India now has the status of highest English speaking population in the world. While this is an envious development for other countries, fear that looms over linguistic circles is whether native Indian languages will finally reach minority status.
TEN YEARS ago, the United States was the country with the largest English-speaking population. Today, with a population growth at a rate of three per cent per annum being added with a billion population, India has taken over that status. With roughly a third of its population – or more than 300 million – knowing the English language, India has more English speaking people than the US and United Kingdom combined.
In 1997, India Today claimed that this is an amazing increase over the estimate of the 1980’s, when only about four per cent to five per cent of the population was thought to use the language. And given the steady increase in English learning since 1997 in schools and among the upwardly mobile, we must today be talking about at least 350 million. It has been claimed by many quarters that by 2010, no other country will compare with the third world country India in efficiency in speaking English. Wikipedia however claims that India is still in the second position. Statistically, it claims that according to 2006 US census 2,51,388,301 Americans were using English as their language while 90,000,000 Indians were speaking in English during the same period. UK, from whom the Indians learnt English, was in the third position where the English speaking population is only 59,600,000.
Whether it is on the top of the list or the second there is hardly any scope for a debate on such an issue because for Indians English is not a native language and still they have gained excellence in communicating in a foreign language.
A world wide study by the Internet Coaching Library has also proved that English is the choicest language used in Internet. English is chosen by 30.1 per cent of the world population of the total world population of 2.022,629,545 during net surfing. Other languages follow – like China (14.7 per cent), Spanish (9. 0 per cent), Japanese (6.9 per cent), French (5.17 per cent), German (4.9 per cent), Portuguese 4 per cent), Arabic (3.7 per cent), Korean (2.7 per cent), Italian (2.6 per cent).
One can undoubtedly claim that Indian’s love for English language and its increasing growth rate has not harmed the Indians, rather helped them instead in many ways. English continues to serve as the language of prestige. Efforts to switch to Hindi or other regional tongues encounter stiff opposition both from those who know English well and whose privileged position requires proficiency in that tongue and from those who see it as a means of upward mobility. Partisans of English also maintain it is useful and indeed necessary as a link to the rest of the world. They hold, too, that widespread knowledge of English is necessary for technological and economic progress and that reducing its role would leave India a backwater in world affairs.
It has been said that Indians have made English into a native language with its own linguistic and cultural ecologies and socio-cultural contexts. Many Indians feel that the use of English should be actively encouraged because of the many advantages it confers – the greatest of which is its universal character. The Indian writer and philosopher Raja Rao wrote, “As long as the English language is universal, it will always remain Indian…. It would then be correct to say as long as we are Indian – that is, not nationalists, but truly Indians of the Indian psyche – we shall have the English language with us and amongst us, and not as a guest or friend, but as one of our own, of our caste, our creed, our sect and our tradition.”
India has a unique position in the English-speaking world. It is a linguistic bridge between the major first-language dialects of the world, such as British and American English, and the major foreign-language varieties, such as those emerging in China and Japan. China is the closest competitor for the English-speaking record with some 220 million speakers of English, but China does not have the pervasive English linguistic environment encountered in India, nor does it have the strength of linguistic tradition that provides multiple continuities with the rest of the English-speaking world. India is much ahead in that respect.
While love for English among the Indians are growing at an unbelievable rate, the question that hovers around among Indians is that whether this would lead to the demise of the local languages and dialects which are still predominant or even if the damage to that extent is not done, what will be the future of the Indian languages in terms of research and development.
Sir George Grierson’s twelve-volume Linguistic Survey of India, published between 1903 and 1923, identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1921 census listed 188 languages and 49 dialects. The 1961 census listed 184 ‘mother tongues’, including those with fewer than 10,000 speakers. This census also gave a list of all the names of mother tongues provided by the respondents themselves; the list totals 1,652 names. The 1981 census – the last census to tabulate languages – reported 112 mother tongues with more than 10,000 speakers and almost 1 million people speaking other languages. The encyclopedic People of India series, published by the government’s Anthropological Survey of India in the 1980s and early 1990s, identified 75 major languages within a total of 325 languages used in Indian households. In the early 1990s, there were 32 languages with one million or more speakers.
Though Hindi has been designated India’s official language, despite impediments to its official use, the Indian Constitution lists 18 official or scheduled languages. These are Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Approximately 403 million people, or about 43 per cent of the estimated total 1995 population, speak Hindi as their mother tongue. Telugu, Bengali, Marathi and Tamil rank next, each the mother tongue of about four to five per cent (about 37 million to 47 million people); Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, and Oriya are claimed by between two and three per cent (roughly 19 million to 28 million people); Bhojpuri, Punjabi and Assamese by one to two per cent (nine million to 19 million people); and all other languages by less than one per cent (less than nine million speakers) each.
While the statistics are official, it has not been mentioned that a large percentage of these population speak English in their offices, sees files and records notes in English, speak in English or in a mixed language and their kids are being groomed in English medium schools. The new generation of students has not been introduced with the old and the modern trend of their mother tongue. They do not read books written in their mother language. They are not able and have no interest to learn Indian languages, not even their language for day-to-day interaction within the family members. They are forgetting Indian culture, literature, customs, traditions and history.
If this continues there is every possibility of India’s native languages will be forgotten among a class of the society or it will be restricted within a very limited population. English has by this time changed Indian languages in many ways – mostly through the incorporation of new words within the native languages and most ordinary natives are used to these.
The most dangerous situation is the trend of the new generation to leave the country and go abroad either to study or work. They do not find any suitable opportunity in their own country, which has ample resources. After staying a few years in foreign countries they do not feel like coming back and settle to a new life again. Even if they come back, they are less Indian and more a product of a mixed culture where nativity has no place.
States have also been accused of failure in fulfilling their obligations under the national constitution to provide for the education of linguistic minorities in their mother tongues. Members of linguistic minorities feel that they and their language are oppressed by the majority. On the other hand, the linguistic majorities feel threatened by what some might consider minor concessions. This is more because of the loss of linguistic affinity, which India had a few decades ago. This is leading to a dangerous situation when the section of the society which is unable to have an English medium education are trapped in a confusing state of affairs by their bitter experiences in the sphere of service or professional career. Naturally a division within the same generation develops. Trouble within the same society is generated.
Unfortunately, the studies over national languages at a national level have not been initiated for a long time. The last survey of Indian languages was made a century ago by a British government official. No survey of Indian languages has been conducted since 1947 till date. Finally, the Central Institute of Indian Languages started its first ever ‘National Linguistic Survey’ in April 2007. The survey is targeted for completion by 2017. The survey will help know the exact numbers of languages in India today because the existing knowledge is based upon the status of languages as it was a century ago. The survey will also come out with data on endangered languages and those that went extinct over the years.
Indians will have to wait till 2017 till the results come and we have no place to rejoice because by the time the result comes out, no doubt, the last nail in the coffin of the native languages will be nailed.