Revitalising Indian languages will unlock our civilisational genius


When you check into a five star hotel in Japan you will find Japanese-style rooms.  In these Japanese-style rooms, you are expected to walk barefoot. The sitting area is tatami mats and sleeping arrangement is a futon on the floor. Overall, it is not unlike a traditional South Indian home. When Japan began its reconstruction after World War II, it made a conscious decision that Japanese style rooms in hotels would be priced higher than Western style rooms. These decisions create a subliminal messaging of Japanese culture being held in higher esteem.

Imagine an Indian five star hotel, where a room with traditional Indian floor toilet, would be present as an option, let alone be at a higher price. When I was growing up as a city boy in Chandigarh, I remembered my relatives visiting from cities in interior Punjab. They did not like the toilet seats we had in our home. We had an outside ‘servant’ toilet, which was Indian style and they would use that while we, their ‘convent-educated’ cousins, would roll our eyes at their backwardness. It is the same reaction that the idea of Indian style toilets in five star hotels would engender in most Indians.

Turns out, the squatting toilet is much healthier than ‘Western-style’ sitting toilets. Nearly half of Americans suffer from painful hemorrhoids, swelling of the veins near the anus, and recent researchis suggesting that Western-style toilets are a part of the problem. The seated position causes straining that increases pressure, causing the veins to swell. A 2003 study by an Israeli doctor showed that squatting cut defecation time by over 50 per cent and considerably relieved this pressure.  Japanese scientists later verified and extended these findings, recorded the internal movement of bowel fluids by X-ray and demonstrating a lower degree of straining in the squat position. Guruprasad’s blog has a good presentation on why Indian style toilets are better.

It is safe to say that the Japanese scientists and Israeli doctors involved in this research would have studied science and medicine in Japanese and Hebrew medium respectively, as practically everyone in Japan and Israel does. A healthy respect for one’s language and culture go together. On first glance, both Hebrew and Japanese would be most unlikely candidates for modern, scientific languages. Hebrew was practically a dead language in the 19th century, less used than Sanskrit is today in India. Written Japanese uses Kanji, a character-based script with over two thousand letters. Hebrew was deliberately chosen as the language for Technion in the 1930s, one of the foremost engineering colleges in the world, ranked higher than all the IITs. MS-DOS had support for Kanji, with its thousand of characters, decades before Windows would support Indian languages. When I visited Israel, I was surprised to find that Microsoft, one of the largest MNC’s in the world, used Hebrew-medium in their Haifa office. All emails, PowerPoint presentations, were in Hebrew internally.

The transformation of a language into a modern scientific language happens not because one language is naturally superior to another but due to political will. Instead, in India, we have internalised the slavery of English and Western culture. Everything in India screams ‘English is high, Indian is low.’ Government funds primary education in Indian languages but to study in ‘high’ institutions like the IIT’s and IIM’s, English is the only option. You can practice in a lower court in an Indian language but in the Supreme Court and many High Courts, you can only use English. You can take a test as a jawan in the Indian army in Indian languages but to be an officer in the IMA you need to know English.

This internal English-privilege hierarchy is simply not present in other successful countries across the world. Even when people are learning English in Japan or South Korea or China, they are not switching their medium to English. In learning a language you gain a culture, in switching your primary medium, you lose your own. But the switch to English-medium in India is not based on some global trend. It is based on clear state-sponsored discrimination against Indian languages. No surprise then, that people are lining up for English medium even in rural areas. English is illogical, non-phonetic and a difficult language for a rural child to learn, let alone make their primary medium. If they could, they would rather study to the highest level in their own languages. But India denies them this. Everything in society and the Indian state messages that English is high, Indian languages are low. Everyone wishes to be high.

This has dramatic consequences for India, both economic and cultural. In my study ‘The English Class system’ I noted that of the top 20 richest countries in the world per capita, only four are English-medium based. 16 of the 20 richest have higher education, science, engineering, medicine, business, law all available in their own non-English languages. None of these 20 countries have a disconnect between the mother tongue of their people and the languages of higher education and government. None of these have an English-medium based class system where English is a marker of social and economic standing above the ‘natives’.

By contrast, 18 of the 20 poorest countries in the world show this disconnect where higher education is not available in the common languages of the people. There are more countries with English-medium based higher education systems in the 20 poorest countries than in the 20 richest ones. English-medium higher education is not a marker of progress. It is the sign of our backwardness and lack of knowledge about the world. It is sustained in India by restricting all the top economically vital disciplines to English-medium, exactly how Macaulay had intended.

A few years ago I set off to villages in Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttarakhand to do a study. I carried with me non-verbal IQ tests normed on the US population. I administered these to children in the US, children in English-medium urban schools and children in village schools. In my sample, Indian village children outscored both Indian and US urban children in IQ. In a small village Khandodra in Haryana, 30 per cent of the children scored above the 90thpercentile. I was stunned. When I spoke to the principal of the village, he spoke about how the English class system in India affected the children’s self esteem and their chances of future progress.

हमारा ग्रामीन क्षेत्र है। अगर हाईर ऐडूकेशन से टच में है तभी बच्चा सफल हो पाएगा। जब वो आठवीं क्लास पास करता है, दसवीं तक जाता है, उसमें इंगलिश की ऐसी हीन भावना आ जाती है, की ऊपर जाता है—काॅम्पिटिशन में भी इंगलिश-मीडियम है।

(Ours is a rural area. To succeed these children need to be in touch with higher education. However when the child passes 8th class, goes into 10th, he experiences a feeling of inferiority in dealing with English; to go higher the competition is in English).

This encounter created my passion to reverse this injustice. A child in Turkey, in Malaysia, in Korea or Japan, does not face the same discriminative glass ceiling as the child in a village in Khandodra. Some years ago, Malaysia made an explicit decision to change its highest court system to allow Bhasha, its native language (a word ironically derived from Sanskrit). Yet in this ancient land of scholarship of ours, which influenced other civilisations for centuries, we cannot plead our case in the Supreme Court in any Indian language.

It is possible to change this. But it begins at the top, not in school education. There is no point talking about using Indian languages in schools till the higher education system is fixed.  Everyone looks to the top. The aspiration of even village children is to be doctors, engineering, lawyers and scientists. The aspiration is wrongly mistaken for English-medium aspiration, but that is because to be doctors, engineers, lawyers in India they are forced into English. We need a massive plan to revitalise higher and professional education in Indian languages and to dismantle the hegemony of English privilege in India. This does not mean we shouldn’t learn English. We should learn that and Chinese and Japanese and many others. But we do not have to switch our medium to do so.

People bring up the challenge of India having so many languages. But India also has a large population based that makes it worthwhile. We have more native Tamil speakers than the entire population of South Korea. It is easier to translate one thousand books than to make a billion people switch their primary medium. Translation into a language also strengthens it. The challenges can be overcome with political will and a plan, such as one I propose at This will unlock our civilisational genius, bring millions out of poverty and once again put India on the map as the light of knowledge for the world.



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