In 1988, I was being interviewed for a job as an engineer with a small-scale manufacturer of CNC machines in the suburbs of New Delhi. The General Manager introduced me to some of their leading design engineers. I was impressed by the work of one of them in particular- the drawings were impeccable, full of brilliant ideas and the man behind them had many more, which he passionately shared in a conversation. In private, I asked him, if he had sought employment in a larger company and tried to make it big. He teared up explaining, why he was still there. His English was too poor to get interview calls, he had tried multiple times but got frustrated by the lack of response. The lack of English had also kept him from getting an engineering degree, he said, instead he had to be content with a diploma.
That day, I witnessed a missed opportunity for the Indian economy. Language skills are very different than engineering and design skills. What a shame, that someone with an innate talent for a profession can’t advance, just because they can’t express themselves well enough in a foreign language.
While many years have passed since, the situation is still the same- to get ahead in career in India, you must speak English well. While many may support that situation, by arguing that it is a global phenomenon, the fact remains, that the only option to get high-quality professional education in the fields of engineering, business or medical sciences you must master English. If you can’t, your chances of getting into these fields are very limited and getting ahead is next to impossible. Clearly with only 10-12% people speaking English, close to 90% people cannot access professional higher education. This is also limiting the India become more competitive in the global marketplace. Its economy desperately needs more people with higher skills in engineering, business and medicine. Modern India should democratize higher education by making it accessible in regional languages- it will then reach 1 Billion more people. Offering parallel curricula in English and in Indic languages will provide many brilliant young men and women a welcome choice, help them focus on mastering the subject matter and simply enable them to grow in areas of their talent and passion. This will allow more Indians to be better educated, lead to higher standard of living and create a more competitive Indian economy.
The impact of providing the language choice can be enormous. English medium instruction can reach only 10-12% Indians, however if it was provided in five additional languages- Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil- a whopping 866 Million more people could have access to that knowledge- of which 420 Million are under 21 years of age. Four more languages Urdu, Gujrati, Kannada and Udiya would help reach 1 Billion Indians, 600 Million of which are under the age of 21. We are at a point in our history, where we must provide the common man and women modern professional knowledge in their tongue.
In today’s India, it is taken for granted that to master the fields of engineering, business or medicine, one must speak English. Unfortunately today it is a self-fulfilling prophecy due to a lack of choice, but it doesn’t have to remain this way. The experience of non-English speaking industrialized nations proves that societies can educate at very high-levels in their own languages. Learning in one’s own language can set one up for success, since language proficiency plays a critical role in higher-education. It helps the student understand the principals, concepts and techniques of the subject matter. It is needed to describe, analyze and interpret the subject and communicate information effectively. And finally it helps in finding, selecting, and using data in complex contexts. Having a curriculum in their own language will help millions use an asset they already possess. Unfortunately for them, the current system is upside down- they first have to learn English and only then they can study anything else at a high level.
Let us take a look at why is it so. Modern India is a nation emerged after independence from British colonialism. The education system, introduced by Macaulay during the British Raj, made English the medium of instruction and its main goal was to keep the Raj functioning smoothly. It focused mainly on creating English-speaking clerks, civil servants and lawyers. It wasn’t designed to enlighten and uplift Indian masses nor to educate the workforce of a vibrant manufacturing economy. After its independence in 1947, India adapted and nationalized the inherited education system and kept English as medium of instruction for professional studies. It may have seemed an obvious choice at that time- since all the know-how was available in that language, and the nation was focused on surviving as a new democracy, eradicating poverty and simply getting ahead by getting by. Perhaps then we believed that there was no time, resources or even the need to design the education system from ground-up and teach engineering and medicine in regional languages. There were enough Indians trying to get ahead- and there was no dearth of able candidates who could master English and complete their professional education using it the medium of instruction. Indeed, that also gave Indians an advantage in the global economy, especially in the technology sector. But this situation has created a false perception and an unfair system: only those who can master English can get ahead and those who can’t seem to be undeserving of getting ahead. Many argue, that if one is smart, they can do both-learn the English language and excel at their professional education using that language. While in fact skills needed in engineering, business and medical sciences can be learnt without having an aptitude for learning a foreign language. There is a large segment of students who would excel in these professions, if enabled to master them in their own language. They might still learn English as a second language quite successfully and communicate well in it. Today a large number of young-adults are being left behind and their untapped potential is a lost opportunity for the economy. This demographic can contribute significantly to manufacturing and to the service sector.
At a very high-level, the manufacturing sector of the economy engages in in creating new products, ensuring material-supply for production, mass producing finished goods and servicing them. All this needs a workforce trained in engineering and business processes. Studies indicate, that of the 1.5 Million Engineers graduated in India every year, only close to 7% are deemed actually fit for jobs in core engineering. Graduates seem to lack higher-order thinking skills, struggle with analyzing, evaluating and creating. The top two reasons seem to be a lack of hands-on in-depth curriculum as well as the struggle with medium of instruction. And the solution is to create a more practical curriculum also available in Indian Languages. A broader access to modern technological know-how and business thought-leadership will help bridge the productivity gap of Indian engineers, and provide an additional boost to the make-in-India initiative of the current government.
Let us look at professional services and focus on healthcare as one of its critical sectors. There is an acute shortage of doctors that can be filled with specialists trained in regional languages. There are 740,000 active doctors in India and another 500,000 are urgently needed. According to study by Lancet- a UK Medical Journal- as of March 2015, 8 per cent of India’s 25,300 primary health centers had no doctor. More than 80 per cent of community health centers, where specialists practice, had no surgeons; 76 per cent had no obstetricians and gynecologists, and 82 per cent had no pediatricians. The shortages are most acute in rural areas. And especially there, the doctors trained in regional language may help fill the void. Yet, the medical education in India is only offered in English language. Why is that? Russians, Germans, Chinese or Japanese have excellent doctors, who study in their mother tongue. Ironically, some Indians even study in some of these countries, learn their language and practice successfully in India- I personally know a few. It is time we offered these curricula in local languages. No doubt the Latin and English vocabulary will stay- there is no need to reinvent it. Let us take the quickest way to the goal, while leveraging well-qualified faculty, computer-based training and assessment to ensure the highest standard.
Indeed the task democratizing education is monumental and it will take time, involve huge investments of capital, and a conscious change management effort. There are four things necessary to accomplish this vision:
- The political will- in the government and private sector
- Content- books, CBT and such in regional languages
- Retraining of Professors
- Paradigm shift in the society
Let us review them a bit more detail.
- The political will– in the government and private sector
In a true democracy, the politicians would want to serve a broader population and should be motivated to support this idea. Effective policies and creative approaches could help output higher number of doctors from new and existing facilities. It needs some out-of-the-box thinking and decisive action.
- Content- books, CBT and such in regional languages:This might be the most expensive part of the project, but creative approaches- such as automated translation with Google Translate and extensive use of the most modern technology could reduce cost. Similarly the Indian curriculum may be able to leapfrog by usage of technology as a main pillar of content dissemination.
- Retraining of Professors:All of today’s doctors have studied in English Medium and taught in the same language. It may need special retraining and assistance to help them feel comfortable teaching in a regional language. It may even seem a bit “beneath them” to have to teach in Hindi, for example. We will just have to believe in ourselves and try this one out. Israel may serve as an interesting role-model. After its creation, it has successfully introduced the Hebrew language and upheld it.
- Paradigm shift in the society:Indian mentality will need to change and the change will take time and conscious effort. Often things made in India are considered inferior to the “imported” goods. Also, knowledge in Indian Languages hasn’t been as valuable as the one acquired in English. With time the specialists trained in Indic languages will prove their worth and change the mindset. When they do, we Indians will surprise a lot of people in this world- perhaps first and foremost ourselves.
In conclusion- the common people in India are not only ready but eager to get access to modern education. Breaking the language barrier and teaching high-quality professional higher education in most widespread languages will bridge this gap. This will become a bridge to the future of higher living standards, drive positive social change and strengthen India’s global standing.