Language is no zero-sum game

Language is no zero-sum game

For India, learning English does not come with costs — it only brings benefits.

Hindi Diwas, India’s official language, Constituent Assembly, Hindi official language, English official language, M Venkaiah Naidu, indian express
At a Hindi Diwas event this year, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu called English a “disease left behind by the British”.

Hindi Diwas is observed on September 14. On this day in 1949, India’s Constituent Assembly adopted Hindi as an official language. It also adopted English as another official language. There is no doubt we should celebrate the richness of all our Indian languages. Hindi, by virtue of being the language spoken by the largest number of Indians — albeit not by the majority — has a special place among Indian languages. But, promotion and celebration of a language does not require attacking another language. Unfortunately, however, at a Hindi Diwas event this year, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu called English a “disease left behind by the British”. He went on to say that progress can only happen through learning Hindi.

I argue that the net economic benefit of having English as an official language is huge. Here are my arguments for respectfully disagreeing with the Vice President. Researchers Jaques Melitz (Heriot Watt University) and Farid Toubal (Paris School of Economics) have shown that trade between any pair of countries is 50 per cent higher when that pair has a common official language. Also, Jan Fidrmuc (Brunel University) and Jarko Fidrmuc (Charles University) find that if the probability of two randomly chosen people from a pair of countries (one from each country) being able to communicate with each other in English increases by 10 percentage points, trade between those two countries is 11 per cent higher. Thus, India, where 12 per cent of the population speaks English, gets a 13 to 50 per cent boost in its trade with English-speaking countries such as the US, UK and Australia.

This additional trade is substantial and important. The increase in trade since the reforms of 1991 has, in several years, delivered growth rates of around 8 per cent — occasionally, even up to 10 per cent. During this period, India’s poverty rate has fallen from slightly under 50 per cent before the reforms to around 20 per cent now. There is strong empirical evidence that trade leads to higher incomes and, in turn, to poverty reduction.

While most of the research discussed above was for goods trade, a common language like English is arguably even more important for trade in services, including information and communications technology (ICT) services, where India is a major player. According to recent World Bank data, while India’s exports of goods and services are about $488 billion, services exports are roughly 38 per cent of that, at $184 billion. Furthermore, India’s ICT service exports, at $113 billion, are roughly 61 per cent of its service exports and 23 per cent of its total exports. In contrast, China’s total exports are a mammoth $2.4 trillion, as it houses the world’s manufacturing factories and is a big player in input processing. Its services exports are much smaller at $206 billion, not even 9 per cent of its total exports. Its ICT service exports are $85 billion, roughly 40 per cent of its services exports and merely 3.5 per cent of total exports.


India’s recent tariff hikes on imports of extremely labour-intensive manufactures demonstrates that, despite being a labour-abundant country, it does not perform well in labour-intensive manufacturing, especially relative to its services sector. This is not surprising, given India’s restrictive regulatory frameworks in labour and land, with its rigid labour regulations applicable to manufacturing but not services. Therefore, unlike in manufacturing, India is not handicapped relative to China in services, where it actually has an advantage because of its large English-speaking population. This was seen during the Y2K crisis at the turn of the millennium, when overburdened American firms turned to Indian IT companies like Wipro and Infosys for help, leading to a jump in India’s exports of computer and business services. A simultaneous surge for Ireland underscores the importance of an English-speaking workforce in taking advantage of such an opportunity. Y2K provided India’s IT companies a great opportunity. Over time, they were able to expand from providing IT maintenance and servicing to rolling out innovative software for American multinationals.

Even though the highly-skilled and educated individuals employed by the IT sector constitute a small fraction of the country’s population, the fast-expanding sector is a major contributor to India’s economic growth — my research with Reshad Ahsan of the University of Melbourne illustrates this. Additionally, it has multiplier effects through linkages with the rest of the economy.

Furthermore, as seen from the proliferation of call centres, India has benefited a great deal from the outsourcing of back-office and customer-service jobs that do not require a high level of specialised skills, but are well-paying nevertheless. Consequently, people are responding to economic incentives by learning English, the demand for which has led to the emergence of many new English language institutes.

Finally, education that emphasises learning English has played an important role in the success Indians have had in the American job market. Having Indians at the helm of Microsoft and Google helps greatly with networking and recognising talent within the ICT field in India. Add to this the presence of Indians in American and British academia pushing the frontiers of knowledge in the basic, social and applied sciences, such as medicine and engineering.

Learning English does not have to come at the cost of knowing or even having one’s native language as the first language or medium of education, something championed by Noam Chomsky for a child’s intellectual growth. However, there is also scientific evidence that learning multiple languages is good for the human brain’s development. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

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