Has India squandered its English advantage?
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.
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.