Asia

Will English kill off India's languages?

  • 29 November 2011
  • From the section Asia
A business process outsourcing unit in India
Why shouldn't India build on its advantage in English?

Whether the government, the private sector or NGOs should deliver development is a question which will not have much relevance unless India's wealth continues to grow to pay for that development.

English is one of the advantages India has which are said to be propelling it to economic superpower status.

There are all those Indians who speak excellent English. It's the mother tongue of the elite and effectively the official language of the central government. Then there is the growing number of parents who now aspire to give their children an education through the medium of that language. But is the craze for English an unmixed blessing?

Back in the sixties the British regarded Indian English as something of a joke. The comic actor Peter Sellers had mocked it so comprehensively that I found it well nigh impossible to get the BBC to allow anyone with even the faintest Indian accent on the air.

In India, we native English speakers laughed at quaint phrases like "please do the necessary and oblige", or more simply "please do the needful", and "it is suggested that the meeting be preponed", which appeared regularly in Indian official correspondence.

Feted writers

A senior British diplomat once suggested that his PA should find some less geographically specific way of answering the telephone when he couldn't take the call than saying, "Sahib is not on his seat". Much to the diplomat's dismay a colleague told him that his PA had misunderstood the instruction and been even more specific. He'd told the colleague, "Sahib is in the lavatory."

Indian writers are carrying off major literary awards

Now with Indian writers carrying off the major literary awards, and Westerners in the IT and BPO industries talking of being "bangalored" when they are replaced by English-speaking Indians, Indian English is anything but a joke.

But could the very success of English in India "bangalore" India's own languages?

The linguist Professor David Crystal speaking in Delhi said: "A language is dying every two weeks somewhere in the world today. Half the world's languages will no longer be spoken in another century. This is an extremely serious concern, and English has to share the blame." Others put it less politely, describing English as a killer language.

But should India worry if English kills off some of its 22 officially recognised and hundreds of its not-so-official languages?

Perhaps the answer is no.

In his book comparing the future of India, China, and Japan, the former editor of The Economist, Bill Emmott, said India fell short of China in almost every measure except the ability to speak English.

So why shouldn't India build on its one advantage? One practical reason is because, looking back over the history of India since it became independent in 1947, it is clear that any threat to Indian languages has the potential to provoke a violent backlash.

Mark Tully is a writer and former BBC India correspondent. This is an edited extract from his new book, Non Stop India, published by Penguin Books, India