than in any other country in the world except for the USA and the UK.As in many parts of the world the English language is followed by the businessmen, soldiers and missionaries who colonized India. To help British interests in the colony there was a policy to create an Indian administrative class. People who should think like the British, or as it was said then in Britain “Indians in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions and morals and intellect.” The key was education.
Indian administrators were sent to British universities to be trained. In the missionary schools the lessons took place in English. And in the universities built by the British in India the language of instruction was also English. By the end of the 19th century when India was the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, fluent English was seen as the key to success and the new native elite had to speak it well. In the 1981 census, 202,400 persons gave English as their first language. Less than 1 percent gave English as their second language while 14 percent were reported as bilingual in two of India’s many languages. However, the census did not allow for recording more than one second language and is suspected of having significantly underrepresented bilingualism and multilingualism. The 1981 census reported 13.3 percent of the population as bilingual. The People of India project of the Anthropological Survey of India, which assembled statistics on communities rather than on individuals, found that only 34 percent of communities reported themselves as monolingual.
It is suspected that many people identify language with literacy and hence will not describe themselves as knowing a language unless they can read it and, conversely, may say they know a language if they can make out its alphabet. Thus people who speak English but are unable to read or write it may say they do not know the language. “Is this English language in India a boon or a burden?”In higher education, English continues to be the premier prestige language. Careers in business and commerce, government positions of high rank and science and technology continue to require fluency in English. It is also necessary for the many students who contemplate study overseas. English as a prestige language and the tongue of first choice continues to serve as the medium of instruction in elite schools at every level without apology. All large cities and many smaller cities have private, English-language middle schools and high schools. Even government schools run for the benefit of senior civil service officers are conducted in English because only that language is an acceptable medium of communication throughout the nation.
Working-class parents, themselves rural-urban migrants and perhaps bilingual in their village dialect and the regional standard language, perceive English as the tool their children need in order to advance. Schools in which English is the medium of instruction are a “growth industry.” Facility in English enhances a young woman’s chances in the marriage market. The English speaker also encounters more courteous responses in some situations than does a speaker of an indigenous language. English, of course, is very important as a foreign language but in India, it is hardly treated as such. We teach English as if it were our mother tongue – blindly following the curriculum adopted during the Viceroy days. For example, students are asked to explain the meaning of English verses with-reference-to-the-context at a time when they are barely able to express their most simple thoughts in properly formed English sentences. What an odd and inefficient method of teaching a foreign language! In the major cities of India, there are schools where foreign languages like French and German are taught. In such schools, the emphasis is always on grammar and on enhancing the vocabulary.
Students learn to converse and comprehend these languages without studying any literary pieces. This is how English, too, is taught in other non-English-speaking countries around the world. But in India, we insist on following the British way of teaching English which is fine for someone living in London and wastes immense amounts of time and energy of students, with so little to show for their efforts. The people who wish to promote English even further are the same people who get elated talking about the 200-million-strong emerging upper-middle class in India. What about the rest 800 million? Is there some yet to be disclosed plan somewhere to push them into the Indian Ocean? If we were to think about India as a nation, we must concern ourselves with the disadvantaged majority and this populace would never have a “level playing field” in terms of opportunities in life, as long as a foreign language remains the medium of governance and of superior education.
And even the success of the English speaking top tier of our society pales in comparison to achievements of similar segments of East Asian nations. The yoke of English is by no means the sole cause of the present sorry state of our motherland, but it certainly is a major component that wastes resources, hampers advancement for the vast majority and contributes to socio-economic disparity in the nation. No one can accuse us of being backward-minded or of being unable to speak English when English is a major part of Indian society. Like every coin has two sides so also the influence of The English Language on India has its pros and cons. As an Indian it’s our duty to take advantage of the pros and turn the cons also into pros so we can make full use of the language and lead our country on the path of development.