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English Next India: The Numbers Game

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 2, 2010 No Comment

A recent article in the Times of India discusses the state of English education in India, a language which is one of the focal points in discourses around “development.” Progress, one hears often, depends on our English skills-the nation’s very future depends on how well we speak/read/write the language.  So much so, that the Indian Supreme Court recently “warned the government that China would overtake India as the largest English speaking country if the government did not pay attention to the education sector.”

Number crunching by different agencies seems to suggest that the number of English learners is rising exponentially. The number of students attending (recognized) English medium schools has more than doubled in five years, and there are also thousands of English medium schools that are well attended, but not recognized, so the actual numbers could be astronomical.

The article also cites a British Council study entitled “English is India’s passport to economic success” (Nov. 2009). The study, TOI reports, suggests that more students are attending private schools because “parents are aware of the importance of English-medium education.” English is quickly gaining momentum in rural areas in particular-it held the fourth position as a medium of instruction in the country in 2006, but is currently second and it shows no signs of abating. All’s not exactly rosy, however. The British Council suggested that “the growth is still not fast enough and the skill level remains poor”; it was deemed “too slow” in comparison to other nations (specifically, China).That’s not all:

“[The report] says that a “huge shortage” of teachers and quality institutions is hampering India despite a growing demand for English skills. The study further states that China may now have more people who speak English than India. This could threaten India’s English advantage in the global market.”

Of course, the Council does not only point to the nation’s linguistic challenge, but also offers to step in and come to India’s aid: “We’re ready to help develop India’s capacity for English learning in the future and ensure that people have the opportunity to take part in the global economy.” Of course, what remains unstated is that none of that will be cheap.

Few reports have riled me up as much as this one did. Obviously, the British Council tries to tap into the Indian government’s bubbling fears about China leaving us in its dust, by stressing that the Chinese are leaving us behind in terms of English language skills. While the report indicates that the numbers tell the story, they rarely ever do. Five per cent of Indians speak English, according to the report. It states that only 55 million people will be fluent in English by this year in India, whereas China adds about 2o million speakers per annum. But the numbers tell us nothing: how is “fluency” determined? Who do we understand as a “speaker”? What do numbers really tell us about language proficiency in this instance? Exactly nothing. Yet the Council’s report tries to present the numbers in an alarming way in order to get the Indian government panicked and rushing out to the Council for help. And apparently, the Indian government did just that.

The British Council in New Delhi

The British Council in New Delhi

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