English Rises Again as India's Power Language

Article excerpt

This month a diplomat in Delhi reluctantly let his cook go. He knew the woman's husband worked little. He had even attended their daughter's wedding and gave a nice gift. The cook's salary, $120 a month, allowed a good living in Delhi.

The problem: The cook didn't speak English - and the diplomat needed someone to answer the phone when the new housekeeper was out.

The incident illustrates the growing power of English here, despite the fact that only 5 to 7 percent of India's 1 billion people speak it.

After a decade-long "Indianization" to teach regional languages in the schools - and remove British-era names of streets and places (Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta is Kolkata) - a middle-class consensus to spread the learning of English is emerging. For 50 years, English has been a language of privilege, but today it must become a more common vernacular, say intellectuals, business executives, and parents alike.

Already, as India continues to liberalize its economy, English is the language of commerce - of the stock exchange, Bombay deals, and job rsums. It is not only a symbol of cultural authority for the urban elite who pick up the patois of Indian English TV or gossip knowingly about Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, but also for an aspiring middle class who want to participate in politics and government.

"If we wish to be a global cyberpower, if we want a larger share of the world markets, if we want greater political relevance ... we could start out with a crash program to promote English, not Hindi," argues Shekar Gupta, editor of India's largest newspaper, The Indian Express. He points out that among the more prosperous populations of East Asia, English is becoming a compulsory second language.

Such calls ring louder in light of Indian President K.R. Narayanan's unusual warning to the nation last month in a Republic Day speech, in English, of "the fury of the patient and long- suffering people." President Narayanan - the first Dalit, or untouchable, to hold the ceremonial high office of president - cautioned about neglect of the poor at a time when the upper classes are getting wealthier. "We have one of the largest reservoirs of technical personnel, but also the world's largest numbers of illiterates," he said.

Acknowledging these realities, in December the government of Maharashtra, whose capital is Bombay, announced compulsory English lessons for all students from grade 6 onward. The move, like a similar one in West Bengal two years ago, reverses a policy of the early 1990s to teach only the local Marathi and Bengali languages in schools. Parents in Bombay were a major part of the lobbying effort to change the system.

Ajay, a father of three and a clerk in a Delhi firm, says he went to a Hindi-language school as a boy, but his children are learning English. …