Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Peculiar Problem Of English in India

It is a commonly held notion - by almost every section of our society - that English is a key to success - at least in Corporate India; that English education (especially the Public School variety, or the convent variety) is a pre-requisite. It is thought that English is a basic quality that is the key to unlocking doors as well as understanding complicated concepts and acquiring advanced skills. The importance of English, thus, is thought to be both in unlocking further doors, as well as acquiring skills that enable a person to succeed in life. 

Fine, List functions, roles, specific KRAs in your experience where English is mission critical - that cannot be outsourced to the secretarial staff. List the languages used in the normal course of business. Most of the times, it is a mix of local and English! So why the hullabuloo regarding English? And as regards English... who needs English? In 14 years, I am yet to conduct a single business deal in English. 14 years and 10 months, to be precise. All - repeat - All - my discussions have been in Hindi or even Marathi with bosses and channel alike. Why, then, is this notion? Does it have any connect with the reality?

Two, we get mails in English - but discuss them in our own language. Even in the Channel, even if our Channel Partner is educated (I have handled several CAs, one Major Industrialist as well as PhDs etc as partners), we speak in Hindi, or the local tongue. All the time, every time.  Why is this so? I repeat: in 15 years , I have not had one single full conversation on any topic in English. Not one single topic. If you want to do business in India, learn the local tongue, the local culture and the local habits. But does that mean we can jettison English?

Three, I have been a visiting faculty for Adverstising and Brand Management, and from that experience, let me clear one point. I have checked the study material and understanding of students, and those who dont perform have problems in English. They use vernacular material to study, while papers are in pure English! This, when they dont have any use of the English language in practical life outside some emails. Why on Earth are we trying to create rugby players out of people skilled in cricket? Teach 'em cricket! Talk to them in their language! Prima Facie, it seems that this proves the commonly held notion of English being a requirement of success; but the real problem here is not English, but something else; as I shall connect up later

Unless we attend to this fundamental dichotomy - hiring for English skills (that, by and large, dont exist) for a role that requires either local tongue, or some other skill, things will not change. Unless we understand that we are actually speaking in Hindi or local tongues, but writing in English, this argument will remain. But that is another story. It is easier to change our approach, which is manifestly incorrect!

This does not mean that we dont need English; we are a nation of several hundred tongues - Hindi, Punjabi, Kashmiri in the North; Bihari, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Manipuri, Naga in the East; Marathi, Guajarti in the West; Tamil, Kannada, Malayali, Telugu in the south alongside hundred of others. English is the only common language; English is the only link language - in fact, it can be said that English contributes to keeping us together and united, and helps us avoid Bangladesh-like risings - of which we have had one sample in 67, when we tried to enforce Hindi. In short, we need English as the link language. 

Further, the need for English cannot be underscored - as in some areas, English is a pre-requisite - like in International Trade, Business Process Outsourcing etc. Here, you do need proficiency in English - unlike other areas, where you only need a working knowledge at best. Please understand that I am restricting myself to the business atmosphere only; my focus in this article in Business and Indian Corporates. For people interested in Science and Technology, you can refer this discussion on LinkedIn, which discusses this threadbare, and has some industry experts partaking in: LinkedIn Discussion on English in Tech and Science

Thus, from the above we can see that while we need English, a few of us are not proficient in the language; and secondly, we have only a limited use of English, which is restricted to only written communication, and basic skills in understanding what is being said. First, let us attend to the question of why there is a need for written language skills in English. The answer is straightforward: English is the only possible script and language that is common across the land; there can be no other language that can fill the gap created by English - if it is abandoned. 

And in this, admittedly yes, quite a large number of students are lacking, as mentioned in the opening of the paragraph.  The reason is simple: not many parents can afford the costly education where you can acquire these skills. More than 75% of India resides in villages and small towns;and more than 75% dont earn enough to have their children sent to such schools. Quite simply put, this is a delivery gap of governmental educational services, which are shoddy at best, and pitiable at worst. 

In conclusion, it can be seen that English is a most peculiar problem in India : while at one level, we need it for integrity and continuity; at the other, it is the lack of proper education that is hindering a good number of our students. While at one level, it is a mission critical skill, at another level, it is only a basic skill since verbal communication is in the vernacular. While at one level, our students cannot afford access to good education, at another level, Industry bemoans lack of English skills. While at one level, we need people, at another level we cant hire them as they don’t have the skills! While at one level, it aids in keeping us one and united, at another level it is a significant challenge to our culture. While at one level, English speakers consider themselves a cut above – employing the language at every opportunity, at another level the local populace both wants to emulate while simultaneously belittling such anglicized people by the pejorative term “angrez”!

Why should we have an attitude of superiority if we speak English better, or are better educated – when this is largely because our parents had access to good education, and earned enough to put us through the same? And why should those who did not have this happy chance be left out? Thus, if you cannot afford a good education, will you be always on the periphery? This is what seems to be happening, since the consumption trends indicate that consumption of the bottom income layers has not gone up. This is more so, since in my experience, English is only a peripheral requirement in the large majority of functional roles, and that we need only a working knowledge of the same.

None of the questions I have asked above have easy answers; none of the questions above has any quick fix. These are hard realities, a fundamental dichotomy that lies at the core of our national identity. We are, essentially, by-and-large, a tri-lingual people – English, Mother Tongue, and Hindi. Till such time as this is resolved, and a local link language emerges, these questions and problems will remain. What we can do is change our outlook – hire people who are good at communication, and have the required level of skills in English for the role in question…

This is not an article which suggests solutions, or makes grandiose statements, or suggests a one solution fits all type panacea. I cannot state the impossible; such is the peculiar nature of the English Problem in India. The same language that is linking the diverse groups in our country together, is also  the target of much innuendo in the cultural sphere as well as in the skills sphere. The gaps are vast, and they exist on both sides – while we need to change our approach, attitude, and drop our  superiority complexes towards English on one side; we also need to improve education! There are no solutions; only questions. Perhaps, the answers lie in the distant future… 

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