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Language Imperialism

In Blogroll on June 10, 2010 by sheki Tagged: , , , , ,

Recently I was reading No Full Stops in India by Mark Tully, he discusses a lot about Cultural Imperialism of the British which continued in India in various forms like IAS, English medium schools and disrespect for Indian art and culture. He vehemently argues that education in India should be in the native language and not in English. Adopting English as a medium of communication has only led to stunted growth of Indian languages. His arguments do strike a bell, he gives an example – yoga which lost its importance in India post independence has grown back into the cities once it was adopted by the west. But does cultural imperialism and which is largely dependent on the language still hold significance today.

But these arguments made sense back in 1989 when the book was written. But a lot of world changing processes have shaped the world since primarily – the Indian liberalization,  collapse of communism, rise of China. It can be inferred from these events that capitalism has emerged victorious and all aspects of life will be defined by free market rules in some form. What I am interested is how culture in specific language is being effected by this victory of capitalism.

One would see signs of this in India itself, after the world has been Bangalored, the BPO and IT industry which has spearheaded India’s economic revolution was based on the advantage that India had English speaking labor force. No one now debates weather we need to have English as a part of our education, it is an assumed wanted given our place in the global economy. To cope up with this challenge from India, China is training people in English at a frenetic rate.

I have generated this small map to have a look at this so called Language Imperialism:

Language based world map

The region in Blue are the English speaking nations of the world. You can make the rest out by the help of basic geography – there is Japan, China, India, the Portuguese speaking Portugal and Brazil, Mexico and the Euro zone countries Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

The language wise GDP of the world is as follows (calculated according to IMF 2009 report)

Language or Country GPD in thousand million USD
English speaking countries excluding India 17555
Japan 5068
China 4908
German speaking countries Germany and Austria 3733
French Speaking Areas 2675
Italy 2188
Portuguese (Brazil and Portugal) 1801
Spain 1464
India 1235
Russia 1229
Mexico 875
Korea 832

Now if we see that English is the market leader, the best bet to challenge this dominating position would be Japanese and German. Now these countries have for long have had a economy which has preserved their language and in turn developed the languages. China cannot be considered a market challenger because language in China itself is segmented, different regions speaking different languages and also because China is trying to copy the US, it is teaching its labor English, it is more of a follower.

India is a specific case as it definitely does not have one single language to challenge this position, Hindi came close to being the one if not for weakness shown by the Nehru government and the subsequent Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu and India has the largest English speaking populace out of the native English speaking countries, therefore  India is not a challenger at all, it is almost a convert.

Now there are other language based economies, none of  them pose a serious threat.

Coming to the main point of this blog, because of the dominance in free markets of the English language, more and more economies will adopt English and English will become the global language apart from these there will be a lot of convert nations – a lot of them in Africa and Latin America, which will neglect their own language (also culture) and adopt English. We can see signs of this with the larger number of people learning English in most of the third world countries. English music is becoming popular again thanks to the market reasons, technology which is the biggest export of the English speaking world is making English more popular and acceptable.

A lot of the technical terms are English and have no word for it in the importing country. “Internet” and “Computer” are a few such terms. Rapid usage of English in India has stunted the growth of other languages in India – the word “internet” cannot be written as it is pronounced in Hindi but still it is adopted into Hindi than having a new word for it. The area “Lower Parel” in Bombay is Lower Parel written in Hindi, why cant there be a term for it in Hindi may be like  “Nichla Parel”. This might not be the case only in India, there a lot of  countries which will be converted in the future and then we will have a lot of “Zombie languages” –  languages in which small talk can be made but it becomes inadequate as the technicality and complexity of the subject increases. I would consider a lot of regional Indian languages in that category, they either have to borrow from Hindi or English to fulfill their deficiencies.

The safer languages are the ones with the challengers, Japanese and German, the languages with lower GDP will go first. Ultimately in the free market of the world I believe even Japanese and German will give up.

This seems to be great proposition for English as it will be borrowing a lot from the languages it tends to wipe out, and in the way becoming the truly global language.

So the conclusion can be capitalism causes imperialism in many indirect ways.

Please comment.

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9 Responses to “Language Imperialism”

  1. It’s a simple case of supply and demand (rather, the other way around) – “Good” jobs require good English, hence people want to study it (leading to the conclusions you’ve drawn). However much the vernaculars’ self-proclaimed protectors (eg. MNS, Kannada activists – most of whose families are very well versed in English, thank you very much) cry foul, where there is a will, there will always be a way – especially in India. Nice article!

  2. good stats.
    tow things.
    how many people think in english?
    for example if someone asks me a question in another language, i’ll reason in english in my mind but out loud, i’d be speaking that language(however bad that may be).
    that would be an interesting aspect to study.
    i think language should be a useful tool to express yourself and be understood to as many or as little people as the need may be. the question of imperialism comes in only if someone takes pride or derives his sense of self from a language, which i find ridiculous. it is ideas that matter, no the words that convey ideas. if einstein wrote his papers in english they would have been no more or no less valuable. same goes with countless other works from different languages over the past.

  3. @balaji
    the other languages are not getting enough scope to grow and develop,
    the greedier language wins, and language here is a representation of a cultural society. If you take the worst case scenario it can mean that the world will basically be like what America is now. Now is it a good thing or bad is point of view.

  4. I agree with almost everything you have said here. However, it is very hard to get the whole country soundly educated in one language, and the demand and applicability for English in the world today doesn’t help. But the downside of this exercise is the reason for our infatuation with all things Western and American. Since it is the language we know best, we start watching English movies, listening to English Music, following English TV shows and the like. This forms in a our mind, a subconscious link with the cultures we view and their way of life. Referred to as soft power, this is a criterion for world domination. For an insight on soft power, http://www.ted.com/talks/shashi_tharoor.html.

  5. in india we have so many words for people related to us. it can never be replaced by any other language because it is unique to india, since family ties are important here(or some other reason that i’m not able to think of). just as english is indispensable for tech/science, certain languages are required to express thoughts unique to a culture. it just does not change that easily.
    for example, Chinese is a very hard language to translate because of syntactic and cultural reasons. syntactic because a word can be used as a noun, adjective etc(more so than english). culturally it is hard because Chinese is very expressive but terse and people say that a work loses its essence upon being translated.
    what i’m saying is that sometimes even the most greedy language cannot completely replace another language unless that language is completely nonadaptive to change.

  6. @balaji

    My point is, the Greedy language will adopt features which will be very common, (Bhaiyya is kind of accepted in vernacular English). And as we move towards mor nuclear western family system, we do not give so much importance to our relatives, already a lot of them are cousins to us, so there are cases in which some might be specific relation names in cases.
    Fathers sisters son would be a specific “Bava” in Telugu, but is cousin for most of us.

    Already lot of kakas, mamas, chacha etc are coming under the unified “Uncle” tag.

  7. if a language is intended to be very “pure” it will die out eventually. for example latin and sanskrit which were the domain of solely the priestly class, were rigid and inflexible and ultimately lost out. tamil on the other hand has not. it is used in both a religious context and also amongst other classes of society. a language that cannot adapt will die out eventually. if english is doing that , then so be it. but i still think indian languages are strong and will not get screwed. they’ll form some kind of hybrid like how hindi,urdu etc evolved.

  8. so my point is instead of resisting change just let things take their own course. we can’t do anything to save a language. otherwise Sanskrit would have survived. it was supposed to be divine. no language can grow without mixing. some will remain, others will die out. can’t help the eventuality.

    • Ok thats where a different of opinion comes

      If you let things happen as it should, basically determine economy determine culture, kind of capitalist or should you do some thing.

      And about languages dieing out, earlier languages died out because of ease of use of the newer language, this time it may be just because of money. English may not be the easiest language for lot of Asians.

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