The truth about English speakers in India (again)

Yesterday, the Times of India claimed that
[m]ore Indians speak English than any other language, with the sole exception of Hindi. What's more, English speakers in India outnumber those in all of western Europe, not counting the United Kingdom. And Indian English-speakers are more than twice the UK's population. 
and further, that..
English was the primary language for barely 2.3 lakh Indians at the time of the census, more than 86 million listed it as their second language and another 39 million as their third language. This puts the number of English speakers in India at the time to more than 125 million. 
The Times has picked data from the right source no doubt (pdf, xls.zip), and I've double checked that the numbers are alright. But it's funny how the Times makes you believe that a whole lot of Indians "speak" English.

Even the data taken at face value means that nearly no Indian called English as his/her first language. Further, a whopping 92 out of 100 Indians did not list English as their first or second language. And finally, 88 out of 100 Indians did not list English as their first, second or third language.

But the data should not be taken at face value either (I'm sure you noticed the double quotes around "speak" above). Why? Because nobody told you what it means to "speak", and what a "second language" or "third language" means. In fact, the terms first-, second- and third language imply that proficiency actually drops significantly going from the first to the third. Otherwise, all could be considered as first and the terminology discarded as erroneous.

In fact, upon digging a little deeper, I hit upon the question which was asked by the census (Page 221 of the Manual on Vital Statistics, June 2009) under "General and Socio-cultural Characteristics", which shows how much the actual question is up to the interpretation of the questioner and the answerer, and how much the results could vary if the sun rises in the east tomorrow (yes, I mean east). See the circled question below:


So, while the census casually asked people to list down the two other languages known in the order of proficiency, it did not define any yardsticks for measuring proficiency. What proficiency means is anybody's guess in the census proforma above. For one, it could be saying "A for Apple", and for another, it could be a university degree in English. For many more, it could well have been just "interest in English" based on all the media hype, such as that indulged in by English newspapers like the Times of India. And for many others, to "know" something might just be to "have heard of", as in "do you know Bhopal?", or even "do you know Dr. Rajkumar?".

I had pointed out earlier that Google India's R&D chief, Prasad Ram, claims that no more than 7% Indians are proficient in English. Google looks at the Indian language market as a huge opportunity. As you can see, this 7% number is close to the 8% (which is what 86 million is in India as per the 2001 census) who rated their proficiency in English as second-rank. And I'd certainly attach a greater sanctity to Google's data than the Times of India's, simply because the former is not in the business of make-believe; they are driven by hard market realities.

So I'd say don't take the Times' article at face value, and not even the data at face-value. The 7% or 8% number who rated English as second in their order of proficiency is probably closer to being the correct indicator of the number of English "speakers" in India, not the 12% claimed by the Times. Clubbing second and third language data under "speakers" is dubious, and is nothing but a method of minority aggrandizement.

Unfortunately, this fuels the false feeling that Indian languages are becoming increasingly insignificant, which further increases the vertical disintegration of India - something which has what it takes to sap all the life-blood out of India and render it dead.

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