India's Relationship with the English Language

I always find it interesting when people are surprised that people in India speak the English language so well.

English language instruction started in India in the 1830’s. Today, English is the sole official language of the Judiciary of India, as well as a second official language for government work.

Imagine if we had to do all government work in Spanish or French here in the United States. We most certainly would struggle.

This shows us how embedded English is into the lives of the Indian people.

A History of English in India

In the year 1600, Queen Elizabeth set up trading ports in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Suratunder the name East India Company. During this time, public English instruction began, eventually replacing Persian as the lingua franca of the company. In the 1850’s, English became the language of instruction at many universities. From 1858 to 1947, more and more Indians were hired to work with the British in civil services, furthering the learning of English. By the time India became independent, English was seemingly the best option for a lingua franca.

Many attempted to claim Hindi as the official language after independence, but there were protests from non-Hindi-speaking states. Therefore, English was chosen as a compromise – as an associate official language. Today, English is the only veritable way to communicate between Indian states that do not speak Hindi.

Speaking English is Fairly Common in India, yet still for the Elite

In 1947, when India became independent of England, English stayed as the official language, even though only a few hundred thousand Indians spoke English as their first language (.1%). In a 2001 Census, 12.6% of Indians know English, known as Indian English.

The CEO of Resettle India, Shradda Mithal, says, “If you need to speak to the taxi driver or someone at the grocery store, they may not be fluent in English, but almost everyone knows a little bit – enough to help you and answer your basic questions.” It’s true, even if everyone isn’t fluent, a 2005 India Human Development Survey found that roughly 33% of men spoke at least some English. That’s a third of the country.

EF Education First ranked India 4th in the Asian countries for English proficiency (57.3% proficient). The top Asian countries for English proficiency were Singapore (63% proficient), Malaysia (60.7% proficient) and The Philippines (60.3% proficient).

As stated above, many Indians know some English, and a few know it well enough to work and live in it on a daily basis. This is due to a largely inadequate education system throughout the various regions.

How do Non-Elites Feel about English in India?

As previously mentioned, university and government jobs in India are all English-speaking, so what does this do to the millions of people who do not speak fluent English in India? Sahith Aula, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, believes that this is creating a new caste: those that speak English and can get high-ranking jobs, and those who do not speak English and cannot apply for these jobs.

Even the medicine and government dealings and documents are in English, so how do you read your pill bottle or contend with the government successfully? Have they become independent of Britain, only to enslave their own through the same means? Big questions.

Many today believe that English is a way to compete in the global market, which is true. But many in India also feel that it is not fair to their citizens to expect English when it is not universally taught in all regions, with the same level of competence and educational materials.

Challenges Using English Outside of India

We often get calls from HR managers saying that they would like to book an accent coach for a talented employee that is hard to understand. Oftentimes this person is from India. “She is completely fluent,” the HR director says, “but we sometimes can’t understand her.” This is common.

There is a different syllabic stress on words in Indian English. Imagine if I were saying dessert every time I meant to say desert. But this happens every 4-5 words. It would be challenging to keep up. This varying stress pattern can be challenging and make it hard for the listener to keep up with Indian employee’s main message.

Another challenge is the high level of fluency of the Indian employee. When someone is fluent in a language, like a native speaker, they speak at a very rapid pace. But when someone has a way of speaking that is challenging for others to understand, this pace can work against them. Slowing down and pausing in between phrases, is essential to allow the listeners to catch up to your meaning, decipher a different pronunciation that they’re used to, and generally process your message more effectively.

Thirdly, some consonants are simply different in Indian English. The W, TH, and the American T sound, for example. With consonant differences, syllable stress changes, and quick talking, the accent can be a challenge for some Indians. They might feel embarrassed, frustrated or shy to speak up.

Micah Bellieu is CEO and Founder of Fluency Corp, corporate language training. If we can be of service to you in regards to language training for your employees, expats, or for you, please contact us at [email protected] or submit a query here.