Beyond English

Date:   Monday , May 31, 2004

In popular understanding India’s recent success on the economic front—particularly in IT and services—is often attributed to the English language. While the knowledge of English has been a positive factor in some cases, an elite fixation on the English medium of education is also a detriment to broad-based, sustained economic growth.

No more than 10 percent of the population in India knows English; an even smaller percentage is fluent in it. India’s biggest leverage over the coming years is going to be the size of its working population. A cost advantage in labor in services like IT and BPO can be sustained only if we manage not to restrict the labor pool to 10 percent of the working population; and thus act like a country a tenth of our size.
For the vast number of children being educated in Indian villages, English still remains a very high barrier to entry. The rural environment neither attracts good English teachers nor does it provide opportunities for practicing the language. English is also a particularly difficult language to learn for non-native speakers because it is phonetically and logically inconsistent.

While one may be tempted to see India’s existing employment pool as vast, any IT manager is aware that the best talent is always scarce. English-centric bias has often stereotyped non-English speaking villagers as stupid and ignorant.

I spent the summer of 2002 visiting various village schools to ascertain the truth of these assumptions. I carried with me standardized non-verbal IQ tests from the U.S., normed on the US population. I administered these tests to schoolchildren in Indian village schools, as well as elite and slums schools in urban areas. The results of these tests are in the chart.
The urban sample consists of children going to elite urban schools in the U.S. and India. The rural sample and the slum (defined as that economic society living below the poverty line in urban zones) sample were obtained from tests administered to rural and slum children in India respectively. N represents the number of children that were sampled in each case. The bars represent the percent of children that score within a given percentile level for each segment.

From the results we see that rural children in India outscored both the urban and slum children in the test scores. In one remote private village school in Haryana, a state in northern India, I found that 33 percent of the children scored above the 90th percentile on the American norm!

While the sample size is small, it points to the talent that lies latent in rural India. These children were fruitfully learning math and sciences in Hindi medium, yet they will undergo a difficult language shift were they to pursue higher studies in engineering, medicine or business in India.

There has been an assumption in popular commentaries that India’s software success is a result of its English-language skills imparted as a result of English medium. This assumption bears examining. Clearly other former British colonies, such as Kenya, where there are a large percentage of English-speaking people should show a similar advantage. Conversely, countries like Israel where English is only taught as a second language have been very successful in software on technical fields, proportionally far more than in India. The Technion, Israel’s premier technology institution requires knowledge of Hebrew. On a visit to Microsoft Israel I was intrigued to find that they had Hebrew keyboards and internal presentations and interviews were usually done in Hebrew.

More recently, I met with about 150 college-going children in India from very poor backgrounds. Many children spoke of the difficult transition from schooling in their mother tongue to English-medium higher education. A girl who was first in debates in her school felt tongue-tied in English in college. Another boy said that his writing speed in examinations was affected. Yet a third spoke of lack of confidence in appearing for interviews in the private sector, invariably conducted in the English language.

I found this English-language corporate obsession, even in the IT field in India, particularly baffling. At Microsoft, we flew down Software Engineering candidates from Russia and other countries in our un-ending thirst for high quality talent. Some of these engineers barely spoke a word of English. We would interview them by writing down problems symbolically. I used a Russian engineer from my team to conduct interviews in Russian to get an accurate assessment of their skills. I was quite sure that the little English that the needed for the programming job, they could acquire over time – acquiring brains, on the other hand, is a much more challenging proposition!

Yet it appears that corporate India has not gotten over the colonial obsession with English as a designator of intelligence and class. I don’t know many software companies that conduct their interviews in Indian languages. While companies have explored setting up subsidiaries in Mexico, for instance, to tap the talent there, very few companies think of subsidiaries in different Indian regions that would have an office environment geared to regional language speakers.

While one becomes a doctor or engineer in Japan or Israel studying in Japanese and Hebrew medium respectively, this is impossible in India. This remains a serious obstacle for broad-based economic prosperity in India. In fact, there is not a single country in the top 20 by per capita GDP (only 4 of which are English-speaking) without higher education in the languages of the masses, while 18 of the bottom 20 suffer from this debilitating lack.
There is little reason why someone in Tamil Nadu cannot become a doctor by studying in a Tamil-medium medical college, as would their counterparts in Japan or South Korea in their languages. Similarly, professional education in engineering and business should be readily available in the local languages. This requires a systematic drive for professional higher education in the regional languages and the reduction of English-based entry barriers to jobs in both the government and private sectors. For India to be a developed country, economic opportunities need to become broad-based and inclusive. For this a clear focus on local language access for higher education as well as a less blinkered corporate approach on language is necessary.