How the British Empire spread English language in India and its consequences today in relation to the New Education Policy 2020
India’s linguistic diversity is unmatched globally. According to a census in 1961, India has more than 1652 mother tongues belonging to five different language families. The Constitution of India recognizes twenty-two languages in the Eighth Schedule. Hindi and English are the two official languages of the Union (not to be confused with “national” language). English is one of the most noteworthy remnants of the colonial era.
Also known as the “colonizer’s tongue”, the spread of English began with the fascination of Europeans for India. In 1600, the East India Company was formed when a document establishing a link between India and Britain, was granted by Queen Elizabeth I. This grant permitted merchants in Britain to trade with the East, chiefly India. Subsequently, the region was dominated by the British Empire and in 1858, it became the British Empire of India. This rule lasted until 1947.
“Initially, the aim of the British was not to replace local languages and impose their tongue on Indians. They were economically ambitious. They sought control on trade routes and dismissal of other European nations”
With the development of the British supremacy, English gradually started to seep in, across the land. English was spoken mainly by East India Company’s officers, merchants, members of the administration and the military. Initially, the aim of the British was not to replace local languages and impose their tongue on Indians. They were economically ambitious. They sought control on trade routes and dismissal of other European nations who were, if not more, equally economically driven. As time went by, India became Britain’s most important colony. Ensuing this, the English language began to gain importance in the Indian subcontinent. The language mushroomed when colonial servants demanded citizens to learn the language to ease communication between Indians and the elite, ruling class. The British made an effort to grasp classical languages to consolidate power in the country. Preceding English, Persian was the language of the ruling elite in India.
“Before the spread of English education in India, students would gain knowledge from ancient texts, scripted in regional languages. Unlike today’s system of schools, there were pathshalas, takhshalas, madrassas and tolas.”
While initially uninterested, the East India Company derived a policy imposing English as the official language for all administrative purposes. The language policies derived and imposed by the English left a notable mark on the education system. Before the spread of English education in India, students would gain knowledge from ancient texts, scripted in regional languages. Unlike today’s system of schools, there were pathshalas, takhshalas, madrassas and tolas. The gurukuls catered only to the children of upper-caste Hindus and denied education at a provincial level. In the nineteenth century, scientific advancements were taking place rapidly around the world but a lack of awareness led Indian students to rely on ancient texts for literature, art, legal and scientific knowledge. Thus far, English education had been imparted solely to upper-class European children or children of traders.
Famously known as the “Father of Modern Education in India”, Charles Grant suggested English be declared as the official language of the education system. This proposal was rejected by the governor-general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, who believed in “Oriental” learning. English education took flight in India after Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was appointed as a law member in the council of Lord William Bentick.
“Macaulay’s idea was to create an educated elite in India. He wanted to create a class that was ‘Indian in blood and colour but English in taste’.”
Lord Macaulay considered traditional Indian education or Oriental learning inferior to the Western education system. Macaulay’s “Minute Upon Indian Education” was circulated among the masses, expressing his ideas about the education system. In Minute, he argued that support for traditional education should be withdrawn. Macaulay’s idea was to create an educated elite in India. He wanted to create a class that was “Indian in blood and colour but English in taste”. In 1835, he introduced the English Education Act. This Act aimed to reallocate funds towards English education in the country. The British did not support education in native languages and believed that it was best to focus on the creation of an educational system governed by Western principles with English as the means of communication.
Before the implementation of the English Education Act, three colleges were set up in India on the lines of ancient Indian history. The first college set up by the East India Company, with legitimate monetary support, was Fort William College in Calcutta, modern-day Kolkata. One lakh rupees were sanctioned under the Charter Act of 1813 for the establishment of Fort William College. Macaulay was supported by Raja Ram Mohan Roy who propagated the importance of Western education, not to impose a colonial language on Indians, but to modernize Indian society. What is noteworthy is that Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s ideas of Western education were misinterpreted as “English education” by Macaulay. Thus, English was declared as the official language of the government and medium of instruction in schools and colleges. Though the Act was implemented with great hopes, the British barely put in a genuine effort to spread education.
“In 1947, post-independence, the literacy rate in India was 16% which indicates that the efforts of the British government were ultimately futile. Economic expansion was the British’s sole purpose and their education policy helped them produce cheap administrators, who would act as catalysts in the process of subjugation.”
The act aimed to spread English among everyone but scanty sum allocation resulted in an inability to set up new educational institutes and appointing teachers, ultimately leading to a downward infiltration theory. This theory would mean that only a few members of the population would be educated and would be assigned, thus, to further educate the masses. Unfortunately, the British failed to take fruitful steps to successfully impart English education. The aim of English education was not just to ease communication, but to “modernize” and “civilize” “the savages of the Orient“. In 1947, post-independence, the literacy rate in India was 16% which indicates that the efforts of the British government were ultimately futile. Economic expansion was the British’s sole purpose and their education policy helped them produce cheap administrators, who would act as catalysts in the process of subjugation.
Years after the culmination of the British era, Indians fell for the colonizer’s tongue. After the British rule came to an end, many native languages were withdrawn and English was taught in schools. Consequently, over the years, many Indian tribes and languages are now endangered or extinct. Children were taught an adventitious language and were expected to fit into the Euro-Indian culture. This has led to a negligence of individuality among students and has fuelled “herd mentality” across the nation. Though English was taught as an attempt to civilise the “Orient” by the “Occent”, it led to a huge gap between those who are English speakers and those who aren’t.
“An English speaking individual in India is ‘educated’ and ‘sophisticated’, which highlights the inequality linked to colonialism and now, globalization. English has detached us from our unique cultural identity which links innumerable cultures with each other.”
English has given birth to a different kind of social inequality across the globe. The number of English speaking people is greater in India, as compared to Great Britain. An English speaking individual in India is “educated” and “sophisticated”, which highlights the inequality linked to colonialism and now, globalization. English has detached us from our unique cultural identity which links innumerable cultures with each other.
With the National Education Policy (NEP) coming into play, we might see a focus on education being imparted in one’s native language. The NEP will offer an Indian student to learn languages of their choice till secondary school. Realistic and applied education is the need of the hour which, according to research, is best learned in one’s own mother tongue. Research backs one’s mother tongue as a medium of instruction in schools being more effective than a foreign language like English. Experts like Meeta Sengupta, though slightly apprehensive, consider the implementation of the three-language policy under the NEP 2020, “as a step in the right direction”. In a recent interview with The Hindustan Times, India’s Human Resource and Development Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank spoke at length about the New Education Policy. He clarified that education in English will not be completely shunned and no particular language will be imposed on any state. A three-language choice will be offered, out of which two shall be native languages.
“the language of the world (and the internet) is still English and proficiency in it is highly essential for those who aim to work in BPOs, multinational companies or even in our country’s government sector.”
That said, although NEP appears to be inclusive, there are structural barriers that would only contribute to widening the gap between English and non-English speakers. The policy does not define what is meant by “mother tongue/local language”. In a linguistically diverse country like India, this could mean different things and especially to migrants who might have moved to another state or region. Moreover, the language of the world (and the internet) is still English and proficiency in it is highly essential for those who aim to work in BPOs, multinational companies or even in our country’s government sector.
125 million people i.e. 10% of the Indian population are English speakers and mainly control the portion of wealth and cash flow in the country. A lack of good English education, which incidentally is accessible only to this upper and upper-middle class, creates a huge gap between the rich and poor. In offices, whether private or public, spoken English is a necessity, leaving non-English speakers at a disadvantage. Prestigious schools in India, especially those established during the colonial era provide for children of the rich, english-speaking privileged sections of our society. Linguistic experts consider the spread of English universally, a unique kind of imperialism. Opportunities globally are linked to English.
Unequivocally, English has facilitated and resulted in oppression and inequality, worldwide. One’s mother tongue and English should be placed on the same pedestal. Not only will this help preserve India’s cultural diversity, but it will also present a plethora of opportunities for skilled individuals on a global platform. English must be treated as a skill and not a measure of one’s potential or worth.
Spandana is an English literature graduate who loves writing and aspires to rebel against prevailing conventions, one day at a time.
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