Realising the power of language

Tags: Op-ed
Realising the power of language
ONE BY ONE: Today India, too, can claim that English is its very own domain and property, a language in which it functions without any kowtow to the former colonial power
A Japanese acquaintance who is in charge of India in his company, recently raised the issue of the future of English in India. He was concerned that particularly in northern India, there was a clear trend towards Hindi, and that when recruiting staff, he was noticing a marked decline in English proficiency amongst the applicants. He wondered why India might be losing one of the major assets when it has been compared with other major Asian countries, notably Japan and China where the spread of English language capabilities leaves a lot to be desired.

Together with religion and ethnicity, language is the key element that defines identity. It is, therefore, always a delicate issue, particularly when real or perceived injuries resulting from history such as war or colonialism, are involved. It is interesting that in most Asian countries, the language of the former colonial masters has disappeared. Nobody speaks Spanish in the Philippines, nobody is keen to learn Dutch in Indonesia and in formerly French Indochina, French language is an exotic eccentricity.

This, of course, contrasts with the spread of English in the world and in particular in Asia. A generation after the devastating war with the US, young Vietnamese want to learn English and want to study in the US. Practically everywhere in Asia, the most favoured foreign language is English which is today not anymore the result of colonial affinities, but simply because English is the world language of the 21st century. Globalisation in the economy and in communication has led to an additional strengthening of the pre-eminence of English, as those who command this language can participate in the lucrative global markets of goods, ideas, technologies and services.

India, after China, is the second most populous country in the world. In a foreseeable future, the Indian Union will have more inhabitants and sounder demographics than the People’s Republic. India ranks amongst the five biggest economies in the world and its economic strength will continue to grow at a strong rate, outpacing most industrial countries in the world. In military and technological terms, India can claim to belong to the emerging major powers in the world. All this justifiably raises the question whether India should not focus on its major domestic language Hindi and claim more respect for it around the world.

The Chinese example may be useful. Under Mao Zedong, China had kept a distance to the world. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping started an ambitious programme of socioeconomic reform and modernisation. Industrial and infrastructural development took off at amazing speed and soon China became the envy of the world in terms of double-digit economic growth. Early in the 21st century, the Chinese leadership recognised that the status of a new world power does not only rest on material achievements but also requires soft power. In 2004, Beijing started an ambitious programme of establishing Confucius institutes around the globe. Today almost 500 such institutes exist and their task is to spread Chinese culture and Chinese language around the world.

In Europe, Chinese is taught in many public schools and the knowledge of Chinese is very useful for making a career in industry or banking, but there is no interest in Hindi. Of course, there are some highly specialised university institutes that deal with Hindi and with the other major languages on the Indian subcontinent. However, I know of no company where a posting in India requires people to be trained in an Indian language. On the other hand, it is definitely an advantage to master Chinese if you aim to make a career in a company with strong Chinese business links.

The question arises why there is such a discrepancy between two countries that both claim an eminent position in the world of the 21st century. One answer is of course that the use of English is much more widespread in India than in China. The second answer rests in the history of China. In the 3rd century BC, emperor Qin Shi Huang pursued an often brutal campaign to unite the country. Amongst the fields where his unification drive was particularly successful was language. The emperor unified the written and official language for his whole country. There are of course strong dialects and many minor regional languages in today’s China, but in essence all Chinese master the same language, Mandarin.

India has missed this chance of unification and looking at its rich linguistic and cultural diversity. It did the right thing in not going the Chinese way. One of the reasons why average Indians are much more versatile than average Chinese, lies in this diversity. However, for modern businesses and administration, it is essential to have a national link language. As Hindi is not present in the wider world, English is the most efficient tool. It is, however, not only an issue of convenience. India, after the US and the UK is today the third country in the world in terms of English language publications. The US would not deem English a colonial legacy. Today India, too, can claim that English is its very own domain and property, a language in which it functions without any kowtow to the former colonial power.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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