As educated Indians, we are aware of the dangers of prejudice that stems from casteism, gender discrimination or communalism. Therefore, it is amazing that a majority of people are blind to perhaps the most blatant discrimination that we practice, daily – the Great Language Divide.
Put simply, if you are not fluent in English, you are severely disadvantaged in a country where at a conservative estimate, less than 30% (300 million people) are English speakers.
English is the language of the corporate world, of financial business, the language in which you receive most official communication and documents. It is even the language on the label of a medicine bottle, a doctor’s prescription, or your hospital bill. The majority of people in this country are at a disadvantage, because they do not understand English.
But the ‘Angrezi’ world is only the manifestation of the real problem, which lies inside people’s heads. The problem is that we believe that learning English puts us in an elite and privileged league, which former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru referred to the ‘English knowing caste’. If we do not look down on people who cannot speak English, we at least pity them and feel that they are losing out on opportunities. And for some strange reason, we persist in believing that the people who do not speak English belong to ‘poor’ or ‘rural’ India. Otherwise, they would have had the means to learn English, or access to an English course, right? And let’s also admit it, if someone speaks broken English, especially in a corporate context, we think that they have a ‘communication problem’. Never mind, that the same person has absolutely no problem in expressing his views in his/her mother tongue.
It seems that English speaking is a new, silent caste system by which we include or exclude people from access to advantages. Do we equate a person’s socioeconomic status, with their ability to speak English?
In the internet world, we certainly seem to think so. Local language content and app development has significantly lagged behind English language, with the result that the internet in India is largely targeted at rich people. This, despite the fact that there are more than 600 million mobile phone users, and 900 million-plus active mobile connections, and this potentially represents the number of active internet connections we could have.
Here are some truths about the so-called poor, rural, vernacular user:
- 54% of India’s young population (550 million people) is less than 25 years of age. Clearly, English is not the language to reach out to a large section of youth.
- According to the Census, the most spoken languages in India are Hindi (422 mn), Bengali (83 million), Telugu (75 mn), Marathi (71 mn) and Tamil (60 mn). Even allowing for multi-lingual speakers, at least 50% of the population speaks a language other than English. Hindi and Bengali figure amongst the list of top 10 languages spoken globally. However, they do not figure amongst the top 10 languages used on the internet. (Source : Next Big What)
- A survey by IAMAI and IMRB done in 2013 across rural and urban India, reported that lack of local language content was a major barrier for internet access, and if it was enabled, the internet user base would increase by 23%.
- Blogger Samanth Subramanian observes that since 2012, major newspapers including Times of India and The Hindu have ventured away from their traditional English bastions to woo the new age vernacular reader of Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati etc. To quote, “These papers are finding exceptionally diverse audiences: youngsters buying their first paper, older adults to whom a paper has never been marketed before, people who are the first readers in their families, and urban subscribers who purchaseThe Hindu in Tamil or Bennett Coleman’s Bengali paper alongside their regular English daily.” Also, advertising rates in vernacular newspapers has risen steadily, while English papers have seen a decline or stagnation.
- The growing middle class and upper middle class in India is swelled by additions from small towns, who prefer to read in their native language, even if they know English.
At one time, we turned to English, a foreign language, to unite us in the face of a vast language diversity that threatened to divide our nation. Greenberg’s diversity index is a chart that scores a country’s diversity according to the probability that two individuals who met randomly would share the same mother tongue. India scores 0.9 on the index, indicating an almost total diversity (i.e. If two people met, they would definitely not share the same mother tongue). We dealt with the issue by making the choice of English as the most non-contentious official language to unite the nation. But in the process, we created long term problems that we are still struggling to get rid of.
The India of 2015 is a vibrant country, filled with optimism and energy to effect transformation. In this new India, let us be unafraid to celebrate our diversity, especially our rich vernacular diversity. Here’s looking forward to more vernacular content, more acceptance of local language in all walks of life and above all, to a shift in our mindset. Let vernacular languages be the ‘in thing’ and let us stop elevating the ‘English knowing caste’ above the masses.