why is the level of English in North India so low?

I had sent this mail to a mailing list of 60-odd super-intelligent people. unfortunately, in their fondness for Savita Bhabhi, Vidarbhan farmers and child-eating, they weren’t able to come up with any convincing explanation for this. So I thought you super-intelligent readers of my blog might be able to help. I begin.

Three months back I moved to Gurgaon from Bangalore. And one thing I’ve noticed is that here practically no one can speak English. I’m referring to service providers here, people who are typically from the lower middle class. Taxi driver. Electrician. Waiter. Accountant. etc.

None of them can speak a word of English, and  I mean that almost literally. In Bangalore and Madras, we can see that people in these professions at least make an effort to speak English, and even if you don’t know their local tongue you will be able to communicate with them and get your work done. Here, unless you know Hindi, it is impossible. There is only so much you can communicate in Dumb Charades, right?

I suppose one argument will be that people in the North would have never had the need to learn English since most people they come across can speak Hindi. And that since linguistic regions are much smaller in the South, there is greater incentive for people to pick up and learn new languages. And since they know that a knowledge of English helps get them more business, they make an effort to pick it up.

But again – even if you exclude those who haven’t gone to school, the knowledge of English here is horrible. Isn’t it aspirational in North India to send kids to English medium schools? If not, I wonder why this is the case – given that in the South practically everyone want to send their kids to English medium schools.

Ok here is my hypothesis – remember that it is a hypothesis and not an argument. I wonder if people who are native of regions where the same language prevails over a large geographical area are linguistically challenged. because everyone they need to interact with know their language and there is no need for them to learn any new language. and this affects their ability to pick up new languages. on the other hand, people from linguistically diverse regions will tend to find it easier to pick up new languages.

extending this, it might actually help if the medium of instruction in your school is not your native tongue. having learnt a new language early, you will find it easier to pick up new languages as you go along.

sometime last month I was at a high-end restaurant with a couple of friends. spoke to the waiter in English and he didn’t understand. one of my friends who was with me said “don’t bother talking to these guys in English. if they knew some english, they’d’ve been working for Genpact and not become waiters”

30 thoughts on “why is the level of English in North India so low?”

  1. I can’t be able to understand tha trend becaase most people from naarth join English isschools, but isstill they isspeak bad angreji… I met phour to phive people who were abyysmal and were acting navy(read naive!)

  2. Umm, don’t you speak Hindi? Man, you are from the South but Hindi is the most popular language! Why they don’t speak English is one thing? How come you don’t speak Hindi is another! Come on, I am from Chennai and even I can manage a smattering of Hindi.

    As to why North Indians don’t speak English, maybe it’s because they expect others to learn their language because it’s the unofficial official/popular language?

  3. You southie dog.

    After the British has gone, you southies have embracced englis and destroyed the country. See what has happening in Bombay.

    Screw you and your engliss.

  4. It is actually well-established scientifically that being raised with two or more languages greatly improves your ability to learn new languages later. But I never connected this with the difference in English proficiency between North and South India. As further evidence, it is exactly the natively Hindi-speaking regions that suck big time when it comes to speaking English — the East and West don’t fare too badly. Thanks for this post!

    1. again i’m not sure if the lower middle class people in south india (those that are adults now) were exposed to english in childhood. but yeah – it’s likely that they’d’ve learnt the language or dialect of a neighbouring state or region in their childhood which made it easy for them to pick up english later.

  5. Its just the need macha. I know northies who speak decent english, and southies who struggle with english. Its just the need to learn and the willingness to learn.

    Southies treat english as the common language and northies treat hindi as the common language. Southies face flak for not knowing the National language, Northies face flak for not knowing the International language.

  6. My hypothesis is that english really spread through the country through convents and other western type schools. It is only in the last 20 or so years that indian schools have started being very particular about english education. Before that practically everyone who was fluent in english was convent educated. And in the north the number of convents is a LOT lower than in the south, due to various historical reasons

    And yes, if your language is the lingua franca, there’s hardly any incentive to learn new ones. I dont think the number of americans or english who can speak a second language fluently is very high

    Plus in gurgaon, the aam aadmi is a small town guy. You dont see small town guys speaking good english anywhere….be it gurgaon or gummidipundi. A fair comparison would be delhi vs a southern city, & ppl in delhi do understand a bit of english…a hindi challenged guy like me would know 🙂

    1. i’m talking about lower middle class here .who clearly didn’t go to convents.

      and i dont’ see how the aam aadmi in gurgaon is different from one in delhi. at least my feeling is he’s likely to have come from delhi

      1. Trickle down effect, the higher the % of convent educated people, higher likelihood of the average guy being exposed to the language. Where do u think a waiter will understand more english…a town where 50% of customers converse in english or a town where 5% do the same?

        I found the ggaon crowd there to be fairly rustic….definitely more than delhi, my opinion
        of course

  7. As in all .:Arbit:. endings, Gurgaon sucks 😀

    But seriously, it’s the reverse superiority complex deal- South Indians in regional colleges, for example, will NOT speak English if the regional language can be understood. These selfsame buggers, of course, sprout the Queen’s Own in times of need.

    I am presuming the North Indians feel the same way (“You have come here, now speak our language, moron”).

    Seriously, look at the French.

  8. Arvind, could you tell how to figure out whether some statement of that kind is well-established scientifically or not? A specific link making a case that non-trivial exposure to multiple languages during childhood grealy improve ability to learn new languages, would be helpful. Thanks.

  9. One thought – South Indians (Brahmins-to be more specific) were among the first to be westernized by the British. And during the British Raj the Brahmins held a number of high positions because of the fact that they were well versed in English. The Indian Education department was started by the British and later on became the Ministry of Education and now the Ministry of HRD. But with more Brahmins taking the lead in these departments; the study of English in school was given higher priority. Once we became free of the British Raj there were many Anti Brahmin movements which were instrumental in bringing down Brahmins with the DMK later on gaining power. But by this time the base of having English education in schools (in South India at least) had been set. But of course, even after this there were Tamizhans in prominent positions. Dr.S.Radhakrishnan (President, UGC Chairman, Teacher’s day anyone?), Dr.Lakshmana Swami Mudaliar (SEC), C.Rajagoplachari (ex-CM of TN introduced many educational policies with emphasis on English) etc. All this ultimately percolated down to more English literacy within the South Indian community.

  10. Further research leads me to this explanation found in the archives of the US Library of Congress (Country Studies) –

    Proponents of Hindi say that English is a foreign tongue left behind by the British; used only by the privileged. Since Hindi is already spoken by a majority, why not spread it around more? Dravidans argue that a complete switch to Hindi would give the North Indian population an unfair advantage in Government examinations leading to well paying Govt jobs. Why not level the playing field and let English stay?

    Link : http://countrystudies.us/india/65.htm

    1. i’m sure with the BPO “revolution” people are beginning to appreciate enlgihs more.

      and government jobs don’t matter anymore

  11. Agree with Ashwath’s points.
    Also, I guess it can be attributed to the political history of the land.
    The British had a dominant presence in the Madras and Calcutta Presidencies dating back to the early days of the East India Company. Which explains the early westernization of the indigenous elites of Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

    In contrast, Delhi and adjoining areas were governed by the Mughal throne till 1857. Infact, Delhi was not even the capital of the British Raj till 1912.

  12. @froginthewell once you know some linguistics terms it’s easy to find the papers. Learning a language is called “acquisition.” Languages are termed L1, L2, … in the order of acquisition. “Age of acquisition” refers to when you start learning a language. Natively bilingual people are those whose age of acquisition of L2 is zero. So, you’re looking for the effect of the age of acquisition of L2 on the rate of acquisition of L3.

    Behold:

    “Since the 1960s, research on the impact of bilingualism on cognition has associated bilingualism with positive effects on a number of internal variables, including intelligence (Peal & Lambert, 1962), metalinguistic awareness (Ben-Zeev, 1977; Bialystok, 1991), cognitive flexibility and processing mechanisms (McLaughlin & Nayak, 1989; Nation & McLaughlin, 1986; Nayak, Hansen, Krueger, & McLaughlin, 1990), and even a more democratic disposition (Pandey, 1991). Bilingualism – or biliteracy, to be precise – results in more efficient language learning, as shown by studies comparing bilinguals’ and monolinguals’ acquisition of a foreign language, in terms of both general language proficiency (Cenoz & Valencia, 1994; Swain et al., 1990) and the acquisition of specific parameters (Klein, 1995).”

    http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/sanzc/Sanz2000.pdf

    That’s actually a much more dramatic statement than I intended to make. Southies are smarter, and nicer as well, apparently 🙂

  13. Most people seem to be missing the point. Don’t think there is any conspiracy theory in not speaking English. Firstly, many in the upper and upper middle classes exclusively speak English amongst themselves (even if their native tongue is Hindi, Punjabi, etc.). If there was a grand plan to spread Hindi, the elites should have been leading it. Even those who are quite challenged or barely OK in English make a point to speak in English with people more educated than them (probably to show that they are ‘educated’ as well). So please ditch the conspiracy theories- there is a huge aspiration amongst middle classes to speak in English.

    Coming to Karthik’s post, I don’t know if lower middle classes in the south are good at English. But the reason for their Northie counterparts being bad in English is the education system. Most lower middle classes that would be in service sector right now would have done their schooling in 1980-90 period. At that time, public schools were exclusively meant for upper classes or more educationally oriented middle classes. Most lower middle class people would have gone to a government school, where the English alphabet was taught for the first time in class 6 (not sure if it has changed now). Almost entire education including Maths and Science was taught in Hindi. So basically, their exposure to English was minimal and at a very late stage, when learning itself becomes more difficult. The exposure is further reduced when most of these people interact almost exclusively with people of their own types. I think it is a combination of both factors. I myself studied till class 3 in a Central School (where English was taught from Class 1 but no one spoke it). Yet, when I moved to DPS in class 4, I found it a challenge to even reply to a Hi/Hello because I had never had exposure to that. Even later, my spoken English went through a very slow development process, as I naturally preferred to interact with more of my types. If that was my case, you can only imagine those with government school background with almost zero exposure to English.

    I bet this is set to change in next 10-20 years, as lower middle classes’ aspiration for education in general and English in particular has increased dramatically. And there are loads of ‘English medium’ private schools which have come up to meet this demand. Even though the quality of education in these schools is abysmal, just the fact that the education is in English medium increases the exposure to English manifold. And there are other multiplier factors like media/cable TV which would add to the effect.

    1. one premise of my post was that lower middle classes in south india speak english. i didn’t say good english. but they speak something that is intelligible to someone who knows only english.

      most of the taxi drivers, electricians, waiters, etc. in the south also would’ve been educated in vernacular medium government schools. however, they seem to have picked up english along the way. i dont’ think this has to do with schooling.

      and i agree that in the next generation, a larger proportion of people will be speaking english.

  14. brothah
    frankly, I believe your observation is incorrect, but I don’t have data to disprove at hand. your observation is anecdotal at best, and regionally motivated at worst.
    how’s this for an observation – the number of “north indians” settled for work in key southern metros far outnumbers the number of “south indians” working in delhi/mumbai. one could argue that it reflects number of opportunities in the cities, but I would counter-argue that opportunities are no lesser – just that south indians are more territorially challenged (to put it mildly) and therefore, do not settle in/adapt to unfamiliar locations.

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