Sunday, March 14, 2010

125M English speakers in India?

This morning, the Sunday edition of the Times of India trumpeted the ascension of English to the rank of 2nd most spoken language after Hindi in this country.  “125M citizens now speak the language, twice as many as the United Kingdom,” said the old standard across the front page.  It is very easy for the Times’ readers to get caught up in self congratulation.

It is true that a record number of Indians have been trained in English and the 125M that claim fluency can probably understand it, with abilities ranging from basic conversational to the complex and nuanced.   This is very pertinent to how India develops as a nation and as an economy.  The understanding of the language has propelled India’s rise as an exporter of services.  English language skills in a low-cost labor pool was the key reason for the rise of call centers,  IT offshoring, legal process outsourcing, medical transcription, remote medicine, and health tourism, among others.

However,  in my experience, very few of the millions are able to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively in English.  The ability to develop new products and sell their wares across the world takes strong communication skills.  India has produced legions of entrepreneurs who do this every day locally, but as their businesses set their sights on global markets, they need to not only understand English but also “speak” it well.    There are countless good examples of Indians who are very eloquent on the global stage but more effective articulation of ideas coming from the average speaker is what the country needs in spades.

On a tangent, one test  I have always used to reassure interlocutors about my own limited English language abilities was that I think in English despite fluency in several languages.   I translate in my head when speaking other tongues.   There are rampant colloquialisms in India that suggest most people are translating from their first language into English on the fly.  (One example is the use of “only” at the end of sentences which reflects similar usage of the word in Hindi to convey emphasis.)

To be fair, Americans have dominated the world stage although their elocution skills have generally impressed me a lot less than British speakers (on average).   Further, the Germans, Japanese and Chinese have all done well despite being hamstrung by language.  Clearly, it takes a lot more than effective speaking to succeed.  But, all else being equal, it can only help if more of the 125M start speaking up and speaking well.


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