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09/02/2020 | Book Excerpts - China never had to learn English like India because its economy relied on manufacturing

Jaskiran Bedi

Contrary to China, whose post-1993 growth acceleration was concentrated on the manufacturing sector, India’s growth was service driven.


As David Crystal rightly argues, it may take a politically and militarily strong nation to establish a language, but it takes an economically powerful nation to maintain and expand it. During the twentieth century, the country with the dominant economic might was the United States of America, with native English speakers. By extension of Crystal’s theory, the USA’s economic might assured the consolidation and expansion of the English language on a global scale, including in India, after Britain had established it.

The impetus of the USA’s economic might perpetuating into language dominance globally was aided extensively by the fact that, during the same time-period as its economic reign, the world opened up.

Given that the US was the most productive and fastest growing economy during this period of rapid globalization, its language, English, benefited the most from this explosion of international activities. That the country housed (and continues to house) prominent higher education and research institutions, mass media and production companies, and social media platforms further added to the country’s – and axiomatically its language’s – outreach. Therefore, while British political imperialism sent English across the globe, including India, it was US economic supremacy aided by globalization that consolidated this expansion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Globally, economics replaced politics as the driving factor behind the dominance of the English language, and the same trend got replicated in India. The country’s dependence on English was no longer circumscribed to political and institutional factors. In order to prosper from the benefits associated with globalization accompanied by US economic supremacy, India had to become further reliant on the English language. Service-driven growth in India It is common knowledge that in this era of globalization, familiarity with English – the famously recognized global language – has become an additional (if not necessary) skill to possess. It is safe to assume that the language can enable individuals and nations to enhance their economic returns by providing increased access to people and businesses outside national boundaries.

Nonetheless, despite this logical supposition, countries such as China and Japan have managed to prosper from economic benefits without depending on the western language to the same degree as India. In fact, in the decade post-1991, during which India prospered from rapid economic growth averaging 7.5%, China performed better, averaging a Gross Domestic Product of 9.8%. The China story evidently shows that a country’s economy can prosper without relying extensively on the English language, despite the momentum it causes through globalization. Given that the two premises – first, India could have gradually shifted to regional languages in the past 69 years had its reliance on English only been limited to administration and education arenas; and second, English is not a necessary condition for prosperity in the economic arena in this era of globalization as substantiated by China – the question that arises is why did India continue relying on English to such an inelastic level? The answer lies in the path of growth followed by India.

Contrary to China, whose post-1993 growth acceleration was concentrated on the manufacturing sector, which contributed nearly 60% of the country’s aggregate productivity growth, India’s growth was service driven. Approximately 45% of India’s growth post-1993 was accounted for by the service sector of the economy. In fiscal year 2009–2010, services accounted for 57.3% of India’s GDP, while the average for the decade 2000–2010 was 53.7%.

Barry Bosworth, Susan M. Collins and Arvind Virmani, taking the 1999–2000 growth figures of India, highlighted that seven services constituted 41% of the total GDP during the fiscal year and were therefore largely responsible for India’s growth. These seven services included Trade, Communication, Transport and Storage, Banking and Insurance, Hotels and Restaurants, Real Estate and Business Services, and Public Administration and Defense – with Trade in services alone constituting 12.9% of the GDP. Arpita Mukherjee, in her 2013 paper, corroborated these findings by analyzing the National Income Accounts (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation) for the time-period 2000–2010 and concluded that these seven sub-services constituted 45.7% of the GDP. There exists an inherent dependency of a service-driven economy on the English language capabilities of its workforce, particularly in the multilingual India.

This is substantiated by the works of Mehtabul Azam, Aimee Chin and Nishith Prakash, who highlighted that English-speaking skills were more widespread in those districts of India that had an information technology firm in 2003 – which can be construed as a proxy for service sector firms. The authors quantified that in districts with an IT firm presence, 30% of the population is English speaking (7.7% fluent speakers and 22.3% partial speakers). On the other hand, in districts with no IT form presence, only 16.9% of the population is English speaking (2.6% fluent speakers and 14.3% partial speakers).

To further understand the role and relevance of the English language in the service sector, I conducted interviews with large, medium and small firms belonging to the aforementioned seven service sector industries that have been credited with growing India’s economy. It must be noted here that, while I incorporated different sizes of the firms within the sectors, the individual interviewees were all management level or above. The reason for this upwardly skewed selection of respondents stems from the rationale for the interviews. The interviews were largely to understand the relevance of the language in the service sector relative to other sectors – incorporating both in-house as well as customer demand for the language. Thus, those at a decision-making capacity were assumed to be more likely to provide holistic answers.

The evident deduction of the interviews were the two potential reasons explaining why a service-driven economy like India depends more on the global language of English than a manufacturing based country. The first reason stems from the fact that English is the language of communication with the clients in the service sector. Service industries, being predominantly client facing, perceptibly utilise language and communication more than the physical manufacturing sector. In agriculture and manufacturing industries, clients care for products and goods that are largely tangible. If the product or good delivered is quality, all else matters little. In services, on the other hand, one’s communication with the client becomes a good in itself. May it be in real estate, where firms and clients’ correspondences are based on documents written in English, such as by-laws and purchase orders, or hotels, where good interactions with guests assures quality service and customer retention, communication is not only a crucial driver but is also one of the ultimate deliverables.

It is consequently essential that the firms in these sectors be well versed in the language of communication in which its clients are most conformable. Since most of the firms belonging to these service industries span across states within India as well as across borders (in terms of their operations and/or service delivery), the clients are not circumscribed to Hindi speakers. As rightly stated by a member of a renowned chamber of commerce and industries in India, one needs to be able to converse with clients who are not only from North India when providing services. In a country where indigenous language, or lingo, changes every few kilometers, it would be irrational to expect a firm to communicate with clients in their regional languages. Since English-speaking skills are more spread out and dispersed across India relative to Hindi, it makes sense to use English while providing services. Furthermore, the clientele of these firms is not limited to the Indian border.

Industries such as hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and trade in services have frequent dealings with foreign clientele who are predominantly English speakers. Similarly, officers in the public administration and defense sector have to often interact with foreign delegations in the wake of joint exercises and exchange programmed. Since the clients require these service providers to converse with them in English, these service providers in turn require their staff and hired workers to be fluent in the language. This opinion, shared unanimously by all respondents, is substantiated by an apt quote by a manager at a capital advisory company – “if there is a choice to be made between two people having the exact same qualifications, the individual who is able to interact with the client better by knowing English will be chosen as client satisfaction is of utmost importance.”

The second reason for the dependence of services, relative to other sectors, on the English language generates from the fact that the said language is a medium of knowledge absorption and diffusion. In the service sector, language becomes an important means of absorbing a stock of knowledge. In defence, for instance, literature and user guides on equipment are in English. In the real estate sector, firms deal with documents written in English including contracts, by-laws, purchase orders, designs, architectural drawings and bills. A potential reason for this dependence on English to absorb knowledge stems from the fact that prominently established knowledge has been generated outside of the country, and almost always in English, owing to India’s relatively less developed manufacturing and R&D sectors. While notable efforts have been made in recent years to enhance the country’s manufacturing, the noteworthy results of this expansion will inevitably come with a lag.

***This excerpt from English Language In India: A Dichotomy Between Economic Growth and Inclusive Growth by Jaskiran Bedi has been published with permission from Routledge.

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