English Spoken Here

I have been under a total misconception of the facts when it comes to English speaking Indians.   Based on the British colonial legacy of this country, I have always been under the impression that the English speaking skills in this country run broad and deep, or at least broader and deeper than would have been otherwise. I have also believed that this has contributed to the growth of trade over the past few decades (I still believe this).  Think of the $70 billion IT industry that exists in India today.  Surely one of the key growth factors had to do with language and communication?  This, despite the complaints I hear from American friends about the trouble they have understanding (and vice versa, I’m sure) their customer support representative for American Express (substitute this for pretty much anything else) – based in Bangalore.

Having gone to a “convent” school myself, I learned to speak some close form of the Queen’s English; this has become slightly tarnished during my years of living in the US, despite my best efforts. 😉   As far as written English goes, I believe America actually improved it.  Now, I use “color” instead of “colour” removing an unnecessary letter in the process, and lightening my load, so to speak.

In any case, as many other immigrants from India have experienced, people in the US are surprised when I say I am from India and it’s all based on this: “My, but your English is so good!”     And it takes me very little time to reply – “That’s because the British left a legacy behind in India and I was one of millions that grew up with it”.

So, it really surprised me to read some new statistics on the English language.   These were based on an English proficiency study that was conducted by an educational organization called Education First who ranked forty countries according to their English language skills.  Here is what I learned in a nutshell:

  • The proficiency level for India is defined as “Very Low” – this at least is understandable given its large population and the relatively low percentage of fluent English speakers.  But, here’s what really surprised me:
  • India ranks lower than China (also rated as “very low”) in English proficiency!
  • Due to the inconsistent meaning of “proficiency”, the British council stated that there was a very wide range of between 50 and 350 million English-proficient people in India in 2010.
  • What is even more surprising is that in the same year, China had between 250-350 million English “learners”.
  • According to this organization, China is poised to surpass India in the number of English speakers in the coming years, if it has not done so already!

Aside from being surprised by these numbers, I was fascinated by how quickly China has caught up.  I believe that is what happens when a nation has a vision and a grand plan.

The other surprises for me were that Malaysia was the only Asian country rated as having High Proficiency (it also was the top ranked Asian country) and that both Japan and Korea (rated Moderate) surpassed India.  That really surprised me probably because I was thinking about Japanese and Korean immigrants in the U.S.  But, apparently, back in their home countries, the government has placed a strong emphasis on English study.   Why?  To benefit from the global economy that increasingly relies on English as the language of trade.   Take a look:


Another aspect that I have noticed in India is that the English that is taught and learned in school today has less of a feel of the Queen’s English, and more of a feel of something that is uniquely Indian.  The accent certainly is less British and more Indian.   I would guess that this is just a natural transition, as the generational gap increases since the year that British left India.   Would it be unpatriotic of me to say, I prefer the language my generation was taught?   So be it, but I do.

What I still can’t get over is the map above!  I believe that I was (along with others?)  just a bit too smug in my assumptions.  Time to correct them, no?


Posted on April 26, 2011, in demographics, English speaking, india and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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