“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela
Growing up in Bangalore, a metropolitan city in South India, and studying in a convent school where the medium of instruction was English, the realisation of my ‘English-language privilege’ did not strike me until I was much older. During my undergraduate education at a campus in North India, near the Hindi-speaking capital city Delhi, I began to realise that even amongst my peers from similar class and caste privilege as me, fluency in English was far more uncommon than I had imagined. A few weeks ago, as I sat in a meeting with my host organisation to discuss what roles and responsibilities we would be looking for in the next AIF Fellow, I was struck by something that was said. “Most importantly, we need someone who speaks and writes good English”. My immediate reaction was to wonder anxiously if the only reason I had been chosen by my host organisation was because of my command over the language, and yet, after some reflection, I began to slowly understand and unpack the colonial history and the layers of language-oppression that could have led to such a statement being made.
As far back as the eighteenth century, with the increasing hold of the East India Company, English teaching efforts began in the Indian subcontinent. While Christian missionaries set up schools to impart English language education, English also became the language of administration and governance, under the rule of the British empire. Ironically, post-Independence, rather than a strategic shift back to vernacular languages, only the “perception of English as having an alien power base” changed, therefore allowing English to continue to remain the language of administration, law, policy-making and now, even business and professional interactions (UKEssays, 2018). Although India is today among the top three countries in the world in terms of number of English speakers, this is only because of the country’s massive population. In reality, only 3-4% of the country’s population are English-speakers, and this small percentage of the population are an elite and privileged group (UKEssays, 2018).
It must also be noted here that Hindi-language imposition by the national government cannot be seen as the solution to English language hegemony. The declaration of Hindi as the country’s official language has only led to the decline of other regional languages such as Marathi, Tamil and Telugu and to the marginalisation of non-Hindi speakers in government jobs and roles in centralised organisations (Sen 2018). The central government’s attempts to homogenize the country and impose Hindi language undermines the very cultural diversity that makes the country unique.
Given this context, it’s understandable that knowledge of English and Hindi places one at a distinct albeit unfair advantage over their peers. At my host organization, I was allowed to take the lead on writing every project proposal, despite being a novice right out of college. My supervisor gave me every freedom in writing reports and social media content, and sought my inputs/edits on those that I didn’t write. This has been an incredible learning opportunity for me, and has afforded me the kind of work experience that most others are not fortunate enough to obtain at such a young age. I have been able to utilise and sharpen my research and writing skills while simultaneously being able to learn first-hand the nuances of running a development sector organisation. And yet, there have been moments when I have wondered why more senior employees were not given such responsibilities in the organisation, and why my senior colleagues would feel the need to run their reports and even emails by me. Not being fluent in English seemed to hamper the confidence of my colleagues, who were capable in every other regard.
The problem with English being the language of administration in development sector organisations goes far beyond local employees losing confidence. For development sector work to truly be participatory, it is important that the needs of the local communities as well as the impact of the NGO’s work, is carried to donors and other stakeholders in the voice of the community themselves. In the multiple rounds of transcription, editing and translation that voices from the field may have to undergo (often, an additional round of translation into the language of the donor organisation abroad is needed), much of their essence may wind up getting lost.
What then is the solution to this seemingly inescapable dilemma? Three possibilities appear and I argue that they may be classified as short term, midterm and long term solutions respectively. The short term or immediate solution would be for organisations to hire individuals fluent in English, for the purpose of reporting, documentation, donor engagement and administration and planning work. For resource-strapped organisations, this solution may only be viable in the form of volunteers or fellows (such as AIF fellows), thereby rendering this solution temporary and unpredictable. The medium term solution would be for organisations to invest in training their own staff in stronger English communication skills. This would require an investment of both money and time, and while it may seem to be a permanent solution, it is incomplete and ineffective in the long-run simply because it does not serve to truly bridge the gap between local communities and external stakeholders. The lived experiences of local people continue to be translated out of their own languages and their voices remain distorted at best and unheard at worst.
The long-term solution is, then, to adapt the development sector to accommodate regional languages. This is a tectonic shift but not an unrealistic one. A few months ago, as I was writing a project proposal for a donor based in Germany, I found out that the entire 20-page document would be translated into German by the donors, before their board read it. That a country more educated and developed than India would translate an English document, did not mean that they were not able to read English but that they had the means and the resources to work in the language they were most comfortable in – their native tongue. How then can we mobilise these kind of resources in India? To begin with, education and administration should involve more bi-lingual opportunities. While English must also be taught in schools, there should be an equal if not extra emphasis placed on learning regional languages. Employment opportunities in the development sector should place a premium on hiring candidates fluent in local languages. Additionally, the requirement for translations into English can widen the job market in the development sector. Organisations should explore audio-visual mediums as well as other creative methods of conveying the impact and scope of their work and the voices of their beneficiaries, to donors and stakeholders. Prajwala Sangham uses videos, music and theatrical productions to highlight their work on gender and caste in the language of art – a language that transcends linguistic boundaries. For instance, Vadalo Sagam (Half of the Hamlet) is a documentary film of theirs, that captures the lives of Dalit (lower caste) women in a village in India.
Ultimately, what shakes the confidence of many development sector professionals in India and makes organisations dependent on English speakers, is the harmful misconception that English is the only language that offers them opportunities for growth and exposure in the modern world. It is vital to destabilize this misconception because, in actuality, only a handful of countries are English-speaking, while others, such as Japan, China, South Korea, France, Germany and most other European countries, have progressed very well without widespread English education (Naidu 2019). By preserving India’s myriad languages, the country can continue its socio-economic trajectory of growth and make its mark internationally amongst these other developed nations, without compromising on its rich and diverse cultural heritage.
UKEssays. 2018. “History of the English Language in India”. Accessed on May 20, 2021.
Sen, Gaurav. 2018. “’Why India Should Choose English and Regional Languages Over Hindi”. Oct 2, 2018.
Naidu, M. Venkaiah. 2019. “Mother tongue must be the medium of instruction to preserve India’s cultural diversity, heritage”. Nov 22, 2019.