Language and Inequality in India: Language Rights or English for All?
Studies of language-based inequality have hitherto largely focused on the case of linguistic minorities, while far less attention has been paid to the developmental stakes of a more equitable terrain for widely-spoken languages in education, training and access to livelihoods.
Further, while there has been increasing interest in recent years in the economic angle to language, the management of multilingualism in the economic domain and its stakes for economic growth have not yet received adequate attention.
The case of India is characterized by a striking divide between English and the major regional languages (95% of the population), that is rooted in a two-tier system of education and identified as a structural factor in educational failure and poverty. Consequently, the costly acquisition of English is increasingly perceived, in a context of rising expectations, as a sine qua non for participation in economic growth, cutting across all social classes.
In effect we have here the ‘language conundrum’ or ‘wicked problem’ of reconciling the imperatives of economic integration and mobility (through a common language), with the participation of different language populations in the economy.
Would the solution lie in palliating linguistic inequality through equalizing policies such as ‘English for All’ (proving to be an impracticable mirage) or assuring linguistic rights of marginalized language groups (problem of definition and enforcement)?
In this contribution, we put forward an alternative angle - that of economic empowerment and enlargement of opportunity for local language populations, viewed through the prism of investments and outcomes, with particular reference to the major Indian 'vernaculars'.
First, establishing the parameters of the linguistic educational divide in India, we examine, with reference to some case studies, the manner in which it a) structures economic inequalities, and further, b) induces communicational and learning inefficiencies in production contexts, with potentially significant impact on productivity and growth.
Second, as a tentative ‘positive’ response to these iniquities, we pose the question of the design of Human Capital Formation (HCF) in a multilingual nation such as India, that would reconcile the requirements of economic integration and mobility, with an enhanced economic role of 'vernaculars' in their delineated territories, that I propose to designate as ‘vernacular economies’. We sketch a preliminary model for the design of such a HCF system, that would factor in the economic costs and outcomes to be had by investment in inputs such as local language-based infrastructure for manpower formation and the modernisation of traditional 'vernacular' economic sectors.
We conclude with the policy implications of these arguments for putting language forward as a primary variable in economic planning in multilingual nations, rather than as an after-thought.