English or Hinglish - which will India choose?

Schoolchildren with slates

Today's aspirational Indians want their children to go to a school where lessons are taught in English. But often the pupils leave speaking a language that would not be recognised in London or New York. Could this Hinglish be the language of India's future?

Why, half a century after Indian independence, does English remain the language of higher education, national media, the upper judiciary and bureaucracy and corporate business?

The answer is that India, unlike its rival Asian giant China, has no truly national language of its own. Hindi, the official language of central government, is an artificial and largely unspoken 20th Century construct.

Even the colloquial Hindustani of Bollywood films is spoken by only 40% of the population, concentrated in the "cow belt" of northern India.

The rest of the subcontinent speaks hundreds of regional vernaculars.

Amid this Babel, English remains the country's only lingua franca.

Hinglish lesson

  • Head is paining A headache
  • Mother serious Mother is very ill

And some examples of Hindi-cum-English:

  • Dial kiya gaya number abhi vyast hai The number you've dialled is currently busy
  • Kripya prateeksha karen, aap queue mein hain Please wait, you are in a queue
  • Toh wait kis baat ki? So what are you waiting for?
  • Aaj rally mein crowd kam tha Today, there was a little crowd at the rally
  • On a serious note, is film se bahut umeeden theen On a serious note, there were high hopes for this film

My own family are an illustration of this.

For my father, a Bombay Parsi, and my mother a north Indian Hindu, English was their common language, and my own mother tongue when I grew up in Bombay in the 1950s as one of Midnight's Children - as Salman Rushdie's novel describes those born around the time of Indian independence.

It was a cosmopolitan cultural identity reinforced by my elite Anglican school, its ethos summed up by the school anthem, sung to the tune of the Harrow Boating Song, with the opening lines: "Prima in Indis, gateway of India, door of the East with its face to the West".

I remember our resentment when new government decrees imposed both Hindi and Marathi (the regional majority language) as compulsory subjects.

India now claims to be the world's second-largest English-speaking country. The most reliable estimate is around 10% of its population or 125 million people, second only to the US and expected to quadruple in the next decade.

Start Quote

My family's maid spends a third of her monthly salary to send her child to a school run by Catholic priests”

End Quote

The most vocal demands for English teaching now come from India's most disadvantaged communities.

Perched high up in an ugly Delhi tower block is a shrine to the newest deity in India's teeming pantheon - the Goddess of English. Her high priest is a Dalit (former Untouchable, according to India's historic caste system) activist called Chandra Bhan Prasad.

In his tiny apartment, the goddess blazes forth from one wall in the lurid colours of a bazaar poster. Modelled on the American Statue of Liberty, she is pictured against a map of India, wearing a sari and an English straw hat, standing on a computer and holding aloft a giant pink pen.

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Babington Macaulay
  • The 19th Century historian who introduced Western education to India, is reviled by Indian nationalists
  • The term "Macaulay's Children" is still used as a pejorative label for anglicised Indians
  • His ideas have been enthusiastically adopted today by India's Dalits - for them, English is a liberating force
  • Their saviour from caste oppression is personified as a goddess, modelled on the Statue of Liberty in a sari

Beside the goddess hangs a portrait of her unlikely messiah, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British Whig historian and statesman who brought English education to India way back in the 1830s.

Every year on 25 October, Chandra Bhan and his loyal band of devotees gather here to celebrate Lord Macaulay's birthday as English Day with a hymn of praise to the new deity: "Oh Devi Ma, please let us learn English! Even the dogs understand English."

Most of the hostility to English these days comes from regional or language chauvinists who condemn it as a Trojan horse of globalisation.

The Shiv Sena renamed Bombay Mumbai and forces shopkeepers to replace their English signs with Marathi, but its leaders still send their own children to expensive English-medium schools.

That is because English is now, more than ever, an essential passport to white-collar jobs.

Take up at vernacular schools has been declining significantly, as India's poor scrape together the funds to send their children to more expensive English-medium schools.

Find out more

Dalit Goddess poster

Most aspirational of all are the so-called "convent schools", founded by Christian missions. My own family's maid in Bombay spends a third of her monthly salary to send her child to St Theresa's, run by Catholic priests.

When I visited the school to see if she was getting her money's worth, I discovered that most pupils had little grasp of their medium of instruction.

At morning assembly, they recited the school prayer parrot-fashion in a sing-song which was hard to identify as English.

The principal, aptly named Father Goodwill, is fatalistic. "Most of the children here are from homes where no English is spoken - but in another 50 years' time, better English will trickle down," he says.

I could not help wondering if these children might be better off learning in their mother-tongues and studying English as a second language.

Proficiency in English

Very High/ High Moderate Low

1

Sweden

14

INDIA

26

Uruguay

2

Denmark

15

Switzerland

27

Indonesia

3

Netherlands

16

Slovakia

28

Iran

4

Finland

17

Pakistan

29

Russia

5

Norway

18

Spain

30

Taiwan

6

Belgium

19

Portugal

31

Vietnam

7

Austria

20

Argentina

32

Turkey

8

Hungary

21

S Korea

33

Peru

9

Germany

22

Japan

34

Costa Rica

10

Poland

23

France

35

Morocco

11

Czech Rep

24

Italy

36

China

12

Singapore

25

Hong Kong

37

Qatar

13

Malaysia

38

Mexico

Source:EF English Proficiency Index 2012

At a Marathi-medium school where volunteers run classes in spoken English, the organiser told me they were getting better results than at many schools with the more aspirational English-medium label.

Start Quote

Hinglish, for all its occasional breakdowns of communication, is an authentically Indian hybrid”

End Quote

"The profile of the first generation English learner is a bit schizophrenic, because they think and feel in their maternal language but need to use English in their professional world," she said.

This linguistic schizophrenia presents a huge commercial opportunity for hundreds of new language centres offering English to young, white-collar workers, who pay as much as half their monthly salary for evening classes.

With teachers whose own English is poor, places like these churn out people whose English may be barely comprehensible, as many of us discover when we speak to Indian call centres.

More from the Magazine

Kedgeree

Kedgeree: A dish of seasoned rice. Hobson-Jobson defines it as "a mess of rice, cooked with butter and dal and flavoured with a little spice and shred onion."

Shampoo: To "knead and press the muscles with the view of relieving fatigue".

Pyjamas: A "pair of loose drawers or trousers, tied round the waist".

What is emerging from this jungle of poor teaching is not so much English as Hinglish, or what my parents' generation called Babu English - the language of clerks.

What makes Hinglish especially quaint is its love of the continuous tense and the way it dispenses with articles like "the" and "a". My own favourite examples are "head is paining" (headache) and "mother serious" (mother is very ill) - both handy excuses for leaving work early.

"The new Indian elite is a very diverse, first generation elite, and they don't have that old snobbery about the Queen's English," says novelist Namita Devidayal.

"One finds a growing ease in recreating the language to suit one's culture, which is a very hodge-podge culture, and one that's also comfortable in its own dysfunctionality."

Hinglish, for all its occasional breakdowns of communication, is an authentically Indian hybrid.

The trouble with dysfunctional Hinglish is that it can cause havoc when clear and precise communication is required, whether on a simple taxi ride or in more serious situations like hospitals and law-courts. Young Indians still need better quality, standardised English teaching if they want to access the global knowledge economy and stay ahead of eager new English-speakers in China or Argentina.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Van DammeA-list adverts

    BBC Autos takes a look at some of the most curious and courageous link-ups in car-advert history

Programmes

  • Bitcoin logoClick Watch

    The developer behind the new Bitcoin tech on the fears it will hide criminal activity

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.