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The English Legacy

October 2003
The English Legacy

A million opportunities or a cultural divide ? What does the growing prominence of the English language mean to India?



Speak English, talk English and think only English. While the USA and UK are perturbed over the continuing loss of call center and IT services, in countries like India it has led to a veritable boom with people aged 12 to 65 all seeking to master the global language. English is increasingly seen as a ticket to economic freedom. On the flip side, it could lead to a further linguistic, economic and cultural divide in the country.

HSBC, British Telecom, Aviva, IBM, GE have already announced massive expansion plans to shift back-end operations to India. Research by consultants Deloitte and Touche and Gartner Inc, the high-tech forecasting firm, has predicted that India will be the main beneficiary of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of outsourced jobs.

Indians, on their part, are bracing themselves for the change. Where there is demand, suppliers are in plenty. `Speak English' and language coaching centers have proliferated. There are special packages for call-centers, back-end medical, telecom, insurance and banking services. Innovative methods are being used ?- from playing scrabble, listening to BBC and CNN, watching sitcoms such as Friends and movies on HBO, and even debating and elocution.

Vivekananda Institute, one such coaching center, has over 85 franchisees spread all over India, from metros such as Hyderabad and Bangalore to smaller towns like Tiruchi?, Vellapuram, Madurai, Rameshwaram, Kancheepuram. A spokesperson for the institute says that more than 210,000 students have been taught English. A recent editorial in a national newspaper said that an Anglophonic tide is sweeping the country.

English linguist David Dalby has predicted that India will soon become "the center of gravity of the English language" with the largest number of English speakers in the world.

The economics speaks for itself. The salaries being offered are good ranging from Rs 10,000 ($200) to Rs 20,000 ($400) per month, which seen through the purchasing parity prism, can provide a good living in a country with a per capita monthly income of less than $50.

But, all is not hunky dory. Sociologists predict that in a country of one billion, these few million could end up worsening differences. The worry is cultural.

"It is good to see that many Indians are benefiting, but what about the majority of India (over 500 million) that still lives in villages and depends on agricultural income?" asks prominent sociologist Ashish Nandy, "Forget about being wired, they do not even have electricity and water supply."

In a recent statement Kenneth Keniston, a professor from MIT said that the gap between empowered (English-speaking) and powerless (non-English speaking) will devalue local languages and culture. The non-English speaking population will be left out of the Information Age.

Young call center executives who work at night (to keep U.S. time) and sleep during the day are already seen as ?cultural aliens' living in their own world of high pubbing, partying and promiscuity. Indeed, part of their training includes studying habits of people living in countries they have never visited.

"English is the link language, the language of power and wealth in India. Those who do not speak and write good English will be inaccessible to the wired, electronic age India," says 23 year-old Prashant Bhardwaj, who works at the GE call center.

The 90s saw the boom of the software professional in India. Yet coding and programming required a minimum gestation period, wherein one had to devote a fair amount of time, effort and money to build the expertise as well as procure the right degrees.

Not so now. The present IT-services boom requires just one asset ? a working knowledge of English to handle back-office administrative work or the right accent to handle verbal inquiries from customers in USA or anywhere else in the world. The demand could run into millions who will be stationed here.

The entry-barrier is not insurmountable for anyone with a little drive and ability to invest. In any case, many Indians grow up to a fair exposure to the English language due to the existence of a large and powerful English TV and print media.

"Still, it is better than not having such a boom," says Nandy, "At least some, in a relative sense, are benefiting."

Indeed, the attention till now has been on other issues. There is the political matter of bills put forward in five U.S. states that would require workers hired under state contracts to be American citizens. "The MNCs will be driven by cost-cuts, given the diminishing returns," India's finance minister Jaswant Singh declared recently.

Another fear is China. In a possible threat to India's prowess, China is fast rising as an outsourcing hub, the Business Week said.

For now though, more and more Indians have just one agenda. Enroll to recite "she sells sea shells on the sea shore," without twisting their tongue.

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