The English Class System

Is English medium education helping in India’s economic progress or does it hold India back? Also see bhashaneeti.org for a new language policy for India.

SOUTH ASIAN LANGUAGE REVIEW

VOL.XVII. No. 1, January 2007
Original PDF of the article:The English Class System

  1. English-medium education and economic good

The language policy debate in India has centered on two issues—of a common national language or link language and of the language formula to be adopted in primary and secondary education. The debate about the common national language has often split between those that advocate Hindi and those that support English as this common language. The Hindi advocates base their plea on cultural and nationalistic reasons while the English supporters base their stance on pragmatism – arguing for the economic necessity and global inevitability of English use.

Two aspects of English adoption and usage have, however, not received sufficient academic attention. While mounds of printed material have been produced on caste hierarchy in India; the English language class hierarchy, commonly encountered in everyday urban India, has hardly merited academic attention. The relative scarcity of studies of the sociology of the English-based Class System in India—social stratification based on knowledge of English and spoken English “accents”—with corresponding social differentiation and discrimination—is striking.

Secondly, while English medium education has been vaguely related to economic good there is little scientific research that actually establishes the causality of English medium education and economic good. For instance, does the spread of English-medium education in India help or hinder GDP growth? While there are numerous studies that attempt to relate literacy rates and universal primary education with economic good, there are scarcely any that specifically look at the medium of instruction and its relationship to other economic data.

This article makes some preliminary observations on these two aspects of English-education in India with the hope that it may be a catalyst for more rigorous appraisals of these questions.

1.1 The economics of language

When English becomes the official language of a country, does it help or hinder economic progress? To study how economics impacts language, we compared countries by GNP and official language – and came up with some surprising results.

Let us take a look at the top and bottom countries in the world by GNP per capita and examine its correlation with official language. In using per capita measures countries with a very small population may lead to less meaningful results, so we filtered out countries with populations less than 5 million. Then, we sorted the results by per capita GNP and looked at the top 20 and the bottom 20 countries.

1.1.1 Twenty Richest

Table 1 Richest countries by GNP per capita*

Rank

Country

GNP per capita ($)

Mass Language(s)

Official Language(s)

1 Switzerland

38,380

German/French/Italian German/French/Italian
2 Denmark

32,050

Danish Danish
3 Japan

32,030

Japanese Japanese
4 United States

31,910

English English
5 Sweden

26,750

Swedish Swedish
6 Germany

25,620

German German
7 Austria

25,430

German German
8 Netherlands, The

25,140

Dutch Dutch
9 Finland

24,730

Finnish Finnish
10 Belgium

24,650

Dutch/French Dutch/French
11 France

24,170

French French
12 United Kingdom

23,590

English English
13 Australia

20,950

English English
14 Italy

20,170

Italian Italian
15 Canada

20,140

English/French English/French
16 Israel

16,310

Hebrew Hebrew
17 Spain

14,800

Spanish Spanish
18 Greece

12,110

Greek Greek
19 Portugal

11,030

Portugese Portugese
20 South Korea

8,490

Korean Korean
*Population greater than 5 million only1 Raw Data Source: Encarta Encyclopedia

The mass language(s) in this table is the identified first language of the most numerous groupings of people. There is a wide variety of languages found in this list, dominated by European languages. More pertinently, in none of the top 20 richest countries is the language of official business (and the primary medium of education at all levels) different than the native language used by the general population. In cases like Switzerland, which has multiple common languages, the medium of primary education follows the dominant linguistic group on a per-canton level with multiple official languages reflecting the major linguistic groups, without an inherent class structure privileging a colonial language. Also, in all of the countries above, the highest level of education is available in the mass languages. The pursuit of higher studies proceeds perfectly well in a large number of non-English native languages, since only 4 out of the top 20 countries of the world ranked by GNP per capita have English-based systems. The top 20 are also not restricted to European languages alone – Japan and Korea have done perfectly well economically by using their native languages as the medium of education, including in the sciences, over choosing a non-mass language such as English. Switzerland and Israel are both multi-lingual countries, but different significantly from India in that they do not suffer from a similar class system and perceived superiority of a foreign language, spoken only by a minority of people. The case of Israel’s choice of language is particularly illuminating and we shall look at it in greater detail further on.

1.1.2 The twenty poorest

Let us look now at the other table, the 20 poorest countries in the world.

Table 2 Poorest countries by GNP per capita*

Rank

Country

GNP per capita ($)

Mass Language(s)

Official Language(s)

1 Congo (DRC)

100

Lingala, Kingwana French
2 Ethiopia

100

Amharic Amharic
3 Burundi

120

Kirundi, Swahili French, Kirundi
4 Sierra Leone

130

Mende, Temne, Krio English
5 Malawi

180

Chichewa English/Chichewa
6 Niger

190

Hausa, Djerma French
7 Chad

210

Sara, Arabic French/Arabic
8 Mozambique

220

Emakhuwa, Xichangana Portugese
9 Nepal

220

Nepali Nepali
10 Mali

240

Bambara French
11 Burkina Faso

240

Sudanic languages French
12 Rwanda

250

Kinyarwanda Kinyarwanda/French/English
13 Madagascar

250

Malagasy French/Malagasy
14 Cambodia

260

Khmer Khmer/French
15 Tanzania

260

Swahili English/Swahili
16 Nigeria

260

Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo English
17 Angola

270

Bantu Portugese
18 Laos

290

Lao Lao/French/English
19 Togo

310

Ewe, Mina, Kabiye, Dagomba French
20 Uganda

320

Ganda, Luganda English
*Population greater than 5 million only2 Raw Data Source: Encarta Encyclopedia, World Factbook

We find many of the same European languages in this table as in the table of the richest countries. The difference, of course, is obvious. In over half of these twenty countries the common languages used by the people are not even recognized as official languages. Even when they are officially recognized, such as Chichewa is in Malawi, official business and higher education is often conducted in the colonial language. For instance, The University of Malawi, is the foremost university in Malawi among the total of just four major universities in the country. On its website it lists the requirements for the University Entrance examination that is “used to examine the students’ aptitude for university work.”3 The first criterion it lists is “Language skills”, explaining that this is used to “measure students’ aptitude in English Language Skills.” Apparently university aptitude can only be demonstrated by knowledge of English—those fluent in Chichewa, the “official” language of the country and that of the common people, need not apply. The University of Malawi website does not even mention Chichewa anywhere in its contents.

By contrast, Technion, in Israel is one of the foremost technical institutes in the world. Its website clearly states4:

“The lingua franca of the country is Hebrew and this is also the language of instruction at the Technion. … Visiting Students accepted for Winter or Spring teaching semester programs should attend the Technion’s intensive five week Hebrew language course (‘Ulpan’) before they begin their studies.” (emphasis in original)

Technion is a world-class institute of technology, yet it strongly promotes Hebrew medium education. Israel is one of the top twenty countries in per capita GNP and a leading technology state. Yet the poorest countries have internalized this fallacious notion that English, and English alone, is the path to development.

The vast majority of the list of the poorest countries in this table has a class system similar to the one in India, where the language and culture of the colonial masters is considered superior to the native languages. Much of higher education, business, government and judiciary are transacted in this colonial language, often different from the languages spoken inside the home by the majority of people. The elite attend “colonial-medium” schools and use those terms and concepts to understand their own experience and those of the “natives” that they look down upon.

Note that there are 6 countries in this list of poorest 20 countries which have their official language—and that of higher education—as English, while this was the case only in 4 among the richest.

1.2 What does this data say?

We are not suggesting that all these countries are poor simply because of this language class-separation. Correlation does not establish causality. To look at the direct causality we may not need to look far — 19 out of these 20 poorest countries were colonies of exploitation by European powers, the 20th being a protectorate. That is undoubtedly one of the important casual factors.

Nonetheless in this study of colonization, studying the slavery of language, with its resultant class-separation and long-term economic and social consequences, is clearly an important issue. This language-based class separation hurts the people in multiple ways: (1) It privileges a foreign culture over the native culture, thus eroding self-esteem and a basic belief in people. (2) It disconnects the intellectual and policy discourse of the country, often carried out in the colonial language using a colonial worldview, from broad participation by the people. (3) It imposes the cost of re-education of an entire population into a different language for the purpose of higher studies, thus creating a glass ceiling for progress for those educated in the native languages, and it hold up the colonized elite classes as the standards for the rest to aspire to.

What is more remarkable, however, is the paucity of analysis on this subject. There is a sense of inevitability among the elite regarding the adoption of English. Even India’s recent economic growth and the success of its software industry have often been linked to the adoption of English.

1.3 Is business and professional success linked to English?

English-medium education is often touted as one of India’s competitive advantages and a reason for its recent economic progress. These pronouncements parade as obvious truths, so obvious that no study need be done to establish their basis in fact.

Is global business success linked to the knowledge of English? Hardly. If the economic tables presented earlier do not raise serious doubt on this account, let us examine a few specific examples.

The major East Asian economies—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—are all non-English speaking. Business schools, just like other higher education in these countries, are conducted in Japanese, Korean and Chinese, not in English. Yet these countries have produced global multi-nationals in everything from automobiles to consumer electronics—Honda, Toyota, Sony, Samsung and numerous others. Of the top 1000 companies in Asia 792 are from these 3 countries (India has 20) with combined sales of nearly 4.5 trillion dollars (India’s combined total is not even 2% of these).

A child from a village in Japan, South Korea or Taiwan can aspire to be a doctor, an engineer or a business leader without having a debilitating forced language medium shift for higher education. This allows the talents of the entire nation to be harnessed, unlike in countries with a high degree of language-class separation. In a recent study of village schools in India, we found a school in the village of Khandodra in Haryana where nearly 33% of the children in the school scored above the 90th percentile on the intelligence test that we administered. The children were all studying in Hindi medium. The principal of that school described the debilitating effects of the transition to English based higher education on these talented kids. He spoke about the issues of language – “Hamara grameen kshetra hai – agar higher education se touch hai tab hi baccha safal ho payega. Jab vo 8th class pass karta hai, 10th tak jata hai, usme English ki aisi ek heen bhavana aa jati hai, ki upar jata hai—competition mein bhi English medium hai.” (Ours is a rural area; to succeed these children need to be in touch with higher education. However when the child passes 8th class, goes into 10th, he experiences a feeling of inferiority in dealing with English; to go higher the competition is in English).

Similarly, the idea that India’s software success is due to the knowledge of English bears examining. If it were true, then English-speaking countries must display this advantage consistently. In particular, countries like Kenya, with comparable histories to India of colonization, an English-based colonial class system and a large English work force, must also be disproportionately successful in software. This turns out to not be the case. Furthermore, this theory also fails to explain why Israel, which follows largely Hebrew and Arabic-medium schooling, is a notable software success.

People in Israel migrated from all parts of the world in the twentieth century. These people spoke many different languages, yet Israel chose Hebrew, not English as their official language, reviving for modern times what had been declare a “dead” or classical language. This would be the equivalent of India choosing Sanskrit as its official and link language, instead of the colonial choice of English.

For all its heralded software India’s software exports totaled $6.5 billion (2001 figures). Israel, a country with a population less than a hundredth of India (in fact, less than half of New Delhi’s population) had software exports of over $2.5 billion in the same period. It is worth noting that Technion, one of the world’s premier engineering institutions is Hebrew medium. When I visited the Microsoft campus in Haifa, Israel I was surprised to find that they used Hebrew-based keyboards and used Hebrew as the language of communication within the Microsoft office.

As a software manager for Microsoft, I often flew in and interviewed candidates from across the world in an unending quest for talent. Some of the people I sought out were flown in from Russia—and they were certainly not hired for the knowledge of English. In many cases, their knowledge of English was so rudimentary that I arranged for a Russian speaker to interview them. They turned out to be some of the best software engineers I hired.

With India’s fixation on English-based higher education, it is able to leverage the talent of a far smaller percentage of its population. Thus India acts like a country with a talent pool which is less than a tenth of its population. The bright children from the village of Khandodra in Haryana, invariably hit against the glass ceiling of English in their quest for technical and professional education in India. This is not because of some kind of professional inevitability of English use, but a direct result of official state policy.

The Common Admission Tests for entrance to the Indian Institutes of Management is not only in English medium but English language verbal ability and reading comprehension form a significant proportion of the test. English is mandatory to be a lawyer or judge in the state High Courts or the Supreme Court in India. To become a doctor or an engineer, the best state-funded institutions remain exclusively English medium. English remains a mandatory qualifying subject for the Civil Service Examinations that selects India’s bureaucrats.

Thus the English Class System exists not only in the social domain but as state policy. The message is clear and consistent. Indian languages are “lower”, English is “higher”. You can practice in lower courts in Indian languages, but high courts require English. You can become an ordinary soldier or jawan in the army by giving the test in an Indian language. To become an officer, the test is in English.

The colonial mindset and discourse transforms officially sanctioned discrimination and the class hierarchy of language into narratives of the global “inevitability” and the natural superiority of English. To argue otherwise would be to argue for backwardness over progress; for trenchant nationalism (or regionalism) over obvious economic good. Yet this economic good is far from obvious. Imposing a mandatory language shift for higher education for the vast majority of Indians has significant economic costs—it fails to develop the talent of vast numbers of Indians for the new economy and becomes a severe axis of discrimination and continued impoverishment. English, then, can be more accurately identified as the language of India’s backwardness rather than as its progress.

1.4 Conclusion

English adoption has often been decried for its cultural costs in the extermination of native languages. However its use has often been justified on pragmatic economic grounds. Quite apart from the cultural devastation in the wide-spread adoption of a foreign language, the economic basis of the argument for English education needs to be examined with greater skepticism.

The advocacy of English often relies on arguments of the “inevitability” of its adoption for development and progress. Part II of this essay examines the relationship of these arguments of inevitability to the hierarchical English Class System prevalent in Indian society as well as its historical origins.

2. English in India: the colonial mind

“In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities that make up Kenya – we associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under-development, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment”. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.

The Indian intellectual elites and bureaucracy, often schooled in English-medium schools and colleges, are taken by the “obvious inevitability” of English-medium professional and higher education. The facts enumerated in the previous sections are not hard to find. Yet, the very idea that someone would become a competent doctor, engineer or business professional studying in Hindi or Tamil medium just as they can in Japanese, Hebrew or even Turkish seems somewhat inconceivable in contemporary Indian discourse.

This notion of the superiority of English also holds sway in Indian social interactions where the “accent” of spoken English has become a key marker in the social hierarchy. “Convent-school” English accent is the highest in this totem pole, followed by “less-refined” private or government school English, down to those that are uncomfortable in the English idiom—and are easily condemned as uncivilized or illiterate. College graduates without “convent-school” English that I interviewed complained of this bias in the job market; even though they may be quite competent in performing the required job. Not surprisingly then, there is a spiraling demand for English and “convent” education. As we discussed in Part I, at least some of this demand is unnaturally created—with explicit bias in state policy in favor of English language higher education.

To be clear the issue is not about learning English or even speaking it well. The problem arises when medium of education itself is switched from the common mass-languages to English; when spoken English accents become a marker of class hierarchy; and where pervasive bias exists in professional and higher education as well as in the job market against the mass languages. While the Japanese may queue up to learn English as a second or third language for the sake of business or travel or to feed their fascination with America, English speaking does not become a social class marker in interaction within Japanese society; nor do they turn English learning into a whole-scale shift of higher and professional education into English medium.

2.1 The “Masks of Conquest”

Historically, India had very well developed systems of education and written and oral literatures in Indian languages. In pre and early British times, according to data painstakingly collected from colonial sources by Dharampal in his book, “The Beautiful Tree”, primary, secondary and higher education were widely prevalent in India. Based on a detailed examination of early British records available for Madras, for instance, Dharampal(1995: 20) concludes that “School attendance especially in the districts of the Madras Presidency, even in the decayed state of the period 1822-25, was proportionately far higher than the numbers in all varieties of schools in England in 1800. The conditions in which teaching took place in the Indian schools were less dingy and more natural; and, it was observed, the teachers in the Indian schools were generally more dedicated and sober than in the English versions.” Colleges used regional languages as well as Sanskrit and Persian; higher education included studies in subjects such as Medical Sciences, Astronomy and Law.

How then did we come to acquire a picture of our educational backwardness and the backwardness and unsuitability of Indian languages for higher and professional education? Gauri Vishawanathan of Columbia University, in her book “Masks of Conquest”, has done a study of the establishment of English language and literature in India. The establishment of the English-speaking elite in India took a 3-pronged approach:

  1. The destruction and/or denigration of native education
  2. The requirement of English for becoming part of the governing elite
  3. The establishment of English only, i.e. English medium schools, along with the cessation of teaching English as a language in native-language schools.

The languages and literature of a nation is a major carrier of its culture. In turning a nation away from their languages and literature, the colonial encounter bred ignorance and contempt of the native experience, while placing the idea of the “perfect” Englishman, carried through the English literature, on the native pedestal. This created a class of native “brown sahibs” more comfortable with the English idiom and values than with their own and the establishment of a literary and cultural elite that identified with the English and looked down upon the non-English speaking “natives” as Englishmen would.

“Charles Trevelyan, brother-in-law of Macaulay and one-time president of the General Council of Public Instruction, proudly exclaimed that the educated Indians “speak purer English than we speak ourselves, for they take it from the purest models, they speak the language of the Spectator, such English as is never spoken in England.” If Calcutta citizens spoke the language of the Spectator, it was by no means accidental, for editors of Calcutta journals and newspapers deliberately wrote in an Addisonian style under names like “Candidus,” “Verax’ “Oneiropolos,” and “Flaccus’ and on subjects having not the remotest bearing on Indian life, such as the fashions of the day in England, and on imagination, etiquette and morality.”(Viswanathan, 1998:115)

The same slavishness, in different form and degrees is to be observed amongst the “convent-educated” classes and English-language writers in India today. When many English-language writers present the Indian experience, it is often presented like exotic anthropology, looking down from above on native customs, completing the slavery of the mind.

The aim of English education was manifold – one was to secure a “buffer zone” of trained bureaucrats who could be controlled and who would rule over the masses, and further more to use education as a means of establishing intellectual hegemony over this class by a mix of denigrating and exoticizing the native culture – more importantly, to have this elite class identify with the values of the conquerors rather than the conquered.

The extent to which this mission succeeded in the formation of the present-day elite makes for a fascinating study. Some “Orientalists” protested against the extinction of native state literatures, and the explicit creation of a language-based caste-hierarchy, based on state policy:

“By annihilating native literature, by sweeping away from all sources of pride and pleasure in their own mental efforts, by rendering a whole people dependent upon a remote and unknown country for all their ideas and for the very words in which to clothe them, we should degrade their character, depress their energies and render them incapable of aspiring to any intellectual distinction.” 5

Nonetheless, the Orientalists, despite their professed study of Indian literature were equally complicit in establishing British hegemony. According to Vishwanathan(1998:167), “… a curriculum may incorporate systems of learning of a sub-ordinate population and still be an instrument of hegemonic activity… both the Anglicist and the Orientalist factions were equally complicit in the project of domination, British Indian education having been conceived in India as part and parcel of the act of securing and consolidating power.”

Note that British administrators forbade the teaching of English as a language outside of English-medium schools. By the 1835 English Education act, the teaching of English was taken out of native language schools – because learning English as a language, while retaining the native medium of education would allows the natives to understand the British on their own (native) terms. This is because a native brought up thinking in their own language and merely learning English as a foreign language, would be able to objectively study the British, outside of the colonial framework presented to them as objective and neutral. Thus the change of medium, and the establishment in the native mind of an English based class structure,
was a necessary part of the colonizing mission.

2.2 The role of the contemporary Indian University System

The establishment by the British of colleges and universities, organized on the lines of the London University, for training an intellectual class in the colonizer’s worldview was very much part of the colonizing mission. Macaulay’s successor, Charles Cameron who campaigned vigorously for a centralized university system, “went so far as to call for the total exclusion of the classical languages of India—Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian—on the grounds that they were inextricably bound with system of ‘pagan theology’.”(Viswanathan, 1998:113)

Even when studies of classical Indian languages and texts were carried out under “Oriental studies” this was part of maintaining a hegemony of power and control. While the Orientalist Horace Wilson argued for the preservation of native languages, he recommended co-opting the maulvis and the pundits as teachers and translators of Western tests. Viswanathan(1998:113) suggests, “Wilson refined the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of destruction from within, to urge that the traditional men of learning of India also be co-opted as ‘additional instruments in our power’.” Even while accepting Wilson’s arguments up to a point, “under no circumstances was the Bentinck administration or any other administration following his willingness to support Oriental learning if it meant the perpetuation of Oriental languages and literature as the source of intellectual values, morals and religion.”

Along with the destruction of native literatures, “an increasing number of British administrators … discovered a wholly unexpected ally in English literature to maintain control of their subjects under the guise of a liberal education.” (Viswanathan, 1998: 85)

The success of the systematic efforts of the British administrators in creating an elite English class in these universities who trace their intellectual roots solely in the Western civilization can easily be observed today. Having internalized the negative stereotypes about their own roots, their only psychological defense remains to distance themselves from these roots as much as possible by attacking them as their conquerors taught. When the colonized identify with the mental worldview of the colonizer, the slavery of their mind is complete. This attitude of the mind, above everything else, is what we speak of in talking about the “colonized.” This experience is not limited to India, of course—so let us take a trip to Africa for additional perspective.

2.3 Ngũgĩ waThiong’o: Decolonizing the Mind

World history that is taught in Indian schools usually limits itself to European or American histories. To shed light on the contemporary Indian experience, it may be far more useful for us to study the histories of Africa and South America and their experiences with colonization, than to study the history of Europe. African intellectual Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o decided to break out of the colonial mold in Kenya.

Thiong’o is a popular Kenyan writer, who started off writing in English, but realized the impact of what he called the “culture bomb” and decided to switch to writing exclusively in his native language Gikuyu. “Decolonizing the Mind” is one of the last books he wrote in English, in which he describes the “culture bomb”:

“The biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed … is the culture bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other people’s languages than their own.”(Thiongo, 1986)

Thiong’o (1986:7) describes the “acceptance of ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature'” – a logic that immures an entire class of people from reading nothing other than the colonial literature, and writing in none other than the colonial language. Even when the “native’ culture is included, it is done with the aim of presenting to the conquerors for approval or for shock as exotic museum pieces, in much of the genre that goes by Indian writing in English. Thus native culture is used for the pleasure of the colonial master, either as a symbol of contempt or as an exotic amusement that will not deeply challenge the master’s worldview. As Thiong’o emphasizes, writing in English enriches the language and literature of the English world, not of the native languages. This literature thus continues to steal from the native culture to enrich the masters’, symptomatic of what Thiongo’ calls “demands that the dependent sing hymns of praise with the constant refrain: ‘Theft is holy’.”

Thiong’o (1986: 28) describes his schooling in English-medium schools and universities in Kenya, where the mother tongues of the children were literally beaten out of them – children would be punished for speaking anything other than Englis:.

“In schools and universities or Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities that make up Kenya – we associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under-development, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment.”

Thiong’o speaks of the relationship between culture and language. Language serves two roles—as a means of communication and as a carrier of culture. While English can serve as a means of communication, it is not the primary carrier of native culture. This is something that was keenly realized by the British administrators in India as well when they noted, for instance, that English education was “replete with Christian references” just as the vocabulary of Indian languages was imbued with their basis in Indian philosophical and religious thought. Edward Thornton, British parliamentarian went as far as to say – “As soon as [the Indians] become first-rate European scholars, they must cease to be Hindoos.”6 While Indian culture is still struggling with this bold assertion, the efficacy of this cultural denigration and destruction is evident in academic, journalistic and fictional India writing in English.

No surprise, since, as Thiong’o (pg 15) continues, language is an image-forming agent in the mind of the child. “Language as culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and my nature.” While language is universal, the particularity of a language and the sounds and symbols it chooses, reflects the particularity of a cultural experience. “Thus a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history.”

A colonial child is forced to live the dichotomy between their outer and inner worlds – the language spoken at school and at home, the language of spoken expression and the language of external writing, till the child slowly and surely starts to think and perceive his world through the eyes of the colonizer. As Thiong’o (pg 17) states “For a colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the teaching of history, geography, music, where … Europe was always at the center of the universe.”

Thiong’o (pg 28) suggests that the ultimate impact of using a foreign medium as the primary medium for study is a deep colonial alienation on a personal and societal level.

“Colonial alienation takes two interlinked forms; an active (or passive) distancing of oneself from the reality around; and an active (or passive) identification with that which is most external to one’s environment. It starts with a deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualization, of thinking, of formal education, of mental development, form the language of daily interaction in the home and in the community. It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger social scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies.”

It is perhaps due to this dissociation that multitudes of bureaucrats and academics can write volumes about “social problems” in India; but those social problems remain forever incorrigible. In practice the academics are completely dissociated from the society in their study. When they do study the society, they do this under colonial categories from a colonial viewpoint, disconnected from an authentic personal experience. These studies are often used to craft government policies, administered by bureaucrats in a colonial setup, and by misguided activists and NGO’s, leading to persistent despair about the “problems of Indian society and its backwardness”, where the problems may well lie in the gaze—the way the society is viewed and problematized and the particular mindset that crafts the solutions to these problems.

Thiong’o (pg 28) succinctly captures the current attitudes of the colonized elite class with regards to colonial institutions and languages, summarizing that “it is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues.” This indeed is the case in India, where everything of value is automatically attributed to the “civilizing force” of the European conquerors, just as economic success is to English; while all the problems are decried and caricaturized as resulting from the indigenous culture—forever the source of shameful backwardness.

India still lacks a Thiong’o—a popular writer in English who switched to doing his entire writing in his native tongue. At a recent event in Seattle for the release of his new book “Wizard of the Crow”, Thiong’o mentioned that the best three words in his book was the inscription in the beginning “translated from Gikuyu.”

2.4 De-colonizing the Indian mind

Even though this essay is about the impact of English education, we do not intend to imply that English-language elite education is the sole reason for the class divide or the only source of the class divide. Nor will we automatically connect with our cultural roots simply by switching the language and translating the educational material currently written in English into Indian languages.

There is a critical distinction between the learning of English as a language for external communication to using English as a primary language in elite schools and higher education. While learning English as a language subject can today be an empowering tool and needs to be encouraged, when it is turned into the primary medium of elite education its destructive effects in the creation of a disconnected elite class far outweigh any putative benefits.

This state of affairs has been brought about as a result of conscious state policy, and thus conscious state policy is required to remedy this. Colonization is perpetuated through the state-supported institutions that are the legacy of British rule and it is these institutions that will need to be changed to remedy its effects. While it is not in the scope of his essay to examine a comprehensive new language policy, we explore here some ideas for discussion.

Recent models of switching state institutions and the medium of education out of English, such as the example of Malaysia can be a useful study. Changes must begin as a “pull”—where access is increased for Indian languages, rather than as a “push” where people are forced to learn Indian languages while access, into higher and professional education and jobs, continues to be denied to them.

In the pull model a comprehensive study can be done of examinations, such as that for selections of officers into the Indian armed forces and IIM entrance examinations that perpetuate the English bias. Similarly, Malaysia implemented a wholesale change of its court system away from English. In India the High Courts remain English-based, rendering those with fluency in Indian languages unable to practice in them. The compulsory qualifying English paper in the Civil Services examination can be dropped—to the extent English proficiency is a job requirement it can be part of the post-qualification training for civil servants (similarly for army officers).

Management, engineering, medical and other professional education needs to be made available at the highest level in Indian languages. The barrier to entry to professional and higher education is a major reason why demand for English education at the primary and secondary level is growing. Unless the problem in higher education is fixed—again a situation largely perpetuated by the state—forcing Indian languages at the primary level is going to do little good.

A further step would a requirement for converting all English-medium schools into, at the very least, dual-medium schools, through changes at the central board level in CBSE and ICSE. In particular, there is very little reason that social sciences need to be studied in English. This will allow writing proficiency to develop in Indian languages that will increase demand for written materials in native languages.

Many of these steps may be seen as “going backwards” by the elite Indians. As this essay has argued, this backwardness is in the mind. The issue, instead, is of going forward by creating broad-based access to the modern economy from all sections of society and through all languages and unleashing the creative potential of many rather than the few. While incessant attention has been paid to the issue of caste-based access in India; relatively little has been paid to linguistic access that may, in fact, be the bigger determiner of social and economic class in India today and a bigger barrier to broad-based societal access and prosperity. The obsession with caste as the problem to access is itself a result of the colonial gaze—the same gaze that fails to study the problems of the English-based class system and of linguistic barriers and prejudice. Participating in the modern global economy does not require English-medium education. Rather the requirements of English-medium, imposed by state policies and private prejudices, create a barrier to participation in this economy for the vast majority of Indians.

The study of humanities and social sciences in Indian languages, particularly in higher education, also needs to be systematically privileged. The departments of humanities and social sciences in colleges and universities in India are the refuse of colonial policies, and have had little, if any, measurable positive contribution to Indian society, other than in producing new generations of disconnected neo-colonized who exhibit contempt and disdain for indigenous culture and traditions. As a result there is very little net value being created in these studies in Indian universities. The state should examine current funding to these institutions and knock down a few ivory towers. In particular, Indian language and Indian classics study requirements need to be made part of any advanced degrees in social sciences. State funding for higher education in social sciences needs to be examined for its efficacy and positive impact on real-world social issues. At the same time, scholarships should be made available to those who choose to pursue these studies, and write their dissertation in Indian languages and that draw from Indic roots.

Distinguishing a language learnt as a communication tool from a foreign language that usurps the role of a primary medium, a suitable language policy should support the teaching of English as a 2nd language while eroding its influence as a primary language.. In particular, jobs for teaching English as a 2nd and 3rd language should be created in rural communities. This would provide employment to the multitudes of English-language teachers, while serving to break down the debilitating institutional elite class-structure that has been created by privileging the knowledge of English in India.

Notes

  1. Raw language, GNP and population data from Microsoft Encarta®, 2002.
  2. Raw language, GNP and population data from Microsoft Encarta®, 2002.
  3. http://www.unima.mw/n-requirements.html#uee
  4. http://www.technion.ac.il/technion/studies/exchange/hebrew.html
  5. From Horace Wilson, “Education of the natives of India,” Asiatic Journal (1836). Quoted from Viswanathan (1998:41).
  6. Edward Thornton, Parliamentary papers, 1852-53. Quoted from Viswanathan (1998:23)

References

Dharampal. 1995. The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, Other India Press

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. 1986. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.

Viswanathan, Gauri. 1998. Masks of Conquest, Oxford University Press

31 thoughts on “The English Class System

  1. "Participating in the modern global economy does not require English-medium education. Rather the requirements of English-medium, imposed by state policies and private prejudices, create a barrier to participation in this economy for the vast majority of Indians."

    So precisely said. I guess this long and insightful essay will receive a complete reading only from the ones who supposedly are branded "zealots" or "jingoists" in today's political sphere in India. The one who feel that barraging incessantly against the mere side-effects in our society, for example, prevent a policeman from eating Rs 100 or catch some political worker distributing money in polling booth spot on don't at all suffice "cleaning politics", but reviving states of affairs for causal rectifications.

  2. I too am a product of what you refer to as an "elitist English medium" institution (missionary education, since you are going down that road) , yet I DO NOT IN ANY WAY decry or denigrate my native tongue, Bengali. In fact, my tryst with literature began not with Dickens and Wordsworth (which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed) but with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay, Ashapurna Debi and Prafulla Chandra Ray. In fact, I'd take Bengali over English any day, since it is Bengali, and not English that runs deep within my soul. I think you have tarred everyone with the same brush. Yes, many of us "elite convent types" do prefer English over the native language, and worse, many of us aren't even fluent in it, but that is not everyone. There are many like me who are proud of who we are, despite our English-medium education. So your argument that having an English-medium education automatically kills your love for your native language does not really hold much water. Blame the people who receive that education, not the education itself.

    I'm not really sure which world you live in, but in the one that I do, NOBODY says that knowing English is a prerequisite for economic success. Sorry, when did they send that memo? Was I on the blue planet then? Anyway, pinning economic success on only English or non-English education is being simplistic. You mentioned South Korea and Japan. Well, have you bothered to examine the socio-political situation in South Korea and Japan and contrasted that with India? Do those two countries also suffer from the policy paralysis, mismanagement, bad governance and parochial regionalism suffered by India? Do they have tens of thousands of languages and dialects and sub-dialects that India has? And onto the R&D. Well, when was the last time that the CSIR or any other R&D body in India was granted sufficient funds from the centre to carry out ANY R&D? India's record of R&D support is dismal when compared to countries such as China and even Tunisia. This reflects on the number of research papers published per year, and consequently, on the potential innovations produced. Oh and what do we say to the legions of IITians and other "top" science graduates who leave India and are gobbled up by the hungry West, further dashing our R&D hopes? Oh, and what about all those "top" engineering graduates who end up not pursuing engineering or science as a career, but management instead? Whose fault is it that many Junior Research Fellows aren't even paid a fellowship for months, and those who are paid are paid less than what they are supposed to be paid, deterring all potential youngsters from taking up science as a career? The fault of English language education, I suppose. Have you bothered to highlight the incentives and awards that young researchers are given in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to pursue their research dreams, and the overall, conducive atmosphere for research that exists in these countries?

    No, you have done none of the kind. Instead, you conveniently deflect the issue and make a scapegoat of English education. Worse, you conveniently brand all those who support English education as "colonial slaves" or "brown sahibs". Israel leads in the software sector? That's because to gain admission to the Technicon, nobody asks you to produce your caste certificate and claim brownie points, leaving other, deserving candidates in the lurch. Israel dosen't care (at least on paper) whether the head of the Technicon is an Israeli Jew or Israeli Muslim. Their technical success has nothing to do with their mastery or lack of it thereof of the English language. And btw, just for the sake of an argument, the last time I checked, the most famous (and richest) Jews came out of America, not Israel. Yes, they were immigrants from Eastern Europe, but they and their progeny have amassed more wealth and recognition in the world than any Israeli Jews.

    What I find hilarious is you comparing war-ravaged states like Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso with the likes of Switzerland and France, and putting their troubles down to adoption of "colonial" languages. These countries, just like ours, have had a severe history of inter-tribal and inter-religious conflict, which has left otherwise resource-rich countries barren and useless. You have conveniently skipped over that fact to reinforce your point. Christians vs Muslims, Charles Taylor vs Joseph Momoh, Tuaregs vs the State- they've had all of this and more. How do you then account for the poverty faced by Ethiopia and Somalia, where only the native tongues are official? You certainly can't use the English language argument there.

    I refuse to buy the argument that English hinders India's development, which is such a complex issue in itself. Economic reforms, trade liberalisation, a freer market economy, more business friendliness and greater job creation- these are the things we need, not adopting a national link language to solve all our woes. Overall, we need better governance. All of the above are things that the Asian Tiger economies have (and more).

    So please, spare the rest of us the patronizing tirade of "elitist" English. Who are you to talk any way? You, who sit in the comfort of your office in Seattle, spouting seemingly innocuous, but otherwise divisive propaganda? What are you doing for the development of schools in Indian villages or the children in the village in Haryana that you spoke of? Are you using any of your Microsoft money to do any kind of development work in Indian villages? Or leveraging your IIT-Kanpur credentials to work for better rural digitization?

  3. Also, to further deflate your point about how English language education acts as a hindrance to the education of the children in the village in Haryana. I know scores and scores of students who have studied in Bangla-medium schools till the 9th grade, and suddenly changed over to English medium. Did it adversely affect their performance? No, since they have gone on to secure PhDs in top universities in UK, US, Canada, Europe and Australasia, not to mention getting into top institutes in India itself. Learning English was never a hindrance to them. Intelligence is a hindrance, not language. So the excuse that the school-master gives in the Haryana school is invalid and baseless. And furthermore, your point contradicts the very existence of the Indian American diaspora. Would they have managed to find jobs, work and look after their children (not to mention become the richest community in the US) without knowing a word of English? They came as professors, scientists, engineers, doctors and businessmen. Would they have ever managed to get such positions without knowing any English? And look at how much Japanese students who come to study in the US and UK have to shell out just to learn the language properly. In the UK university where I studied, twelve Japanese students had to go through an expensive and actually useless English language course in order to prepare them for the level of English competence that they require to pursue their degree. Indian students don't have to do that, even though they still have to clear the IELTS or TOEFL in order to get admission (which as far as I know, they comfortably do).

  4. Wonderful article! Pan-Indian civilization, from Afghanistan to Cambodia, always did have a lingua franka and language of standardization. This language was organically related to all the languages under its civilizational umbrella. For thousands of years, this language was Sanskrit. But over the last 800 years, Sanskrit was systematically targeted, and replaced by Persian and then English. The time has come for this to be reversed. As the Sanskrit adage goes, “प्रासाद-शिखरेsपि काको न गरुडायते । – “Even if a crow is perched atop the steeple of the palace, it does not become an eagle.” Sanskrit is the eagle that is already witnessing a grassroots renascence. Now it needs a policy framework.

  5. Hi Pashmita, you seem to be very passionate about something but it is nto clear what. Nowhere did I suggest English-medium was the only problem. In this article itself I mention "We are not suggesting that all these countries are poor simply because of this language class-separation. Correlation does not establish causality. To look at the direct causality we may not need to look far — 19 out of these 20 poorest countries were colonies of exploitation by European powers." Elsewhere on this website I have written about governance issues and corruption. Please read that.

    The question is very simple. Should a child in Bengal be allowed the opportunity to study Medicine or Engineering in Bengali medium, like countries with much smaller language populations enable, or should she be forced to switch to English medium. That is the only real question of relevance here.

  6. Wonderful article! Pan-Indian civilization, from Afghanistan to Cambodia, always did have a lingua franka and language of standardization. This language was organically related to all the languages under its civilizational umbrella. For thousands of years, this language was Sanskrit. But over the last 800 years, Sanskrit was systematically targeted, and replaced by Persian and then English. The time has come for this to be reversed. As the Sanskrit adage goes, “प्रासाद-शिखरेsपि काको न गरुडायते । – “Even if a crow is perched atop the steeple of the palace, it does not become an eagle.” Sanskrit is the eagle that is already witnessing a grassroots renascence. Now it needs a policy framework. sonu meena

  7. From times immemorial we have been a society of entrepreneurs and localised ones making our economies sustainable. We should've continued this way instead of adopting a globalised approach. This 'globalised' approach is the root cause of our economic fall back.

  8. Namaskar,

    Joel Spolsky of Stackoverflow talks about demographics of programmers worldwide based on language-based communities and English as a glass-ceiling :
    http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/04/stack-overflow-around-the-world

    Though the discussion in the comments veers towards ‘English is the best’ there are enough voices and pertinent points rooting for localised communities drawing in more people. Usage of tools to translate is suggested as the desirable route.

    Dhanyavaad,
    Guru M.

  9. Every bottle-neck has space for passage of some traffic. It doesn’t mean we should encourage bottle-necks on every road.
    Pointing to the few who managed to make it across gives no data on the vast Others who got left behind.

    Modern cognitive science itself acknowledges Linguistic, Analytical, Symbolic, Kineaesthetic etc. intelligences. If you have Analytical but not Kineaesthetic intelligence you’re suited for a computer programmer job (as you’re not required to say dance at work). However you CAN have superb Symbolic/Analytical skill without linguistic skill. Why should one get disqualified for language alone?

    I’ve seen a guy in Computer class who could program much better than anyone else but spoke only Telugu. He was so diffident about English that he would try a few words and fall-back on his mother tongue. Yet another who was limited to being a lab-instructor though he could quickly whip up super working code better than anyone else. Failed at interviews conducted in English. He had to be content playing second-fiddle to an English-speaking person who acknowledged the superior talent of his colleague.

    How would similar obviously intelligent people fare in Japan?
    My brother studied in a Marathi medium and still came out on top in an English medium college. But the family background of English and languages in general and of course his hard-work helped, no doubt.

  10. Typical “Saving Indians from India” dialogue.
    Going by keywords used in the argument probably a socialist/communist-type person who prefers to be “anonymous”.

  11. I simply loved this article. For the first time I was presented an article with proof and that makes me equipped to take on people who say English is a must for success. So thanks for this. It’s an eye opener of an article and extremely well-researched.

  12. pashmita75 Your list is all Anglo Saxon countries how many went to China Japan Korea Taiwan Germany France Italy Hungary Brazil Spain France Norway Sweden etc etc all non english speaking. Anglo Saxon slave mentality must go to quote Gandhi
    The English are very proud of their language Indians are not. Result when I was I Kollkota I was told if I have problem with the police speak in English and they will let you go!!!!

  13. Sankrant Sanu You know, it really depends on how you measure economic "success". Is it a completely indigenous factor? Or is it something that you would measure for the world at large? Studying in a local language is great, but you have to be very sure of what you want. You might be a proud Bengali, or a Gujarathi, or some such. The question is, are people looking to draw from your knowledge, all in a native language? Will you be content with being in a very *native* environment for most of your life? If the focus is on "coming closer" globally, then a mere emphasis on local languages might not do. The idea is really to have one common language that most can understand. So drawing from my earlier scenario, if you aspire to be a neurosurgeon in the USA, then maybe, a local language in your school might not be what you want. For us to be hired for our skills despite being (English) linguistically challenged (like the Russians), something more needs to change — our approach. It is about time we become education and excellence centric. We spend a sizeable chunk of our energies in believing a belief system that is outdated, and ridiculously illogical. That is only when we will respect the world of academia enough to be chased around as some of the best brains in the world (who will speak none other than their mother tongue maybe?). Till then, we can only watch brains drain to the English-speaking, forward societies of the world.

  14. Exactly! That’s the point. We pull out a few examples of the people who “made it big” but forget about scores of people who got left behind! We think that the final destination for any Indian is a US and UK university, to go there and earn money and in one off cases (mind you we have a handful of scientists as compared to the number of people we have there) become a “successful” scientists. We don’t even consider the fact that these people could have done a lot more better if they had received their entire education in their mother tongue. Any reasons why we don’t produce any Nobel prize winners in science?? any reasons why we don’t have a Mars Rover today (I salute our scientists from ISRO who pulled a rare feat – but was that all we could do)? We don’t have any vaccines for Malaria that we die of in india but we have hundreds of crazy medicines for Diabetes or obesity or sitting-on-the-couch-watching-tv-bug for westerners but we cannot provide backbone to our farmers and poor children, we cannot improve our medical system? one of the reasons is because we pride in going out and working cheap for western companies/universities/anybody and that becomes our aim – because we think that’s all we can achieve. It’s like a Bonsai tree with it’s root clipped and planted in a pot who thinks he is fully grown and looks pretty without realizing that the purpose of his life was to grow even bigger and provide fruits and shade! we measure the success of 125crores with a few hundreds and thousands of “successful” people settled abroad contributing to someone else’s economy, paying for someone else’s social securities and medicare! and we claim that English has done tremendous good to the society. You may know of (and project) scores of people who are doing good but I would recommend opening your eyes and look at millions and millions more (close to a billion) who are NOT
    “successful” scientists and engineers and doctors in a foreign land and neither in India . This does not deflate Sankrant’s point but really just shows how short-sighted and mentally hypnotized we are to measure the success of an entire country with the so called success of a handful

    • English good tremendous good for upper class only.only reading Ravi Thakur, Bankim Chandra don’t make the road to progress a language.we have to use language in every sphere.otherwise language space will be limited and shrink and one day abolished.read bangla up to class nine and then throw it.it is your agenda. Therefore we can not express ourselves in bangla in higher education which Japan or China did.it is because of you type people who actually praise English and for show say I love my mother tongue so much. But do nothing to enrich your language. your world is confined only in English speaking country.you know understanding label is high in mother tongue.after praising English for about 66 years IIndia only make it coolies,but studying in Chinese language China doing research at high level.your dream is to go UK or america and you think that is the success.you are perfect obedient of your past master

    • Among all these comments – I found only Vipul’s comment sane. English is de-facto programming language – that’s besides the point.
      Family language first – it is so much easier to explain mathematics/ science concepts to a child in her native language – see this is how this tree grows, why ball is falling in that way. In fact , such teaching is already happening in classrooms across india – They say english medium- but english phrases/ terms are used , main teaching done in Hindi only till class 10th.
      Now if we un-burden this english burden from child – and focus on English as second language ..then results will be super awesome.
      We are way behind than other countries.

  15. While medium of education does certainly has some effect on the way children learn, especially in the childhood, I think the way education is imparted is highly important. Also, now that English medium education has taken over most parts of the country, would it make sense to dismantle it or would it even be feasible? Whilst many European countries have succeeded in generating many innovations, it is not the same for other countries who have continued to teach in their mother tongue. The reasons lie in the way education is imparted and brain is challenged. Children must be challenged to think and analyze than imparting rote learning. I do agree that education in the mother tongue is helpful for various reasons but unless it is coupled with innvations in teaching which fosters creativity and analytical skills, promotes thinking than just rote learning, then we may not be able to achieve the desired outcomes.

  16. While medium of education does certainly has some effect on the way children learn, especially in the childhood, I think the way education is imparted is highly important. Also, now that English medium education has taken over most parts of the country, would it make sense to dismantle it or would it even be feasible? Whilst many European countries have succeeded in generating many innovations, it is not the same for other countries who have continued to teach in their mother tongue. The reasons lie in the way education is imparted and brain is challenged. Children must be challenged to think and analyze than imparting rote learning. I do agree that education in the mother tongue is helpful for various reasons but unless it is coupled with innvations in teaching which fosters creativity and analytical skills, promotes thinking than just rote learning, then we may not be able to achieve the desired outcomes.

  17. Dear all, It is a nice article. Until and unless we introduce innovation and open challenge in our education system, our people can not match with those of developed countries irrespective of medium of instruction. So if we want to develop our native language, then we should start innovation weekend schools, where students will learn innovative and challenging lessons in Economics, Science, Sociology, Politics, Diplomacy, Religion, Policy planning etc in our own language or Sanskrit. And I am sure these students will emerge win over those students following only very old Govt. syllabus. Once these students finish education, then they will dominate in their respective field through the knowledge they gained from innovation weekend schools. They will sure discuss or write their knowledge in the language through which they had gained these knowledge. In this way native language will dominate over Govt. sponsored English medium education.

  18. Dear all, It is a nice article. Until and unless we introduce innovation and open challenge in our education system, our people can not match with those of developed countries irrespective of medium of instruction. So if we want to develop our native language, then we should start innovation weekend schools, where students will learn innovative and challenging lessons in Economics, Science, Sociology, Politics, Diplomacy, Religion, Policy planning etc in our own language or Sanskrit. And I am sure these students will emerge win over those students following only very old Govt. syllabus. Once these students finish education, then they will dominate in their respective field through the knowledge they gained from innovation weekend schools. They will sure discuss or write their knowledge in the language through which they had gained these knowledge. In this way native language will dominate over Govt. sponsored English medium education.

  19. Thanks. Though I have read this post and comments word by word, however, I must share these few information: 1. I am also an AoLite for 8+ years and a Social Entrepreneur. 2. I have done extensive research on various facets of English skills – and developed an Organic System that is going to be available soon to public. This system is based on 120+ techniques, and strongly recommends respect and usage of Family Language first. (In fact, one of my Papers is being published in Cambridge Scholars’ Press soon) 3. I was myself ‘ZERO’ in English once. 4. Anyone who is keen to join hands in addressing causes relating to education and learning, please contact me at [email protected] | Regards and JGD, Arvind

  20. The article should have been in vernacularBHASHA.Now you should get it translated and publish it and invite comments.

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