Amartya Sen on the role of language in education and governance

Mulayam Singh Yadav whose election manifesto apparently wishes to ban English and Computers from "education and government work" in U.P., excited a reply from none other than Economics Nobel Amartya Sen. While one is filled with admiration of Amartya Sen's balanced view of India and the World, his casual take on the role of Indian languages in the development of India is disappointing.

We do not endorse banning English, but...

To be sure, we do not endorse banning of English anywhere. Banning English and/or computers in education or governance is not a way of progress.

Instead of blocking the source of development, governments and educational institutions and industries must focus on bringing the vast body of knowledge in English to Indian languages, and also make Indian-language computing bug-free and user-friendly. It is only when one assumes that all this is impossible that, pressed with the need to bring about equality, one starts making such mindless statements as Mulayam Singh Yadav's.

Until such time as Indian languages grow to the level where they become the chosen media for education in India, it is wrong to distance education in India from English. While there's no need to ban English in government work, there is no need to believe that English is necessary in this space. Indian languages can replace English overnight in government work without any loss, and indeed with much profit. If, that is, the respective governments are serious enough about governance.

English is not India's "great leveler"

It is wrong to believe that English is a great leveller - one which can reduce or remove the divide between the haves and havenots in India, simply because it's a scientific fact that one learns best in one's own mother tongue. Amartya Sen gets his facts wrong in claiming that English is "widely used" - unless one confines his attention to urban centers alone. Even to this day, more than 80% of Karnataka learns and works using Kannada. In the Hindi-belt, this percentage is as high as 97% (data based on education statistics published by DISE)

It is disheartening to hear Amartya Sen endorse the idea of English as a great leveler. Here's what Amartya Sen had to say in response to Mulayam Singh Yadav's manifesto which, in his view, tries to "exclude" people from learning English:
So rather than being an egalitarian force, the exclusion - if it is carried out - will have exactly the opposite effect: that is to keep the stratification as it is. Because obviously Mulayam Singh Yadav will not be able to prevent people from doing English in India as the language of commerce, industry, rule of law and public use.
Surely, Mulayam Singh Yadav will not be able to prevent all that - but irrespective of Mulayam Singh Yadav's capability or incapability to prevent this or that, what is disappointing is that Amartya Sen doesn't even seem to dream about a future where Indian languages are the language of commerce, industry, rule of law and public use.

Sure there is no point in excluding Indians from learning English, but it is wrong to believe that English is necessary for education or for any of the purposes which Sen enlists. English becomes necessary only under the assumption that Indian languages are dying, and that their role is slowly but surely becoming ornamental. That assumption is neither necessary nor illustrated by recent trends of Indian language usage on, for example, the internet. That assumption goes against the very development and equality which Sen is so concerned about.

Tagore's insistence of mother-tongue education

It is surprising too, that Sen, a strong advocate of Rabindranath Tagore's worldview, apparently fails to see the merit in Tagore's insistence of the imporance of mother-tongue education. Perhaps we must redraw the attention of Amartya Sen to Tagore's Shikshar Vahana (The Vehicle of Education), an essay published in 1915 and paraphrased by Narmadeshwar Jha in his biography of Tagore published by UNESCO:
The use of English in education hindered assimilation of what was taught, and kept education confined to urban centres and the upper classes. Thus, if the vast rural masses were to benefit, it was absolutely essential to switch over to the use of Bengali in the context of Bengal at all levels of education, including higher education.
Of course, Sen has the right to differ with Tagore. But in differing with Tagore on this point, Sen is differing with reason. It is an established scientific fact that mother-tongue education is crucial for the success of any elementary education programme.

16 comments:

dandapinda said...

Well said! English is needed for the hour until we develop our languages to such an extent that everything from computing to scientific research can be aided in it. I hope the day comes sooner.

Also another point to note is that Mr Mulayam Singh has advocated for the ban of English and use of Hindi, the so-called 'Rajbaasha' which is a disastrous move as neither Hindi nor English are levelers.

Another problem to note in our country is 95+% of the people look upto 5% of the English Educated people as they feel it is cool, hip and in. If we are able to change the mindset of most of this 'confused lot', rest assured, the job is done.

Anonymous said...

Mr. dandapinda

Even if our languages are developed to cover each and every aspect of the life on the earth, English can not be wished away as we, in India, need some common language to communicate among us. Otherwise, we have to accept some Indian language as a common language. Can the common language be Hindi? Again back to square one and it means another long/endless tirade for KARNATIQUE.

with regards to all

Jockey said...

The "we need a common language" argument is not necessary. The European Union works well without it.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jockey

Please tell me how we, the people of different language groups/states, can communicate with each other unless we have a common language like 'English'. The problem is more so for the people who visit other places/states for official work/medical treatment or as tourists.

with regards to all

Jockey said...

Ms. Anonymous,

I meant there's no need for one common language in the central govt at New Delhi. The burden of working in all the national languages of India is upon the central govt.

For non-governmental purposes, "the market" will decide whether a pan-India language is required or not. The central government need not come up with a policy on a pan-India language for "the market". The central government must be "secular" when it comes to language. State governments, on the other hand, must be entrusted with the job of ensuring that the language of that state takes precedence over any other language, even English.

The fact that I'm proposing that state-governments need not be language-secular internally is not a defeat of secularism, just as it's not a defeat of secularism if Muslims are not allowed by their religion to bow down to say Lord Krishna. Secularism is a concept which applies between homogeneous groups, while those homogeneous groups are internally "non-secular", if you will.

ಸುಮ್ಸುಮ್ಕೆ said...

Well I think its a matter of being satisfied with small. Mr Sen too, here, seems to be a man satisfied with small achievements (even if The Noble was his goal!) for he seems to be believing that his education (in English) has gotten him what he needed, and that he's got the "best out there." But has he? We need to question, with the basis that is presented here.

As Mr Sen's audience, we need to question if that "best out there" is attainable by every other soul around us, or did Mr Sen leave far more things unachieved by adopting the English medium in his education, whereas Bengali could have probably served a much profitable means, even for him? (What with his subscription to fellow-noble-laureate Tagore's thoughts?)

dandapinda said...

Mr Anonymous

I beg to differ from what you say and more or less agree with Mr Jockey. As a common man, I hardly converse with outsiders and even if need arises, that person who has moved into my state has to learn the language of the land as this land is where he would be making his moolah! This is a choice which he has made after certain evaluations and he has to live with it.

And as far as governments are concerned, its their headache to manage/address the language connect between different states. Frankly speaking, it shouldn't be a problem considering the advancement of technology (translations are pretty simple).

Why should there be a common language for Indians? I simply fail to understand!

Phantom said...

I second Jockey. European Union is an example, where the communication between the states is done in ones local language.

Eg: Let us consider France and Germany; French communicates (writes a letter or speaks) in French and German communicates (writes a letter or speaks) back in German. There are translators for assistance.

Regarding Anonymous's take on tourists/people on official work/medical treatment etc; the european model still works fine.

I feel Mr. Sen never had a look at the Model when he went to receive the Nobel.

kannadavesathya said...

Namaste Guru,

Well said!!!. Though the goal Mr.Amarthya sen was to get a noble, that's it!!!!. but the above said statements deliver a wrong message to the society. English is not the only language which can make a man to earn his bread and butter ( Though the statement may seem to be contradictory to the current situation, but bringing some fundamental changes in the education system could achieve whatever above said). We have to see that some fundamental changes are bought in the areas like education, government administration , technology could make a lot of difference in the society in terms of getting Kannada to a state where we get all the amenities, what English is possible to provide.

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

Most of you have quoted the example of European Union(EU) as the model for not having a common language for communication. However, it should not be forgotten that EU is only a union of many INDEPENDENT countries whereas India is a single country with people of different language groups living together with right to live anywhere in the country. If you insist on the EU model, it means India should be divided into many independent countries with the state official language as the sole language of each new country (erstwhile state) but each state would, in turn, not treat equally the other local minority languages.

Another proposition of yours is that the Government has to take care of all translation issues like communication with other states/countries, tourists/visitors, translation of latest developments in all fields, etc. It means the majority population has to rely on the selected few people in the Government for anything in other languages.

Another point mooted is that the Technological Advancements can take care of all translations. When the technology is so developed that I speak/write my language and You understand it in your language, the KARNATIQUE itself will become reduntant.

What could be a practical solution for India today is that all languages get the status of official language, at the least, in their respective regions in both State and Central Government (offices) with English as the communication (common) language among the states and across most of the world.

Regards

Jockey said...

Whether you say "independent countries" or "states" - that's a matter of choice of word. Today there's free movement of people between EU states - without the need of a visa or work permit - but still each "state" or "country" prioritizes its own language over others.

"Another proposition of yours is that the Government has to take care of all translation issues like communication with other states/countries, tourists/visitors, translation of latest developments in all fields, etc. It means the majority population has to rely on the selected few people in the Government for anything in other languages."

Nobody made this proposition. The only proposition made was that the "burden of working in all the national languages of India is on the central govt". This means only enacting laws in the parliament at New Delhi and working in other central government institutions all over India. We're not talking about non-governmental work at all here.

"When the technology is so developed that I speak/write my language and You understand it in your language, the KARNATIQUE itself will become reduntant."

If you've been following this blog for some time now, you'll realize that KARNATIQUE craves to become redundant!!!!

"What could be a practical solution for India today is that all languages get the status of official language, at the least, in their respective regions in both State and Central Government (offices) with English as the communication (common) language among the states and across most of the world."

Not a bad proposal. But we need to give the multilingual India a chance. It works in the EU. There's no reason why it won't here.

Jai Veerupaksha said...

@Anonymous/Dandapinda,

Even for those who argue the need for having a common language within a country, I would like to quote the example of Switzerland with 4 Official languages and absolutely no single link language and this country ranks among the highest in whatever index you would want to measure the country.

With languages spoken being German (62%),French (22%),Italian(95),Romanisch(1%) and others (6-7%), Switzerland has never felt the need to work towards a single common language concept because they realise the importance of the role of a language in Education as well as Business unlike us who believe that if English works for 0.1 crore it will work for 100 crores as well . Hence you will see all basic Government services in respective languages in the swiss kantons and coming from the centre it is always in all the 4 official languages.

Another point to realise is that even though German speaking folks number 62% there is never an attempt to make it the single common language unlike here where a language spoken by about 33% of the people is slowly , steadily and forcefully being promoted as the link language.This can be the only equilibrium state which is why you don't here such discussions about unity through a single language and such crap in that part of the world.

Jockey said...

Jai Veerupaksha,

Very illuminating points about Switzerland! I'd like to add a few points.

The population of Swizerland is a mere 75 lakhs. Romanisch speakers who are 1% of that are a mere 75,000!!!

So on one hand you have Swizerland which can respect the language of 75,000 people and be sensitive to their identity, has all governmental documents and the education system in that language. On the other hand, here in India we have a screwed up system which doesn't recognize the identity of 5.5 crore Kannadigas, and political parties, identities and philosophies which think of the very presence of Kannada as a threat to an assumed "unity of everything" in India.

What a farce!

Jai Veerupaksha said...

@Jockey,

"Farce" is the right term. We don't understand what true unity in diversity actually is. We don't even want to acknowledge the diversity itself, because if that is done then we very well have to start respecting it.

I think , post liberalisation, things have worsened on all fronts, where guys knowledge quotient has only improved in areas related to technology/economics but in areas like basic sociology,civics we have deteriorated.

IT will eventually take a Noble prize winning Research on "how India's skewed anti-federal policies have been the biggest detriments to its progress" from a US university unfortunately for our stupid folks in the corridors of power to wake up from their slumber and start thinking about "Karnatique" has been proclaiming for ages.

Sudhanva said...

Many Say that English is an International language.

But the fact is only one-fourth countries or little bit more than that have English as their language.

One more fact is, to read an Essay a child will take 6times more time, than the time he spends to read the same essay in his mother-tongue.

So, you guys can see, that the maximum people who got Nobel prize, are those who has mastered something in their mother-tongue or local language (not English). Take Tagore as an example.

So guys, please stop running behind english. Give priority to your own language. I dont say that dont speak/learn english, but dont give it a priority.

Bharath said...

Another orthogonal problem of Amartya Sen is that in his book called "Argumentative Indian", there is no mention of social reformers, Kings/Kingdoms and famous persons, thoughts from South India. I don't think Amartya Sen fully understand India.
The book should be renamed as "Argumentative Northi Indian' !!

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