Speaking of English
The Delhi government, which has earned appreciation for its focus on education and health, has taken a pragmatic step which deserves to be emulated by other states. Having taken note of the demand for spoken English skills among students and their families, it has offered a course at the plus-two level in the capital’s government schools. This reverses the legacy of linguistic identity politics which has been practised by states like West Bengal, which once discouraged the teaching of English, harming the prospects of a generation of students.
A similar policy has also been practised at the Centre, where Hindi is promoted as the appropriate interlingua of India, supplanting English, deemed to be a colonial legacy. English has become the world’s interlingua, embraced even in countries which have earlier resisted its attractions. It is commonly understood even by the French, who have been historically anglophobic, and is taught in schools in China.
In a globalised world, it is a useful tool which opens doors everywhere. Despite advances in machine translation, it will remain the world’s interlingua so long as it remains the language in which almost all of the internet is encoded. Besides, the knowledge of English denotes status and privilege, and is a source of political and economic power.
Less privileged families in India are acutely aware of this, and wish to use English as a lever to catapult themselves ahead. Pragmatically, they have no time for the English of high culture. Knowledge of Restoration drama and Romantic poetry is devalued cultural currency in the marketplace. On the contrary, the highest premium is put on spoken English, which delivers mobility. It allows speakers to conduct themselves well in interviews and boardrooms, and to communicate with audiences which speak multiple tongues. A person unable to speak in English, on the other hand, is effectively mute in a multilingual setting. Hence the flight of students from government schools to relatively expensive private institutions which offer English.
In India, the attempt to supplant English with Hindi by government promotion is a failed project. Mass entertainment has proved to be a far better promoter of Hindi. Even so, English remains the common language for discussing complex ideas across linguistic divides. The demand for spoken English skills is painfully visible. Our cities are plastered with advertisements for courses, and the ability to converse in English is especially prized in small towns and villages, where it is seen as a precondition for going out into the world to improve one’s lot. It is commendable that the Delhi government has chosen to respond to the patent public preference for spoken English, instead of allowing political perceptions alone to dictate educational policy.