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“India exporting English to China”

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on August 31, 2010 No Comment

That’s the title of an article posted in the Indian daily Hindustan Times‘ “World” section, screaming out to me during a routine search for what’s going on in the homeland. As tantalizing as the title is, one quickly learns that it is deceptively so:

Publishers in Beijing are lining up to check if books by Indian authors can teach Chinese students and call-centre employees better English than American textbooks. At a time when bilateral ties are strained, the neighbours are finding common ground over a foreign language.

Thus, contrary to the title, India isn’t exactly “exporting” English to the Chinese: Indian publishers are testing the waters, seeing if the highly coveted Chinese market will bite. I know newspaper editors do this all the time in creating headlines, but I felt this was a particularly egregious instance of false advertising.

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To place this in context, the broader Indian narrative about China is that English is the biggest advantage for Indians when it comes to competing with their neighbor in the international market. That is, it is English proficiency among many speakers that gives India a powerful edge in the new “global”  economy.

Now, let’s return to the article:

“The Chinese are greatly interested in copyright and translation rights for books to learn call-centre English,” Sanjiv Chawla, manager of exports at the Delhi-based Orient BlackSwan told HT at the fair. “The Chinese have a fixed idea that English is best taught by the Americans and British, so we have to explain that English is like a second language for Indians.”

“Call-center English”? Is that now considered a legitimate dialect of English or something?  I know there’s massive scholarship about language practices in call centers, but seeing it labeled as a particular kind of English is jarring. Is it the kind of English you need to know purely to deal with voices on a telephone? How utterly fascinating! And English is a like second language to Indians? Which Indians? What kind of English, “call-center” or “non-call center”?

Finally, the criticism that “Millions are learning English in China but outdated textbooks and rote-learning methods can leave even graduates with English majors tongue-tied at the workplace” seems ironic given that rote-memorization methods are still the predominant method of learning English in India. While many schools have English-medium instruction, the pedagogy is, it has been argued, focused on transmitting “scholastic English.” The emphasis is on reading and writing, whereas communicative skills are considered secondary. Many students are therefore not able to speak or write in English on their own, although they have studied the language for years. Not that we don’t have many students who come of the educational systems reasonably fluent in English: but are we there yet, where we can “export” it?

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