Recently, several American peers and I visited two elementary schools in Bangalore, India for a class about primary education. We entered a private school to a warm welcome from one hundred young students, dressed in pristine white uniforms. This school is privately run, and the headmaster spoke proudly about the school’s academic and extracurricular offerings. I watched as the students performed prepared songs and recited facts about important figures in Indian history. The students from this school are by no means wealthy, especially by American standards, and the school compensates when parents cannot afford the fees, but their educational program is nevertheless far stronger than most in the country.
This superiority is in no small part because this is an English-medium school. Aside from one course in the local language, Kannada, these students take all their classes in English. In a country where language plays such an essential role in identity politics, the way in which these students seamlessly shifted in and out of Hindi (the national language), Kannada and English illustrates the complexity of development in a globalizing world.
But when I consider this conclusion in light of my second visit, this time to the government school, my assessment seems incomplete. I entered the government school to find no chairs or desks, no sharp white uniforms, and most obvious to me, virtually no English. As one teacher, in English, spoke proudly about the school’s electricity and clean water supply, I could not look away from the children.
They were completely lost in what their teacher was saying to these foreign guests. The teacher went on to explain that one of the biggest challenges facing the school is poor attendance, as many of these students are the children of day laborers, and must frequently assume roles in the informal economy in order to buttress their families’ meager incomes.
Unlike the private school, the government school teaches in Kannada, with only one class devoted to English, a subject even many of the faculty members struggle with. Like their peers in the private school, these children demonstrate an impressive talent for learning languages, and many will speak, in addition to Kannada, the language(s) of their migrant parents, such as Tamil or Malayalam. But, due to the system in which they learn, they will not have the opportunity to exercise this remarkable capacity when it comes to learning English.
And this reality disadvantages them, cutting them off from the opportunities provided by globalizing forces that continually reinforce English’s ever more central role in society.
One need not look far in order to see the many ways in which the ability to speak English is advantageous. Travel, entertainment and business are just a few of the contexts in which English-speakers have access to a common communicative denominator that others lack. The status of English as a “global language” is a complex topic that I will not explore in detail. Rather, I write today to argue that in rapidly transforming countries like India, the importance of English is embedded in a unique set of power relations that systematically shape, or limit, the futures of millions. This realization has taught me a lesson about my own identity as an American.
If education is indeed the highway to success, then learning English is like being handed a set of keys to a new car while others stand by with their bikes. The IT companies that, in many respects, define modern Bangalore have brought enormous sums of rupees into this city. For these companies, one of the greatest advantages of operating in India is access to a vast, young, English-speaking population. Of course, those without English skills will never be able to tap into this sector or other service industries, whose growth is fueled by multinational corporations.
This issue goes deeper than employment prospects, reaching the core of what it means to be a modern Indian. At the beginning of his masterful work, Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, Rana Dasgupta explains that his decision to depict all his interviews in the “same, standard English” is due to the book’s setting “in a place – and a world – where a person’s intellectual power is judged so much on the basis of their facility with the English language.” Indeed, an inability to speak English not only marks the young public school children I met as undereducated, poor, and “un-modern." Without English, these children will grow into adults on a path wildly divergent from that of their English-speaking peers.
Many who have spent time abroad in non-English speaking countries understand the feeling of being unable to communicate with someone. The feeling of being caught on the wrong side of the language barrier is one of the most uncomfortable I have experienced, one that quickly transforms from a sense of unease to embarrassment, and eventually vulnerability.
The simple fact that I was raised in the United States provided and continues to provide me with opportunities that many could only dream of, and that I am grateful for. My experience in an Indian public school reminded me that realities I have taken for granted, such as my mother tongue, result in massive inequalities in the way power is distributed in the modern world. It is my wish, my hope, that this understanding will help me, and tens of thousands of other young Americans abroad, develop new ways to improve our local communities.
This is not a distant reality. When we witness new arrivals to our country struggling with English, we will be reminded of the same vulnerability we experienced as we struggled with language abroad. And it is that vulnerability that builds empathy and the type of stronger, more inclusive communities that we should all desire to be a part of.