To liberate Indians from self-imposed colonial shackles.
A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a college in Gurgaon in Haryana, India, when a young student raised her hand. Urvashi was visibly nervous; I could see that it took a lot of courage for her to speak up in Hindi. “Where can I take computer classes in Hindi-medium?” she asked. I had no proper answer, but I had come across similar questions in rural settings, though not in the heart of the neo-urban metropolis of Gurgaon. On the one hand, we credit India’s success in software to our knowledge of English, on the other we fret about India’s relatively low level of Internet penetration relative to China. Looking beyond English in India provides opportunities to social and business entrepreneurs alike. But first we must take off our English tinted glasses.
A recent Supreme Court judgment on the Right to Education Act suggested that we are falling behind China since “children in China are learning English”. This is a fallacy—the Chinese may be learning English but they are not switching their medium to English—all higher education takes place in Chinese. The obsession with English-medium education, particularly for technical and higher studies, is keeping millions of Indian children behind. The top business and professional schools in India remain English-based—their entrance exams are not only in English but specifically test English-language skills. A child in China, or for that matter, Japan or South Korea, does not have to deal with debilitating switch in medium to go to engineering, medical or business school. Yet, this has not prevented these countries from creating some of the largest multinationals in the world—all on the basis of higher education in local languages of higher education in local languages. As demand for education in the rural and semi- urban markets picks up, it is worth remembering that only four of the richest 20 economies in the world, by highest per-capita income, are English-based. Universal education, not English-medium, is what gives China the advantage over India. Over 300 million people use the Internet in China—in Mandarin.
It is also a fallacy that our software success is built on knowledge of English. Israel’s population is half of Delhi’s, yet its software exports rival our own. It is true that many people in Israel do know English, though not many know it well. When I was a manager for Microsoft visiting my team in Haifa, I was surprised to find that the medium of communication—written and oral—within the Microsoft Israel office was Hebrew. In this office of a major multinational, internal communications were all in Hebrew, as is Technion, Israel’s top engineering college. A culture that values knowledge—similar to that in India—not the medium of education, has driven Israel to create some of the most innovative software companies in the world.
However, every mismatched supply-demand situation creates an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Here are some obvious ones. The first is there is a market for technical education in Indian languages that is under-served. Some weeks ago someone from Tamil Nadu sent me a proposal for creating technical education institutes. “Make sure you offer Tamil-medium,” I suggested. While initially these classes may need to have lower fees, over time there is a much larger base of students to tap. It is up to us to respond to that opportunity once we start looking beyond English.
The second opportunity is in hiring. When I was working at Microsoft, Redmond, we flew software engineers from as far away as Russia for interviews. Some of these people did not speak a word of English—I interviewed them through interpreters and they were some of the best hires I made.
Yet, in India, we may overlook talent if we insist on conducting interviews for technical candidates only in English, rather than the language they would be most comfortable speaking. The goal—to evaluate them based on their technical proficiency, rather than their knowledge of English.
The third opportunity is to spread back office operations from the large cities to smaller towns and semi-rural settings, affording lower cost and access to a broader talent base. Again, flexibility and openness about language use will allow this opportunity to be tapped. If specific language skills are required, these can be imparted as part of on-the-job. Why restrict ourselves to the English opportunity alone? BPO and call centres from France to Japan beckon. The opportunity to get a complete education in our mother tongues, combined with the ability to learn any language as a skill as needed, will bring greater, more-broad based economic opportunities and liberate us from self-imposed colonial shackles of English. This will help to propel us towards a developed economy—and lift all entrepreneur boats—in which every Urvashi can participate.
© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.