The advent of society can be traced back to the formation of groups of human beings who had common ways of expressing themselves.Whether through commonality of expression, through the sounds they made, or gestures, or in their behaviour while chasing down prey or resolving conflicts, human beings found a way to communicate successfully with one another. That is how a majority of undivided territories with like-minded prehistoric beings were formed back in the day
The evolution of functional societies came about through the evolution of languages through which messages could be communicated by one and interpreted by another. There was need for collaboration, for example, in hunting down prey in groups or to develop shelters, which resulted in the invention of signs and other forms of language that brought people together.
The evolution of the cortex in the human brain is a case in point. The way brain cells interact with one another, through the firing of neurons and the evolution of the cortex,are directly proportional to the number of such interactions.Similarly, the evolution of human societies is directly proportional to the enhanced interactions using a common language.
In this respect, the present day is no different than the pre-historic era. The significance of language as a communication tool is paramount, language essentially being the means of communication among the members of a society.Language is the tool that conveys traditions and values related to a group’s identity. It is still the most essential and important pillar of collaboration and critical thinking. Let alone communication within the human community, with the advancements made in the field of Artificial Intelligence, there is incremental discussion on communication with robots.
There are several important questions that invoke one’s imagination. What would 21st century jobs demand? With the concept of singularity being one of the hottest topics of discussion, and given that machines are becoming faster than men, what would be the mode and language of communication or interface for optimal yield from such technological advancements? What would our future policies be like to ensure consistent economic development and new job creation while keeping social disruption at bay and the benefit to society intact in the face of technological advancements? How does India fit into the larger scheme of things in this era of continuous evolution and change?
The answers to these questions are far from simple and to a large extent would be driven by the right policies. Progress of technology is inevitable and so is the need to ensure that such progress compliments and benefits society. More than 60% of the jobs we have today in India are predicted to be replaced by automation. Therefore, there is a need to generate and acquire new skills that are aligned to the new kind of jobs that automation would generate in future. From a policy perspective, it is critical that there is a fallback plan for displaced employees, new job creation, overhaul of our education systems to prepare our workforce for such new jobs, and continuous upgradation of the industry and corporate organisations for absorption of such change.
Within the purview of languages, English is undoubtedly the numerouno – spoken and acceptedglobally. Asia, as a subcontinent, is the largest consumer of the English language, with India at the forefront with the largest population of youngsters. Any language, with English being no exception, is used primarily with two perspectives – ‘Research’ and ‘Employment’. Whether someone takes up research or learns skills targeted towards employment, the need for consumption and hence expression undeniably requires learning of a widely accepted and understood language. English is that language from the 21st century perspective. With the ever-increasing shortage of skilled resources and the world’s boundaries thinning faster with heightened trans-geographical movement, the need for English language learning, for either of these purposes, is fast rising. If popular statistics are to be believed, this demand is increasing at a compounding rate every year.
The world is full of possibilities with the use of a common language – English. Be it collaboration, research, knowledge-creation and dissemination, employment, communication, technological advancements or any other aspect of societal evolution, English does and will continue to play the most important role as a language most widely understood and accepted and is nothing short of a life skill.
Twenty-seven languages are spoken in India, with English being the second largest after Hindi. Census data shows that nearly 41% of India’s 1.25 billion population is below the age of 20 years. India is perhaps the only country where English is a foreign language, first language and second language and has one of the largest education systems and service industries in the world. There is huge appetite for consumption of the English language and skills. The Government has enhanced focus on both English language learning and skill development for the youth of India. From a skill generation perspective, some of the world’s best English content is produced and consumed in India.
Connectivity and digitization – the latest in a series of buzz words that populate public imagination in India today – have brought into sharper focus the need for equipping the layperson with two important skills – technological prowess and the ability to function in English. These two skills are inherently interlinked. English language, the aspirational language of the average Indian, has never been in greater focus than it is at the moment. With globalisation, society has already been cleaved into the ‘English-haves’ and the ‘English-have-nots’. Employability in various prime sectors like retail, hospitality, travel, BPOs et cetera is already heavily dependent on job-aspirants’ English-speaking skills. The education sector has also woken up to the reality that skilling is the way to go. India’stransformation into a knowledge and skill-oriented society also mandates an additional focus on communicative competence. Consequently, the English language teaching industry which has been making inroads into the career development space for a few decades now, has to provide better and pedagogically-sound learning content.
A lot of great work is being done by individual organisations and industry bodies and the need to recognise and reward such work is felt more urgently than ever today. More thought and effort needs to go into identifying and finding resolution for contemporary issues. Public—private collaboration and a roadmap to deliver consistently and efficiently on developing skills of our young workforce, aligned with a futuristic job scenario, would be the key to the country’s sustained economic success. Only time would tell how our leaders bring about this shift in thinking and pave the path for India’s consistent growth story.
Author is Managing Director, Cambridge University Press, South Asia