The return of the English empire

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Feb 18 2006, 05:30am hrs
Andhra Pradesh recently directed all government schools in the state to introduce English from Class III instead of Class VI and to introduce it as the medium of instruction at the primary level in all residential schools for children of SCs, STs and BCs. Ministers justified this by saying that this will not dilute the importance of the mother tongue, or the official languages policy, but will promote needed skills among children with the boom in ICT and the services sectors.

Livelihood and employment generation projects of the AP government, NGOs and corporates have also started improving the supply of labour that speaks decent English, handles the internet, and is customer-friendly. Many forecast the huge numbers that will be required in towns for the increasing range of financial services, restaurants, retail chains and internet cafes, apart from call centres and BPOs. Training institutes have mushroomed to free youth from their accenteven if some teachers still say ischool for a school or forformance for performance.

It now appears that the policymakers were unduly influenced by the USSR model where Russian was promoted successfully as the link language. The issue there was between the national and regional languages and there was no apparent quarrel with English. The vision for India was both to promote a link language and de-emphasise English as a measure of nationalism. It is another matter that the policymakers knew English better than their mother tongue.

While the massive opposition in the 60s in some states has reshaped the initial attempt for a link language to an unworkable three language formula, practical difficulties have halted eradication of English. Despite the hard push by the government at the Centre and in some states, scheduled languages may have barely covered schools and junior colleges and the social sciences and humanities streams.

Engineering, medicine and other professional and technical courses were just not amenable to cannibalisation. Software, medical prescriptions, digital codes, international invoices, internet material or insurance transcriptions cannot be translated and retranslated at will. Court judgments continue to be in English, as also most parliamentary debates. All large hotels, tourist operators, travel agents, airline staff and even receptionists in government offices continue to speak English, even if some abuse it with expressions such as Sirji.

AP recently asked all govt schools to begin teaching English from class III
Software, digital codes, etc are in English; cant be translated at will
Knowledge of English essential for skill and knowledge development
Government documents and reports provide Hindi translations in diglot form rather apologetically. Many state in the preface: Under Article 343 of the Constitution, Hindi in Devnagiri script is the official language of the Union. The Official Language (Amendment) Act, 1967 further provides for the use of English in addition to Hindi for all official purposes of the Union Government... While every effort has been made to make the Hindi translation correspond to its English text as closely as possible, the English text may be referred to where the meaning is not clear from the translation.

Ironically, usage of English in such documents was meant to be a mere concession, but the referral point for the accuracy of the Hindi text remains English! The situation is no different in respect of languages and official documents at the state level. If Indian languages have been promoted at all, it has been through the cinema and the media and not because a couple of words are displayed every day on blackboards at the entrances of government offices and public enterprises.

It is time we acknowledged officially the impossibility of establishing a true link language, especially one that connects the rural masses, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. We also need to accept the importance of English in achieving the goals of higher skills, knowledge development and employment generation in keeping with the new demands of trade, commerce, industry and communications, both domestic and international.

However, as such an admission would be politically imprudent, we may not see amendments to the Constitution, or to the official policy. But this should not prevent government agencies, the private sector and civil society organisations from pursuing a more pragmatic strategyjust as in China and Russiaof rapidly teaching English and other soft skills to our youth. These efforts must be promoted as part of a skill development and employment generation strategy than as confronting the official language policyit may be left to totter, as it has all these years.