Has India squandered its English advantage?

April 19, 2011

When the British were finally expelled from India in 1947, driven out of a country scarred by decades of imperialist rule, they left at least one parting gift: a linguistic legacy that has formed a crucial ingredient in the country’s economic miracle.

English proficiency is hailed as an invaluable foundation in India’s rise to the top of the world’s information technology and knowledge outsourcing industries, fuelling the country’s rapid growth with billions of dollars of business every year and streams of overseas investments into global IT centres such as Bangalore.

Nine-year-old Chinese pupil, Sun Minyi, listens to his teacher during a special English class at Chongming county, north of Shanghai July 12, 2002. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

But, as Asian rival China surpasses India’s English proficiency rates for the first time, that advantage over other developing economies looks to have been squandered.

China was ranked one place above India in Education First’s 2011 English Proficiency Index, released last month, the first time India has been beaten by its neighbour and fellow BRIC economy in the international rankings of foreign countries English-speaking abilities.

“It appears that China is poised to surpass India in the number of English speakers in the coming years, if it has not already done so,” the report said.

The implications for India’s future IT and outsourcing prospects aren’t difficult to calculate.

“For the past six decades, India has been coasting on its colonial legacy when it comes to English. But without the systemic changes needed to ensure greater penetration of the language, the advantage has been shrinking,” the Times of India, India’s biggest-selling English newspaper, wrote in an editorial on Tuesday.

As Chinese authorities ramp up English teaching in schools across the country, looking to tap into a growing international outsourcing and IT market, India’s public education sector has been criticised for poor facilities, falling standards and a lack of government support.

“More than ever, English holds aspirational value for the average Indian who views it as a ticket to economic betterment. But on the supply side, both the central and state governments have been sadly lacking,” the editorial added.

“It is time they woke up to this particular side effect of the Indian public education system’s moribund state. There are economic consequences in the offing. India’s far behind China in manufacturing, it could be bested as a services provider as well.”

Malaysia, which has mimicked India’s use of English as a language used by no-one and used by all, tops the Asian region for proficiency, and was placed ninth globally in the rankings, assessed using hundreds of thousands of tests conducted across participating countries.

Writes Education First: “To the extent that China is increasingly driving much of the regional economy, its ability to communicate in English will pressure all of its neighbors to keep pace.”

Having blown its headstart, and in failing to meet the Chinese challenge, India now appears to be playing catch up.

9 comments

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Posted by pm861207 | Report as abusive

I am not sure about the report and even if it’s true, there’s still no beating India when it comes to the neutral accent. So the call centres won’t be Bangalored out of India anytime soon.

Posted by ToeKnee | Report as abusive

It is true that India is neglecting education. Even not shouldering the responsibility of maintaining standards.Barring few government aided educational institutes of excellence, most of the education institutions are in private hands and they are money making machines. No teachers, No classes, pay fees and write examinations, the institute being autonomous will issue a paper degree to the student, utility wise a toilet paper may be better than this degree.

At the same time India is country with numbers. There may be always sufficient good people to compete Internationally. The low quality stuff left is good enough for Indian low quality services and systems.

Posted by ssnraju | Report as abusive

You have to remember, this was a survey of English proficiency via the internet. I know many people in India, who, educated in English Medium schools, can speak good english but do not regularly use the internet.

While not the majority, you can still find many more people who can speak english on the streets of Delhi and Mumbai than in Beijing or Shanghai – the ‘English’ signs in China are terrible and seem to be off a computer translator.

Posted by JLIt99 | Report as abusive

What an outrageously misleading article! The standard of English of the average Chinaman is mind numbingly AWFUL!!!!! Indians have a MUCH, MUCH higher level of competency in English that the Chinese!! I would give the Chinese 2 out of 10 for their level of English, and I would give Indians 10 out of 10!! In fact, they speak better English than most Europeans!!
How many Chinese have received awards on the world stage for literature compiled in English??? A more legitimate question would be – How many Chinamen can put together a decent sentence in English?? This article should be taken down from this website…. It isn’t some guy’s blog we are talking about here, it is REUTERS!! I am SHELL-SHOCKED that Reuters actually put up this article!! It is outrageously ludicrous!!!

Posted by Truth99999 | Report as abusive

I agree with the article. India and other countries will need to increase their efforts to promote English to stay competitive with China.

Posted by quickblur | Report as abusive

Someone tell me where can I give feedback to Reuters that one of the oldest and most respected news agency’s reporting standards are going down by the day.

“It appears that China is poised to surpass India in the number of English speakers in the coming years, if it has not already done so”

Does the numbers really matter?? Has Henry been to China ever or has he interacted with any Chinese people ever?? I have interacted and worked with professionals from Chinese IT companies and let me tell you that their English proficiency is plain POOR. FULL STOP.

Had there been an article instead saying that engineering education standards in India are not improving as compared to China I would have loved to read it. For God’s sake stop wasting our time.

Posted by 007XXX | Report as abusive

Reuters Staff, please pass on this message to Mr. Foy when you decide to block my message.
Mr Foy,
Why are you using so many different tags that do not relate to the actual article. Your articles are tagged with sections that are only remotely related to the actual article. My guess is that you do this so your article appears in many sections even though it doesn’t really belong there.

Posted by rainydays | Report as abusive

I think most of us here are familar with the views of the TOI having read their opinion just a few days ago. But coming to this study I find it funny that there is hardly anything about India and Chinese comparisions in it and everyone is seeking to blow itup out of all proportions.

Take this example “the British Council estimated in 2010 that India had anywhere between 55 and 350 million English speakers while a report published by Cambridge University Press estimates that China has 250 to 350 million English learners.’

Look at the variation 55 to 350 million Indian speakers! Do you need a study to give such a wide variation?

Also, aren’t they comparing chalk and cheese here and that too manufactured at different establishments. If you indicate how many English ‘speaking; people there are in India and then compare that to how many are ‘learning’ english in China, what conclusion can you possibly draw?

Shouldn’t they be comparing how many curently speak english in both countries and also how many learners there are in both countries? Some meaningful information could then be extracted. This statement as it is seems absurd to me. It is not even a statisic of any value.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive