Oh, Narendra Modi, it’s high time to accept English as India’s lingua franca

Basically it’s English only.
Basically it’s English only.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As the Narendra Modi government instructs ministries to use Hindi for all social media, what is striking is how many civil servants would naturally opt to tweet about local affairs in English. This expansive adoption of English not just as an official language but as a lingua franca sets India apart from the other BRICs countries.

India may have inherited English from Britain but English is thoroughly indigenized now, and despite the worries of some Hindu nationalists, it no longer is the preserve of the elite: Indians speaking English went from 3% in the 1980s to 30% in the late 1990s.

As linguistic historian Janina Brutt-Griffler has pointed out, English was not imposed wholesale on colonial subjects. Rather, the colonial policy was to primarily teach in the vernacular, providing English education to a selected few—in the words of colonial official Thomas Macaulay, “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect.”

The English of the few elite colleges was on the opposite end of the spectrum from the pidgin English of the merchants and servants who worked first for the East India Company, and later the Crown, like the gomusta Baboo Nob Kissin in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies who maintains “Lambert-sahib always discussing with me in Bangla… but I am always replying in chaste English.”

From the mid-19th century till after Independence, colleges like Presidency College in Calcutta and St Stephen’s College in Delhi produced not only administrators, but politicians, academics, writers and film directors. Although historically the colonials were quite diverse (there were many Scots clerics, officials, officers and entrepreneurs for example), that teachers of the colleges often came from Oxford and Cambridge, and the students’ English had a very conservative “Received Pronunciation”—the standard English accent associated with British public schools of the late nineteenth century.

Later (1970s) graduates of St Stephen’s such as politician Shashi Tharoor and television host Siddhartha Basu have a somewhat different accent, one that has been labelled “educated Indian English” by eminent Indian linguists like RK Bansal of CIEFL (now EFL) university and Braj Kachru of the University of Illinois. This accent has some distinctively Indian features, for example the vowel in words like boat is more like that of British English bought than beau.

Yet this accent reflects little contact with the languages of India. For a long time there was not much middle ground between the extremes of St Stephen’s English and Babu English, but after Independence there was a clear policy for the teaching of English in all schools. Two tiers of state school English were added: English as a subject (with the local Indian language as a medium) or English as a medium of instruction.

A rare sociolinguistic study conducted in the 1980s by Anju Sahgal and Rama Kant Agnihotri at the University of Delhi showed that the degree to which certain Indian English sounds could be observed corresponded closely to the following educational categories:

  1. The “vernacular” educated speakers have the most trilled ‘r,’ and the most retroflex consonants (when the tongue is curled back in the mouth, most notably in the final t of but);
  2. the English medium educated less;
  3. the “convent school” educated less still.

Since the 1990s, the boundaries between the first and second group have gradually become blurred: increased opportunities in the service sector for English speakers like call centre jobs, have in India, as elsewhere, increased the demand for English.  To supply this demand is a range of new private schools which teach all subjects in English (brilliantly captured by the BBC-Open University series Indian School). These are not the elite English medium institutions of the pas: many are much cheaper, teachers are not native speakers from abroad who taught at the convent schools, and students have the accents influenced by Indian languages.

And so, what the first outsourcers setting up call centers in India found was a rather complex situation. They based their numbers of potential employees on numbers of graduates from tertiary education (which is always English medium), but found that this wasn’t a reliable indicator of their English proficiency, which varied a lot depending on the education received. Even the highly proficient English speakers had to contend with callers’ prejudice triggered by their accents and were trained to get rid of their “mother tongue influence” (although English was their mother tongue)..

Sometimes, Indian agents are described as having “call centre accents.” These are indeed curious hybrids, but they are no longer about people faking an accent as a “location masking” exercise. Much of what takes place is, instead, “accommodating” to the interlocutor’s way of speaking. If there are novel accent features that call centre agents exhibit, these are more likely to be American, as this is the dominant market.

With the relatively new science of sociophonetics we can use acoustic measurements to show how the vowels of an IT worker in Pune change when talking to an American partner and then to a fellow Indian. The vowels in words like chance and class in the conversation with the American are produced toward the front of the mouth, which is where they would be in an American accent. The vowels produced in the conversation with the Indian partner are articulated in the back, where they would typically be in an Indian accent.

Whether the IT workers do this or not seems to depend less on how much time they spend on the phone talking to American colleagues, but rather their outlook, and their orientation to Americans at work, in the media, or even towards their foreign-returned relatives. It also depends on how comfortable they are inhabiting a personality in their work role which is different from their personality with friends and family.

In Ashim Ahluwalia’s 2007 documentary John and Jane the protagonists all work in call centers, but the most dramatic adopter of an American accent is the young girl who wants to escape her background. The guy who wants to live the American Dream but remain with his family in India is a partial adopter. A young man who is very disaffected with the American Dream doesn’t want to change the way he speaks. Neither does an older woman who is more interested in engaging with her clients than meeting the aims of the company.

Among the Pune IT workers we find a small number of people who accommodate to the vowels of their American interlocutor almost completely. A bunch in the middle will shadow some words rather inconsistently. A third group don’t shift at all, and this does not appear to be an issue of proficiency or lack of exposure, but about wanting to sound Indian and maintain that identity in all situations.

As English medium education becomes the norm for many more Indians, we are likely to see more of that kind of confidence in years to come. The scale of English in India is so vast that it will remain impervious to language policies that specifically exclude it. Whatever language civil servants are instructed to tweet in, much of India will continue to tweet in English.