The Language of Instruction and the Narrative of Privilege

The unrecognized class bias and the resulting education gap calls for a rethink on the position of English and local languages in education.

It is true that linguistic diversity in India and Pakistan distinguishes them from countries like Japan, China, South Korea, and the Netherlands. But dealing with this diversity requires a conceptual separation of the need for a common language for communication from the choice of a language as the medium of instruction in education.

By Anjum Altaf

A recent interview between Karan Thapar and the finance minister of Tamil Nadu, Palanivel Thiaga Rajan (The Wire, 29 November 2022), is worth watching to get a sense of the prevailing opinion on the medium of instruction for higher education. It illustrates how it is possible to be both completely right and profoundly wrong on the same subject. Parsing this contradiction can provide a partial explanation for several persistent social and economic problems in South Asia.

The interview discussed whether technical education should be imparted in languages other than English. Leaving aside the perennial issue of which language should substitute for English, it was interesting that both participants were opposed per se to the use of regional languages for higher education. Both stated categorically that Hindi, for example, should not be used even at IIT Kanpur which is located in a Hindi-speaking region.

Their rationale was the familiar one of English being the language of modern science and technology and displacing it would hurt the global competitiveness of India and its students. Mr. Thapar mentioned that CEOs of sixteen of the major global tech firms were Indians and this wouldn’t have been the case had they not been educated in English. Mr. Rajan gave the specific example of Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent firm, asserting that had Mr Pichai, born in Madurai, been educated in the regional language at IIT Kharagpur, he would not have attained this position.

The interview discussed whether technical education should be imparted in languages other than English.

There is little doubt that if a Tamil-speaking student like Mr. Pichai had been made to study in Bengali or Hindi, languages alien to him, he would have been at a disadvantage vis a vis native speakers of those languages. It seems plausible to argue that recourse to English as the medium of instruction would negate this disadvantage and level the playing field for all. But this proposal glosses the class dimension of the solution which comes to light only on asking who is included in the “all” for whom the playing field is being levelled.

Students who enter the IITs and IIMs are more likely than not to have acquired proficiency in English at school. But many others are not so fortunate; students from small towns in UP would be hugely disadvantaged at IIT Kanpur if the English with which they entered was woefully inadequate. This disadvantage would be mitigated to some extent if the medium at IIT Kanpur were Hindi. This is an alternative perspective on levelling the playing field that is more inclusive than the first.

One is reminded of Arundhati Roy’s observation that India’s middle and upper classes have seceded vertically from the rest of the country and now exist somewhere up there in the stratosphere where they only interact with people like themselves (Roy 2007). One could read this exclusivity in Mr. Thapar’s concern that not being educated in English would severely handicap the chances of Indians who aspired to be Executive Directors at the IMF, World Bank or ADB, or wished to join the UN.

Mr. Thapar was not playing the devil’s advocate in the interview. He does believe that English confers this advantage without any tradeoffs. In a separate comment on Zareer Masani’s biography of Macaulay, he has written of the latter’s minute on education that “though undoubtedly disparaging of Indian science and philosophy, literature and religion, [it] is the reason why India has such strength in English…. That, I would add, is the basis of our success in IT and why we fare so well when we work abroad.”

Such unexamined biases can also lead to misinterpretation of evidence. In making the case for English, Mr. Rajan mentioned a study that established a strong correlation between proficiency in English and both the human capital index and productivity. He then read off the countries at the top of the list – the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, etc. While he was aware that none of these countries employed English as the medium of instruction and stressed proficiency in the language mainly to enhance the capabilities of their students, he derived the conclusion that favored his argument.

In fact, this evidence suggests exactly the opposite – that it is indeed possible to teach in languages other than English and yet be highly productive. If English were really related to productivity in the way Mr. Rajan inferred, these countries would have substituted it for their own languages from the outset. The conclusion also overlooks the fact that everyone in these countries has access to an acceptable quality of language instruction. It is not that some get the English of Eton and Harrow while others are taught by teachers who don’t know the language themselves.

Furthermore, the correlation does not even provide a definitive determination of whether the rise in productivity was due to instruction in the local language or of teaching English as a second language. One could ask how countries like Japan, South Korea and China became so productive without teaching in English or requiring every student to be proficient in the language. Or how Indonesia managed to progress without Dutch, the language of the country with the highest productivity on Mr. Rajan’s list. These countries may not have as many global CEOs, Executive Directors at IFIs, or officials at the UN but they are well ahead of India in all indicators of development. This does not support a causal association between English and productivity; there might be some other variables at play.

One such variable, the education gap, is starkly illustrated by this account from Japan (Sen 2003):

“The Fundamental Code of Education, issued in 1872 (shortly after the Meiji restoration in 1868), expressed the public commitment to make sure that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person”. Thus – with the closing of educational gaps – began Japan’s remarkable history of rapid economic development. By 1910 Japan was almost fully literate, at least for the young, and by 1913, though still very much poorer than Britain or America, Japan was publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States. The concentration on education determined, to a large extent, the nature and speed of Japan’s economic and social progress.”

At the same time “[T]he medium of instruction was also a factor. The Japanese had insisted on their own language. The result was that modern knowledge and scientific spirit through the popular medium could percolate down to the masses. In India, colonial education widened the gulf and accentuated the age-old divide” between head and hand (Kumar 2021).

It is precisely the education gap and lack of percolation of modern knowledge that led Lant Pritchett to describe India as the ‘flailing state’ (Pritchett 2009):

“India is an emerging global superpower as its rapid growth has transformed its economy and has maintained itself as the world’s largest democracy. But at the same time India lags in many dimensions—its malnutrition rate is one of the highest in the world, its immunization rates are lower than most African countries, and Bangladesh has a better infant mortality rate. I argue that this is in part because the Indian state is “flailing”—it’s very capable head is no longer reliably connected to the arms and legs of implementation.” 

English can conceivably serve both purposes but only if all children in the country have the same quality of instruction in the language.

The interplay of language and education should bring to mind other Indians like Tagore, Gandhi, Amartya Sen, and Gyatri Spivak, who have arguably had a greater impact in the world than global CEOs, IFI EDs, and UN bureaucrats. All of them are on record that being schooled in the home language made a huge contribution to their intellectual development in addition to the acquisition of skills. English was an addition to rather than a substitute for their local languages. Gandhi (1946) had, in fact, referred explicitly to the choice of languages even for technical education.

The unrecognized class bias and the resulting education gap calls for a rethink on the position of English and local languages in education. It is true that linguistic diversity in India and Pakistan distinguishes them from countries like Japan, China, South Korea, and the Netherlands. But dealing with this diversity requires a conceptual separation of the need for a common language for communication from the choice of a language as the medium of instruction in education.

English can conceivably serve both purposes but only if all children in the country have the same quality of instruction in the language. If that is not possible, it would be more equitable, and also pedagogically more effective, to be taught in a local language while English is offered as a second language. In such an alternative, each IIT/IIM could teach in its regional language in which case Mr. Sundar Pichai would not have gone to IIT Kharagpur but to IIT Madras where he would not have been disadvantaged. At the same time, thousands of students from the catchment areas of these institutions handicapped by being deficient in English would have gained.

One should ask why early exposure to English is so skewed if the intention is to have all higher education in the language. One hypothesis is offered by Peggy Mohan in her book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages (2021) – the skew persists because privileged access to English results in a congruence of caste and class advantage that gives the elite an insurmountable edge over everyone else. Mohan notes the fact that the British had made English the medium of Instruction only from Standard 6; it was Indians who, when they had the choice, pushed it back to Class 1 without ensuring equal access for all.

Another perspective on this issue would emerge by questioning the purpose of higher education in India and the metric to gauge its success. Is the achievement of India’s IITs and IIMs to be measured by the number of CEOs of global corporations, Executive Directors of IFIs, and Assistant Secretary Generals at the UN? Is the success of medical schools to be assessed by the ease with which Indian doctors can practise in the West?

What are these institutions contributing to the development of India itself which was recently ranked 107th on the Global Hunger Index (2022) and has perhaps the highest prevalence of severe malnutrition in the world? How effectively are physicians trained in English taking the histories of the vast majority of patients who know not a single word of the language? The entire education system seems to be geared to provide an escape into the stratosphere for a lucky few at the expense of both the education and welfare of the unfortunate many.

There are those who concede the efficacy of local languages but argue that by now it is too difficult to revert to them for higher education.

Asides from everything else, the contradiction in the stance on local languages expressed in the interview is full of irony. On one hand is the pride in regional languages which architectural digs have confirmed are thousands of years old and in which amazing work has been accomplished in all fields. On the other there is the acceptance that these languages are not capable of dealing with modern science, technology, and medicine. This is what Mr. Thapar is asserting by subscribing to Macaulay’s conclusion that India could not progress without English and that one shelf of a library in England was worth the entire stock of books in Indian languages. Macaulay is to be admired for anticipating what India needed almost two hundred years ago.

There are those who concede the efficacy of local languages but argue that by now it is too difficult to revert to them for higher education. Yes, many countries have succeeded while teaching in local languages – Japan, Korea, China, Denmark, Russia, among others. But South Asia has allowed its languages to be impoverished and it will now take a very long time for them to become capable of acquiring the vocabulary needed for modern disciplines. At the same time, marginalized social groups have become insistent on an education in English and their demand cannot be denied in a democracy. Given these considerations, there is no alternative but to continue down the path initiated by Macaulay.

A number of responses to this argument-by-inertia are possible. First, while there are many examples of countries progressing while teaching in local languages, there are hardly any of countries doing so while teaching in a foreign language, or, more broadly, where the rulers and the ruled speak different languages. What is the guarantee that a hundred years of going down this path will get India to where its founding vision intended it to? This seemed obvious to Gandhi (1938) who said “If we borrow another [culture] we impoverish our own.”

Second, the demand of the left-out groups for English is not based on any conviction of the superiority of English as a language. It is simply a reflection of the fact that Indians have made English the passport for decent employment. It would just take a stroke of the pen to change the filter for selection which would impact immediately the skills upward-aspiring people would seek to acquire. More so when there would be no bar to learning English while the medium of instruction was a local language.

Third, contrary to the claim that it would take a very long time to prepare local languages for higher education, one can cite examples of countries where the language of elites was foreign (e.g. Russia and Vietnam where it was French) but which shifted to their own languages within reasonably manageable timeframes. The most dramatic case is that of Iceland which for centuries was under Norwegian and Danish rule and became fully sovereign only in 1944. Yet, the language policy of the University of Iceland (2016) requires all subjects, including science and technology, to be taught in Icelandic. If a language with fewer than half a million speakers can acquire such capabilities, surely Indian languages could do the same. Gandhi (1946) was aware of this dilemma but quite clear on its resolution: “The medium of instruction should be altered at once and at any cost, the provincial languages being given their rightful place. I would prefer temporary chaos in higher education to the criminal waste that is daily accumulating“.

Fourth, it is a misconception that teaching science in a local language requires finding a local equivalent for every scientific term. The instruction can be in the local language while specific terms that have entered common use can be retained from the English lexicon. By way of a historical parallel one need not look beyond the Arabic terms of science in English – algorithm, algebra, alcohol, alchemy, etc. It is a long list. This is how engineering, law, and medicine were taught in local languages in Roorkee from 1938 and in Hyderabad till 1950 (Kumar 1984).

This leaves a number of questions for further consideration:

First, when we talk of levelling the linguistic playing field why is the emphasis so overwhelmingly on the horizontal (regional) axis at the complete exclusion of the vertical (class) one? Why does elite privilege so outweigh equal education in the minds of Indian opinion makers?

Second, why do we so undervalue our local languages with their long histories and remarkable achievements in scholarship across all disciplines?

And third, while the obvious answer to the above two questions is the protection of elite privilege inherited from the colonial period, we still need to explore how other countries managed to forge a different path, e.g., Russia, Vietnam, and Iceland? China, when it regained Hong Kong, changed the medium of instruction from English to Cantonese (Evans 2002) despite all the global advantages conferred by the former and without suffering any great loss in the bargain. An exploration of these experiences might offer some inkling of how the politics of transition from English to local languages in India might be crafted. A transition is important because without one we may be fated to prove Gandhi (1938) right when he warned that “[W]e can never grow on foreign victuals.”


0-Anjum-Altaf-1Dr. Anjum Altaf earned his PhD from Stanford University. He was Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He is the author of Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction and What We Get Wrong About Education in Pakistan, both published by Folio Books, Lahore, in 2022.

Courtesy: Dr. Anjum Altaf/The South Asian Idea (Received on Jan 30, 2023)

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