By Nirmal Laungani, Hong Kong
Continuing our debate on the role of English in India, we present here more articles received in response to the open forum dated July 4, 2004.
We need to take a look at the fastest-growing economy of the world? CHINA. I am based in Hong Kong and am a frequent traveller to the mainland. How much does English function in China? When visiting China, my clients struggle to explain things to the Chinese suppliers, to the hotel and restaurant staff, etc. My friends from India visiting China are even stunned to see that most of the road signs (outside the highways) are almost exclusively in the Chinese script. Despite an increasing knowledge of the English language among persons connected to the tourism and commercial field in China, it would still be considered as nothing more than elementary as compared to the English spoken in India. And as far as the common people in China are concerned, English just doesn'tseem to exist.
I have an interesting story to tell. Last year, I accompanied my client from Panama to Guangzhou. During this trip, my client fell sick. He was staying in a five-star hotel, which also had a clinic inside. I advised my client to visit this clinic. But, he called me up within five minutes after reaching there?saying that the doctor couldn'tunderstand a word of English. Finally, I had to rush to this clinic in order to translate for him. Would this be believable in India? A clinic inside a top five-star hotel in China, and the doctor not speaking any English?
Forget about doctors, the top factory owners and businessmen in China do not necessarily know how to speak English. Many of them that do, do not speak properly. And a lot more hire secretaries or translators who are trained to speak/write English.
A language as a problem.
And despite all that, overseas clients would not even dream of stopping business with China. During the recent SARS outbreak, clients had missed going to the Guangzhou Trade Fair in April, 2003 but six months later, the October Trade Fair saw record crowds. Everything became normal in a short time. Can you imagine what would have happened if such an outbreak had hit India? Despite the IT and other economical success stories that India has achieved recently, Indian economy would have been badly hit?despite the knowledge of English.
But nobody would even dream of deserting China?despite the lack of knowing English. The truth is that India'sknowledge of English does not give India any kind of advantage over China. At the end of the day, what overseas customers need is quality, price, reliability and service?and English or no English?clients will find a way to do business with the best country that matches these requirements. Otherwise, Japan, Korea, Thailand and now China?with their limited skills in the English language?would never have been the success stories that they are today.
Now coming back to the IT industry, there are people who say that India'ssoftware success primarily results from its large English-speaking workforce. This view is put forward mainly for a lack of a serious study into other factors. Here again, Mr Sanu with his brilliant and sharp intellect, says ?If this were true, then all English-speaking countries must display this advantage consistently. In particular, countries like Kenya with comparable history to India, of colonisation and resultant poverty, an English-based colonial class system and a large English workforce, must also be successful in software. This turns out not to be the case. Furthermore, this theory also fails to explain why Israel, which follows largely Hebrew and Arabic-medium schooling, is also a notable software success.?
Mr Sanu continues, ?In India traditionally learning has been considered the highest good. All our scriptures extol learning, and parents have traditionally placed a great emphasis on learning. In the Indian schooling system, even today parents emphasise academic success over other achievements. Thus, the correlation of India'ssuccess in software to the traditional love of thought and knowledge in Indian society bears investigation,? thus implying that this could be the prime reason for India'ssuccess in software.
So, what is the solution; what needs to be done? Mr Sanu says, ?A first step would be the exploration of converting all English-medium schools into, at the very least, dual-medium schools. In particular, there is very little reason that social sciences need to be studied in English. This will allow proficiency to develop in native Indian languages that will increase demand for written materials in native languages.? By this suggestion, Mr Sanu correctly draws our attention to the fact that people who study in English-medium schools, by and large, do not patronise Hindi or regional newspapers/magazines/books. This is another drawback. Today, this segment, by and large, writes and reads only in English.
I would like to reiterate over here that I am not against the study of English in schools. English can be taught as a compulsory second language. And for those who are in the tourism sector or whose work demands them to trade with English-speaking nations like the United States or Australia, they could take special classes in English to improve their command over it, just as a person working with Japan may need to learn Japanese or a person trading with Latin America may need to learn Spanish. The point is, English should be thoroughly studied by those whose work needs them to. But for the common people at large, why should English be given special or super-important status?
Recently, the Union Minister of Agriculture, Rajnath Singh had correctly said, ?If Israel can become an effective and powerful country of the world through her language?Hebrew?and China can also achieve an outstanding place on the world map through her own Chinese languages, why cannot India make progress through her own languages? Fact is that the total development of the country lies in the promotion of Indian languages. Need of the hour is to give up unnecessary affection for English.?
I have a humble request to make to all the people who read this article. If you have not yet been speaking in Hindi/native tongue with your family members or your Indian friends, now is the time to act. If you wish to pass on your heritage, your language to the next generation?you need to do it rightaway. Start speaking in your native tongue. If you are not too comfortable with it for whatever reason (especially for those residing overseas), attempt speaking it, so that in due course you will master it. But let not this excuse deter you from communicating in your language.