About 46 percent of Indian teenagers in rural areas can now understand simple English, and this triumph of the language is to be commended.
IIn the mass of generally grim figures released this week in Pratham’s annual State of Education report (ASER) for 2017, there is one remarkable statistic: that 58% of the sample – taken from the 14-18 age group years in rural areas – could read a single sentence in English. And four out of five of them could explain what the sentence meant. That’s 46% of the total who could not only read but also understand simple English sentences – and that’s in rural India.
Compare that with what the census said in 2001: that only 12 percent of Indians used English as a second or third language (a tiny 0.2 percent mentioned English as their mother tongue or first language). English was only listed alongside Hindi as a second language and marginally overtook Hindi as a third language. Combining these two categories, there were a total of 129.3 million who used Hindi as a second or third language, compared to 125.1 million for English. Hindi was of course the most commonly used first language by far, but more people spoke English in one form or another than any regional Indian language.
ASER results are based on a relatively small sample, for a specific age group, while the census undertakes universal registration. We must therefore hesitate to draw firm conclusions from comparisons of numbers whose sources are dissimilar. Still, it’s hard to ignore a jump from 12.2% of English users in 2001 to 58% of rural youth able to read and understand a simple sentence in English in 2017, especially since other data confirms the spread of English.
A 2016 study by KPMG and Google reported last summer that out of 409 million Internet users in the country, 175 million accessed the World Wide Web in English. That is 43% of the total, compared to 12.8% of English speakers in 2001. Of course, the growth in Internet use is increasingly in Indian languages, so the percentage of access in English will decrease. But the number of UK internet users increased by more than 150 percent in five years, compared to 68 million in 2011, and will continue to grow even if its share of the total number of users decreases.
The old test of actual knowledge of a language, namely newspaper readership, shows that English still has a long way to go. 2017 Indian Readership Survey released Thusday, reports that 28 million people read English-language newspapers, just seven percent of a total of 409 million. In addition, as with the Internet, it is the readership of non-English newspapers that is growing the most rapidly. It would seem that although a basic knowledge of English has spread at a remarkable speed, real familiarity and comfort with the language still have a few kilometers to go.
The triumph of English, never politically favored, is to be welcomed because a weak command of the language is the ultimate class barrier of India. No other language can now take its place. English is the language of vocational education, which gives you the passport to a bright future. It is the language of use in medium and large companies, where most young people would like to work, and the language of the Supreme Court and certain Hautes Courts.
If you don’t have a good command of English, your chances and choices in life are seriously diminished, as are your chances of going abroad. This explains why the Municipality of Mumbai has had to close dozens of schools in Marathi over the years. Responding to the virtual halving of the number of students in its Marathi schools, it recently converted 57 to bilingual schools, with English as an additional first language.
State governments that have partially or completely abolished the teaching of English have found the step counterproductive. There are every reason to protect and encourage the use of the mother tongue, but it is increasingly clear that this cannot be done at the expense of good English teaching.
By special arrangement with Business Standard
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