People's Languages Key For Growth and Eliminating Inequalities

French economist Thomas Piketty's celebrated book, 'Capital in the Twenty First Century', has been a much discussed one since its first publication in 2013. The book discusses in depth on the subjects of generation and distribution of capital (or wealth), and analyses their causal factors, relying mostly on historical tax data and other records of several countries, spanning over two to three centuries. Based on these records Piketty analyses distribution of wealth, historical ups and downs in the economies of various geographical regions, economic inequalities, and also discusses various solutions that can address inequalities - both within nations and between them. In this article we will examine Piketty's analysis of global distribution of wealth across nations and major geographical regions, the resulting inequalities and their causal factors, and see what lessons we can take for a developing country like India.

In economics, Gross Domestic Product, or simply GDP, is one of several important parameters used to measure a country's economic development. It is the total output of all goods and services within a nation, in a given year. There is also another important parameter to measure economic development - per capita GDP. Simply put, it is the GDP of a nation divided by its total population. Thomas Piketty makes some important observations on historical global distribution of wealth using per capita GDP as a parameter, and analyses its possible causes. He chooses two continental blocs, Europe-America and Asia-Africa, the former with mostly developed economies and the latter having mostly under-developed ones, and observes historical economic inequalities, starting from 1700s. Here is a graph of the percentage of the global average of per capita GDP of both the continental blocs:

With a per capita GDP share of 150% of the global average in the 1700s, the Europe-America bloc, shows a consistent rise with time. As the West goes through an industrial revolution, the Asia-Africa witnesses a fall in the per capita GDP share. From the 1700 onwards the two lines show a consistent divergence from each other with the developing world trying to pull back only from the 1990s. Convergence of these two lines now, does not appear to be all that complex after all. The developed nations already have enough capital, and they can invest in the developing economies that are in need of money. Apparently, it is win-win for both, as the developed countries can profit from investing additional capital they already have, and the developing countries can benefit by utilizing the capital for production and output. Not so easy, says Piketty.

If nations have to achieve true economic development it is important for them to build highly skilled labour force that can provide top-quality goods and services, with which they can also compete in an open global market. So, it is important to keep scientific and technological skills of the population on the rise. Piketty cites the examples of economic development witnessed by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and also China, in the recent years. So, if these two lines on the graph have to really converge, it is important that the under-developed nations develop skills of their population to be able to effectively benefit from the opportunities of the open global market. Piketty uses the term 'knowledge diffusion'. So, by the detailed analysis of historical data, Piketty comes to the conclusion that development of skills of the population, is of prime importance, and investment in quality education, especially in science and technology, is key for development of poor nations.

So, it follows that poor nations, like India, will benefit from building strong primary and higher-education systems. So, how strong are the education systems in India? Is india headed towards building stronger education systems that will help drive development? The answer, is a clear NO.

It has been proven beyond doubt that mother tongue based education is most effective in learning. Studies conducted around the world have time and again proven this fact. UNESCO not only recommends mother tongue based education but also considers it a right of every child. It is important that governments focus on building strong primary education systems in the mother tongue, and also strive to build institutions of higher education in the language of the people. This will provide a strong foundation towards achieving 'knowledge diffusion' that Piketty talks about. Successive governments in India have done trifle little in building higher education systems in people’s languages. Unfortunately, educationists, intellectuals and civil activists too have failed in building a narrative in this regard.

Industrialization alone, without much focus towards knowledge diffusion, has its limits in achieving economic development. Building a highly-skilled labour force is critical, and an education system based on people’s languages plays a key role, as is the case in the examples of countries like Japan, and South Korea.

But India, unfortunately, seems to have succumbed to a notion in education that is pulling it in the opposite direction.  The narrative that the English medium education is a panacea has successfully hijacked the society into believing in the myth that English medium is the only way to achieve success in the era of globalization. It appears that to be successful, people have to cross the English language barrier, which only a small percentage can manage to do. A huge mass of people aspiring to be part of the anglicized elite that the system has built, is still deprived of quality education. So, what we really need is a far-sighted focus towards building strong primary education systems, followed by top-notch higher education systems, in our languages.

It is important to note that Japan and South Korea that are part of the Asia-Africa bloc managed to close the gap with the West by building strong mother tongue based education systems. Needless to say, nations like Britain, France and Germany that witnessed development with the industrial revolution, and countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland that caught up with them later too developed on the foundations of education systems in the languages of their respective people. And it is not a co-incidence that nations in the Asia-Africa bloc that have struggled to achieve economic development despite investments flowing in, have failed to build education systems in their languages.

Lessons for India are very clear. Industries are important, but there is no way we can eliminate inequalities and reach the levels of development achieved by the West without education in people's languages.


Shravan said...

Our native languages and culture taught us everything such as art, philosophy, literature, architecture, governance, warfare, craft, jewellery, astronomy, banking etc. However, it seems to be found wanting when it comes to industrialisation and surgical medicine, in terms of original works. Any particular reason you can attribute this to?

Shravan said...

Have we misunderstood most of our philosophies as being ascetic and hence not suitable for things like industrialisation, modernity etc. or is it just that renaissance what a spectacular event in the history of humanity.

Sandeep Kambi said...


Modern science developed in Europe. New concepts were either first expressed in languages like English, German, and French, or immediately absorbed and translated into them. It still continues to happen, and people of these linguistic communities have access to all or most forms of knowledge in their own languages.

Linguistic communities like those of Japanese and Korean have caught up with them. To express new concepts, they either coin new words in their respective languages or loan English words (or words of the language from which the concept in question is borrowed) and adapt them to suit their nativity. While such linguistic communities have done well to bring new age knowledge into their languages, others, like those in India, Africa, etc., have not been able to do so. Reasons are many.

Firstly, there is a problem in the popular narrative about education. English medium is thought to be the panacea. Either native languages are thought of as not capable enough to carry new age knowledge or it is assumed that translating all knowledge is so humungous a task that learning English is thought of as a much easier solution. So, very little effort is expended in this direction. More often, studying in a native language is considered as a way to retain native culture and traditions rather than as a medium that can get modern knowledge as close to people as possible.

Language studies also play an important role. Such studies help in coining new words and adapting loan words inline with the language's nativity such that they can be easily understood and used by its speakers. Focused effort by experts in concerned fields to translate knowledge is also required. Government support and encouragement in popularizing a language as a medium of business, education and knowledge is also key. So, language communities have to fill such gaps, before they can get, say, surgical medicine, in their languages.


Shravan said...

Hello Sandeep,

I Agree with you but the point I want to raise is different. I know it is difficult but let me try putting it across.
Let us assume we have access to all available industrial and technical knowledge in Kannada language and we are all taught in Kannada. How will we use that knowledge ? What will be the direction of progress which will be our vey own?

For example, a lot of the western research and technology has been coupled with the wars and warfare. A lot has also been about coping with extremes of weather. In the peace time they are being used for immense economic activity. In Japan, Korea etc, it has been around consumer electronics as that has become and inherent part of their culture.

Similarly, what would Karnataka or India do or want to do indigenously with our knowledge? Those questions have to be answered. That might also give a direction to the kind of technical knowledge we need rather that simply learning what the west learns in Kannada irrespective of its use or utility to our society and lives.

Priyank said...

Hi Shravan,

While Sandeep might have a better explanation to your queries, let me pitch in with couple of thoughts of mine.
The mention of 'skillsets' in this article, is in a general sense. It could be something that the west already has, or some newly found skill that is unique. The question that is taken up in this article is, what is the effective way to impart any skillset?

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