Art & Culture

13 ways of looking at English: This language gets work done in India

Sreetilak Sambhanda
Sreetilak SambhandaMar 21, 2018 | 18:48

13 ways of looking at English: This language gets work done in India


The debate whether we should love or hate English has now been concluded heavily in favour of the lovers. The main ideas of the anti-English argument, keeping mother tongues alive, preserving traditions, cultural protectionism, fighting the linguistic class system, etc have been trumped by one simple idea: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral. First comes food, then come ideals. In the knowledge economy, English is a breadwinning skill. Culture can barely put up a fight against economic whirlwinds, let alone resist them. In other words, turning against English is costly.


India’s first minister of education Maulana Azad wrote: “One thing is quite clear and definite, and I have no doubt that any Indian will disagree with me. The position English occupies […] in our educational and official life cannot be sustained in future.” 1 He couldn't foresee that in future Indians would, in fact, quite disagree with him. In reality, has English displaced our languages any more than computers have taken away our jobs? Even if it has, India has beaten English by learning it.

vegetable_042417092530.jpgWe are in awe of everyone but ourselves. Photo: IndiaToday.in

The unstoppable pro-English cult today has such swashbuckling poster boys as Shashi Tharoor, who would address questions as national and existential as “Why I am a Hindu” in English.

The talisman

Like it not our educational and economic system favours people skilled in English. This is very similar to the good fortune enjoyed by Sanskrit and Persian at different points of our history. English has come to be a passport to personal progress and a talisman to ward off socioeconomic backwardness. What is the most visible thing about those whose success is powered by their education? In most cases, it is the fact that they speak English.


Get things done

Even though the quality of English hasn't improved much, its spread has. This is understandable as people's interest is primarily in the things available through English – education, technology, the Internet, products and services – and not in English itself. From the smartphone keyboard to social media apps, from bank statements to medical prescriptions, the average Indian faces more screens, signboards and printed pages in English than in any other language. English is, overwhelmingly, the language that gets things done.

Live English

If English is mainly a functional language, a tool, what about the talk of English as a way of life, a language to think in? There exists a tribe among us, as I contended in my 2006 book2 on the social life of English in India, that lives and breathes, exclusively, English. Children of interlingual marriages in urban India often speak only English. These families contribute to a generation whose identity is not regional or linguistic, but collective and national. A recent article by another writer in a news website elaborates this idea: “It takes an effort for the kids to speak in the Indian tongues, beyond a few simple phrases. English, on the other hand, comes naturally to them; the larger vocabulary they possess in English helping them express complex thoughts and propositions far easily.”3


Bridge unshakeable

Successive generations of “nationalists” have failed to popularise any other language (Hindi, in fact) as a bridge between speakers of different Indian languages. Today, with plenty of regional-language content on the internet, in print and on the telly, and plenty of English elsewhere for academic and intellectual pursuits, Hindi sits red-faced like an uninvited guest in the fringes of the school syllabi outside the Hindi belt. The most likely everyday use of Hindi for non-academic purposes in a south Indian state today would be to chat with a migrant labourer from the north.

National bestseller

For long, the perception that Hindi is the national language of India enjoyed wide credence, except that no one could officially confirm it. In 2010, the Rajasthan High Court stated, “...there is nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country.” 4 This has always been true in practice in non-Hindi India, where excepting in contexts that statutorily require Hindi, public services and commerce are conducted in regional languages and, increasingly, in English. In the smallest of small towns in India, you can find teaching shops selling various English-related skills to an ever-growing clientele. Good luck finding a board that says, “Spoken Hindi” or “Allahabadi Accent”! Whatever, the national language, English is the nation's bestselling language.

Against English

High-profile detractors of English include Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote (in English, no doubt): “Of all superstitions that affect India, none is so great as that a knowledge of the English language is necessary for imbibing ideas of liberty and developing accuracy of thought.” 5 Thoughtful criticism of English continues to be expressed. Former diplomat Pavan Parma wrote in 2010, “The truth is that English has become a language of social exclusion: the upper crust of the Indian middle class presides over this linguistic apartheid; the rest of India consists of victims and aspirants.” 6

A 2014 article in Forbes echoes this sentiment: “It is incomprehensible that the majority of people in India are being oppressed by the mere lack of knowledge of a language. By not having medical instructions, food ingredient labels and nutritional information, government forms, access to the courts and politicians, street signs, and even movie tickets in their mother tongue, they are being harmed in the most discriminatory of manners.

This goes beyond a basic democratic right to just being inherently illogical and prejudiced.”7 In June 2017, Venkaiah Naidu, two months away from being elected Vice President, said: “It is our misfortune that we give too much importance to English medium… By learning the English language, we have also developed an English mindset.”8

Dark English

Isn't that proof enough that there is negative side to English? English gets a dark when it is used as a licence to boast, a right to be prejudiced, a pretext to generalise, an excuse to be disinterested, and as a cause of pride.

Pedantry, hypocrisy, vanity, arrogance, scorn – all these can be comfortably cloaked in English. It can be argued though that English per se is innocent of all these attitudinal sins and the things that come through English – education, wealth and social status – are primarily to blame. Is it that English is an easy target because of its visibility, that money, power or any other form of social stratification can also yield equally nasty consequences?


Indian English is disparaged on the grounds that it is unnuanced and inorganic: there is experiential loss when a learnt language is used in place of a lived language. This is largely true. India’s numerical advantage of being the second largest English-speaking country in the world does not place English at par with Indian languages. We seem to know which to prefer: the beauty of our mother tongues or the unfeeling inflections of English. Then there is the generation of linguistically challenged Indians (LCI) who were schooled in English but never taught good English – people with neither a mother tongue nor an other tongue.

Native losers

At times, though, the pared-down, unnuanced variety of English serves you better. Quoting multiple studies, an interesting BBC article 9 concluded that “native speakers of English are the world’s worst communicators” in global multilingual settings with English as the common language! There are more non-native speakers of English in the world than native speakers.

“The non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture...”

The English channel

Whatever your grudge against English, you would have been less informed without English. That's because this is the default channel through which knowledge flows; this is the language, among those the largest number of us understand, in which information is kept available for those who seek it. Then what about countries that do not speak English, yet are ahead in everything: Germany, France, China and Japan? Before this debate goes any further, imagine that I am setting up an artificial intelligence lab and all I know is Malayalam. No prizes for guessing how far I will go. Let's agree that English can at least save us the translation time.

Lost and found

English has helped in rediscovering various intellectual and artistic traditions of India like no other language has. Its neutrality, or lack of baggage, recontextualises art, architecture, classical literature, classical music, indigenous medicine, yoga and much of intangible heritage through instant defamiliarisation. English facilitated the export of India’s soft power by the likes of Swami Vivekananda, BKS Iyengar and Pandit Ravi Shankar, besides countless academics, scholars, dancers, philosophers and gurus. India’s own expanding middle class is more intellectually curious than ever, digging into its history and culture with unprecedented passion and rapacity.

Winners and winners

Why does English always win? Because no one loses when it wins. Numerous historical, political and economic factors massively favour English. Among them are globalisation and the information revolution. The displacement of local knowledge and languages from the education system has been blamed, unfairly, on English instead of on misguided policy and muddle-headed implementation. English is a valuable skill, and having one skill will not need you to lose another.

At the bottom of the webpage where the particularly censorious 2014 article that calls English an oppressor were four advertisements, placed presumably by text-analysing algorithms: “Learn English Fast”, “English as a Second Language Courses”, “Learn English with audio”, “English Learning Course”! Poetic justice.


1. Kumar, Ravindra (ed.). Selected Works of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Vol. 3. Delhi: Atlantic, 1991. 100.

2. Sambhanda, Sreetilak. Fiction in Films, Films in Fiction: The Making of New English India. Delhi: Viva, 2006. 104.

4. ‘Hindi Not the National Language’. The Hindu. 25 January 2010. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Hindi-not-a-national-language-Court/article16839525.ece

5. Quoted in Varma, Pavan K. Becoming Indian. Delhi: Allen Lane. 2010. 71–2.

6. Ibid.

7. Aula, Sahith. ‘The Problem with the English Language in India’. 6 November 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/11/06/the-problem-with-the-english-language-in-india/#7d07ea3c403e

8. ‘Important to learn ‘Rashtra Bhasha’ Hindi: Venkaiah Naidu’. The Indian Express. 24 June 2017. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/important-to-learn-rashtra-bhasha-hindi-venkaiah-naidu-4720183/

9. Morrison, Lennox. ‘Native English Speakers Are the World’s Worst Communicators’. BBC Capital. 31 October 2016. http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161028-native-english-speakers-are-the-worlds-worst-communicators

Last updated: March 21, 2018 | 18:48
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