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Millions of Indians Rush to Learn English

  • Anjana Pasricha

India's English-speaking population has helped fuel its growing economy. However, only a fraction of the country's billion-plus people are fluent in the language. Now, amid an economic boom, tens of thousands of people are trying to learn English, in the hope of climbing the economic as well as social ladder. Anjana Pasricha has a report from New Delhi.

After she got married, Munesh Yadav, came to live in Delhi. But she encountered a problem: her husband's friends spoke English and she did not know the language.

"I came from Alwar and there was no need to English. So I could not speak anything. And, when I used to go somewhere, I felt very bad. So my husband also said to me that 'you should go somewhere to learn English,'" she said.

Twenty-two-year-old Brashpal Singh has come to Delhi from another small town, in the hope of pursuing a postgraduate course in business administration. But his lack of knowledge of English is putting a brake on his ambitions. He is unable to make his presence felt in grueling group discussions held to select students.

"Some, some, some sentence I don't understand. So I don't discuss them, and English is not very good, so I don't, I don't answer of them. But I have more knowledge for them, if I speak in Hindi, so I was best," he said.

Both Yadav and Singh have enrolled at an institute in Delhi which teaches English.

They are among thousands of young Indians flocking to join academies which have mushroomed in big and small cities to improve proficiency in English.

Some of these youngsters aspire to enroll at colleges where studies are conducted in English. Others want to get jobs in a flourishing economy that has opened up new opportunities. Still others want to be familiar with the language spoken in the drawing rooms of the upper middle class.

Millions of people in India speak fluent English and have given the country a huge competitive advantage in a globalized economy. But it is estimated that they add up to just five percent of the population.

Now, the others want to catch up.

Six years ago, Vikram Bajaj opened the Inlingua institute, in a central Delhi area, to teach English. Bajaj says corporate India is dominated by English-speaking people.

"The talk really in boardrooms and in the senior management is in English. And, that naturally sets the tone down the line. Everyone is expected to conform to that by making presentations in English, by writing e-mails and letters in English. And, of course, the bigger reality being that with globalization the customer today is international. He is not an Indian," said Bajaj.

Indeed, knowledge of English has become imperative for those aspiring for a stake in the country's boom.

Virtually every industry wants English-speaking employees as it expands, whether it is call centers which service Western clients, newly-opened shopping malls, airlines, hotels or educational institutions.

Many of these industries have opened up their own training centers to hone the English language skills of their employees.

But Bajaj says these industries only hire people who have some skill in the language. Institutes like his, on the other hand, cater to people who have very little knowledge of English. He says his students are mostly between 17 and 25 years of age, who have just finished school or college, and are often unemployed.

"Such people become rejects of the system, as it were. It is these people who come to us, because they realize they cannot even get into the training establishment, leave alone get a job," said Bajaj.

That is why Sunita Ranjan, a young housewife, came to the Inlingua institute.

"English language is necessary getting job like teacher, teachership. I find it, it is necessary, speak in English," said Ranjan.

The rush to learn English has its flip side. A popular Indian magazine, Outlook, has called it a source of anxiety for many and cited recent cases of suicides by four students unable to cope with their English textbooks.

Still others say call it a remnant of British rule and colonization. And, there have been persistent calls from nationalist politicians for more emphasis on regional languages in schools and administration.

But, for those rushing to join the ranks of those who speak English, the debate is irrelevant.

A sociologist in Delhi University, Mala Kapoor Shankar Das, says knowledge of English is not only the route to economic success, but also to social acceptance.

"It does have a certain amount of up-market value. So people also who are moving up in status feel that, if they have learnt English, it gives them little more recognition or little more esteem," said Shankar Das.

Munish Yadav could not agree more. She says she is more socially at ease after a six-month stint of going through the intricacies of English grammar.

"I feel very good when I speak with my neighbors and my friends, I feel very good," she said.

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