First of all, let me say that this article is a serious one. My profoundest apologies. And it's longish - that just couldn't be helped. If you'd prefer to get right to the meat of this article, you can skip right ahead to the reasons, caveats, objections and rejoinders. Read on upto the next *, though.
This article is meant to be an argument for including English, rather than any older Indian language, as a compulsory course in primary and secondary education, and in various other walks of Indian life. While many readers may not agree with some of the arguments presented, it should at least give rise to an engrossing debate. Besides, I believe I've just scratched the surface here. I'd like to hear any other argument for and against English. Especially against, as I haven't got too many ideas in that direction.
After reading the entire article, I get the feeling that I got a little carried away sometimes... sorry if it sounds harsh at places.
India, as a country, is heavily prejudiced against English. It is the language of the British, whose years of misrule in India have turned us against many things that are British in nature. All the same, English has been part of Indian history for nearly three hundred years now - first as the language of the colonists, and then, after independence, as an official language of the Indian union. Three hundred years is a long time. Long enough for us to put our bitterness aside and accept the fact that in India, English is no longer a foreign language.
Unfortunately, it is not always seen in that light by our countrypeople. Many who converse in English in public places often draw a lot of attention to themselves, most of it unpleasant. They are met with stares, followed by frowns. I myself had several such experiences: One old lady, when she heard me speaking in English in a Metro Rail coach, demanded to know why, being an Indian, I spoke English. This attitude is a result of constant indoctrination by some of our country's public heavyweights, notably the politicians. The fear that English might overshadow one's own language also has something to do with the attitude. Still, I believe that the attitude is not born of any concern that has real significance today.
Politicians today persist in avoiding the English language, although this is definitely an abating trend. West Bengal is a prime example of this: the Communist government has steadily tried to eradicate English from the state. Not content to do this in the schools which it runs, it has attempted to prevent Ramakrishna Mission schools from teaching English.
(The CPI(M) government may have reasons other than those put forth above for hating English. I'm only speculating here, but I think it has something to do with their general opposition to the ways of the democratic West.)
The governments of most other states do not go to such extremes, but at the same time, regional languages are always given priority.
Here are some arguments for making English the primary language of education in India:
1. As I wrote above, English has been part of India's history for a very long time, and should be considered an Indian language by now. Indeed, many of India's best modern authors use English as their medium. Many of the most prestigious newspapers in India are English-language dailies. The argument that English should be avoided "because it is a foreign language" holds no water because it is very much an Indian language.
2. Most businessmen agree that India has a competitive edge over China and the ASEAN countries when it comes to commercial dealings with the West precisely because Indians know English, while the people of those countries do not. (Unfortunately, successive governments have been blind to this fact, and much of the advantage has already been lost.)
3. The Internet is English-friendly; it does not lend itself easily to the scripts of various indigenous languages. The Internet is going to be a driving, invasive force in the coming century. Business will be more Net-based; the Net will also enter our homes. Life will be very difficult without knowledge of English. By denying our population easy access to the English language, the governments of India will be cutting off a large portion of the population from the Net. (There's a caveat to this - find it below these reasons.)
4. There are more educational resources available in English than in all other Indian languages put together. Indeed, in most subjects, education beyond a certain level would be impossible without a base in English. (That's why ISI has the remedial English course.) Scientific research published in English is overwhelmingly greater in quantity, as well as quality, than that in any other language in the world. The scenario is similar for primary and secondary education. There are more, and better, educational resources available in English than in any other language. Once again, the Internet, that vast repository of knowledge, provides a prime example. Most of that knowledge would be inaccessible to people without knowledge of English. Of course, it is possible to cast much of the knowledge available into an Indian language (Hindi strikes one as a sensible alternative to English), but that would be reinventing the wheel.
5. This one is sacrilege, but here goes: English, as a language, is superior to any Indian language (to any language at all, in fact) in its applicability and range. It also has a larger vocabulary than any other language. This is not due to any inherent strength or greatness in the language itself, but because English is so widely used that there is more experimentation and variation in the use of English than in any other language in the world. English has the major advantage that it is used in the most highly developed nations, where people have the option of spending a great deal of time tinkering with it. No one can deny that literature is far richer in English than in any other language. Not even Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in the world, can boast as much depth as English. (I guessed that last bit. I don't know any Mandarin. ;-)
6. This reason isn't exactly an argument for English. Various Indian governments have tried ridiculous schemes in their time, but none more ridiculous than trying to make Sanskrit a compulsory language. Without meaning any disrespect to Sanskrit, I'd like to say that Sanskrit happens to be a dead language. It's been a dead language for hundreds of years. The uses of Sanskrit are highly specialized: it's used mainly for understanding the Hindu religion and using ancient texts for purposes such as understanding living conditions in those days. There are no other practical uses. If the government has enough resources to make such a language compulsory, those resources would be better used in the teaching of English.
The arguments given above can't be left unqualified. Here are some caveats:
Caveat to 3. It is not true that Indian language scripts can't be used on the Net. A lot of material on the Net is in Japanese, for example, and Japanese script is a lot more complicated than most Indian scripts. Besides, several Indian language sites already exist, with Indian script. However, chew on this: Handling Indian scripts is much more complicated than handling English. It is unlikely that the amount of online material in an Indian language will ever be significant compared to the amount of material in English. And, our country can ill afford to spend large quantities of money and time doing things in Indian scripts, especially when a simple alternative is available.
Caveat to 4. Let me hasten to add that it is possible to impart an excellent primary and secondary education using Indian languages. Perhaps even an excellent undergraduate education. My point is that if you use English as the language of instruction, you have more tools available.
Here are some of the reasons I could think of for not making English the main educational language:
1. Inertia. This is the most important factor. A move to make English the main educational language would meet stiff resistance from all those individuals who continue to believe that English is somehow inappropriate. Governments would be reluctant to lose votes by taking so bold a step. And it is certain that such a decision would be met by protests all over the country.
2. There is much truth in the argument that such massive induction of English would have a detrimental effect on the development and proliferation of other Indian languages. Funds that could be used to propagate them would now be used to propagate English. If English comes into widespread use, enthusiasm for other languages would probably wane as people realize that it's much easier to get things done using English than using any other language. There are probably many other causes as well.
3. It would probably be easier, and hence cost less, to teach people in their mother tongue than in any other language. The reason is that there is the extra effort of teaching a new language on the part of the educational institution, and of learning a new language on the part of the student. This cost is bound to be substantial, and may counteract the benefits of English as a provider of easily available educational material.
4. Many of the most powerful and/or prosperous countries have stuck to their traditional language and progressed. The list includes Russia, China, Germany, France and Japan. Why must we be the ones to give up our languages?
5. I didn't think of this myself; it was suggested by a friend. The idea is that instruction in English will facilitate brain drain. If more of our bright youngsters know English, more of them will attempt to leave the country. If, on the other hand, they remain ignorant of English, they would have to stay in the country and contribute to its well-being.
These are compelling objections, but the following rejoinders can be made:
Rejoinder to 1. Inertia can be overcome by making the process of inducting English a very gradual one. A very good example: Hindi is much more widespread today than it ever was in the past. This, despite a great deal of opposition when it was first proclaimed the national language - especially in the South and the East. This is because of its gradual imposition. Another example: ideologies like the swadeshi movement, one of the most popular we have had and one which remained active long after the Bristish left our country, have caved because they were put aside gradually.
Rejoinder to 2. While it is true that English may overtake the Indian languages in spread, they need not be replaced by it. Of course, the Indian language base may be eroded slowly, but by the time that happens, I doubt that people will feel so strongly about them. Additionally, there's no such thing as a free meal. The long-term good of the nation will demand some sacrifices... Think about this, too: The long-term welfare of the state is more important than the proliferation of the indigenous languages. If giving up our traditional languages is the price we have to pay for development, perhaps we should consider doing so.
Rejoinder to 3. The long-term argument can be used here too. However, I feel that as long as India is planning to use the Internet and other electronic devices to further education, it will actually be cheaper to use English. The easy availability of English material will offset the initial cost of teaching English. As an example: Say you want to teach a class about a particular subject, using computers. (Computers will eventually penetrate into the Indian educational system; it can't be avoided.) You could spend thousands of rupees developing the required software in, say, Hindi. You could invent a lot terminology and spend several lakhs standardizing the terminology across India. Or, you could teach them English and then use the extensive, free English-language info on the subject available on the Net.
Rejoinder to 4. This is the most difficult one. First, let me say that I think that many of these countries are prosperous in spite of using their language, not because of it. That's difficult to justify, however, so I'll just put it aside. There are more compelling reasons. First, those countries were developed along various lines much before India got independence, and had the resources to develop science and literature in their own languages. Notably, the European languages were used in the development of science, and therefore were already suitable for scientific use. Second, India is fundamentally different from these countries in that it has so many indigenous languages. The cost of developing and standardizing terminology and software in twenty or more different languages is more than this country can bear. Third, India could try to induct Hindi as the main medium of instruction all over the country, but this would be met with a lot of protests. Finally, the fact that other countries choose to use their own language doesn't alter the fact that English is more suitable than any Indian language. Those who use argument 4. are essentially suggesting blind imitation.
Rejoinder to 5. It is true that knowledge of English does facilitate brain drain. If the students of our country didn't know English, they wouldn't be able to leave. Widespread use of English would likely increase the amount of brain drain. However, the marginal increase in the amount of brain drain won't be so high. For example, if a thousand English-educated students are produced in a given year, all of them will be able to leave. If a million English-educated students are produced in a particular year, only (say) a lakh will be able to leave. The remainder would stay back - and perform better because they have access to all those English resources. If those million were educated in indigenous languages, we would have one lakh more minds staying, but none of them would be able to access English language resources. I feel that it's better to have 9,00,000 brains with access to English-language resources than to have 1,000,000 brains without.
All in all, I think English would be the best vehicle for improving the state of our country.
Once again, I'd appreciate it if you let me hear other opinions on this topic, especially reasons why English should not be made the main medium of instruction and any possible errors in my reasoning above. Of course, more reasons supporting English are also welcome. Mail them to the editor of the magazine.