The Case for English


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If insularity regarding the nation state is already being countenanced in English, how much more is it likely to happen at the level of the native language?

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A confessedly well-intentioned article in a recent edition of the Hindustan Times  by the present secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, Professor K. VijayRaghavan, advances the proposition that India as a nation will never attain to the highest echelons of science and technology unless it matches its success in sloughing off political and economic colonialism by doing likewise with intellectual colonialism through a single measure – attenuating the centrality of English.  Professor VijayRaghavan is far too intelligent a polemicist to be caught in the appealing trap of the either or. He simply suggests that if the brightest minds cannot be allowed to put forth their best ideas in the linguistic medium in which they function optimally, then they will always be second class citizens when deploying the language of another, one that has been foisted upon them, in this case, English. Instead, the author argues, why not allow for equal weightage of English and the student’s native language such that there can be a ‘free-flowing mix’ between languages. Not for him the cop-out of the alleged monumental difficulty of the task – no, he proclaims, with focus and investment, such a specious contention can be dismissed out of hand.


Is Professor VijayRaghavan right, however? Much as one’s impulse would be to agree with him and set about the task of making arcane knowledge available in everyone of the 22 official languages of the country, the gargantuan nature of that undertaking is precisely the fact that there are 22 languages. These, of course, are the result in the main of a political decision taken over 60 years ago dividing states on the basis of dominant tongues set to scripts with various degrees of difference, which in turn trumped the variations accruing to over 700 dialects. That centralisation was attempted in the afterlude of India’s independence has been evinced time and time again by the cack-handed manner in which efforts have been sought to impose Hindi on an often recalcitrant South (we’re all Madrasis anyway, aren’t we)? When Professor VijayRaghavan speaks of Germans thinking in their own language and yet speaking fluent English such that they can work in that free-flowing manner of which he writes in terms both aspirational and wistful, the point to be made is that German dominates the German landscape in a way that Hindi does not India’s. The Germans do not have to think particularly about Pomeranian or Prussian variants, and when was the last time that the French had to contend with having to explain the intricacies of the Higgs-Boson in Provençal Occitan (please note that the only Nobel given in that language was in fact for literature when Frédéric Mistral won it in 1904, rather than for any scientific discovery) or for that matter the Spanish in Euskera for the benefit of the Basques (we shan’t even attend to the comparable matter in Barcelona given the fissure lines making themselves increasingly manifest around Catalonia), or the Finnish giving the time of day in scientific altar-speak to the Lapps? To his credit, Professor VijayRaghavan speaks about the possibilities of the highest expression of scientific literacy in Rajasthan, Kerala and Orissa (a careful selection of the North and West in one move, and then the South and separately, the East) and yet the question is still begged – who will bell the cat? Having studied French off and on for three decades, I am often staggered at how impoverished the language is when it comes to expressing scientific thought in contemporary time. This, despite the fact that German and French were the scientific lingua franca of the 19th century (a fact which rather undercuts Professor VijayRaghavan’s claim regarding Germany – after all, they did have a strong scientific culture in the first place in their language, with English displacing it only latterly), something that was underscored to me when I was compelled, as a requirement for my doctorate in the History of Science, to pass examinations in both. Professor VijayRaghavan, therefore, suffers from the crime of presentism – English dominates now, as Germany and French did two centuries ago, and before them, Latin. It is possible that English itself may be supplanted – perhaps Mandarin will take pride of place in time to come, again, a language that has rather brutally extinguished the possibilities of other local contenders in a scientific sense through Han domination in China. If that happens, all the intellectual dazzle that emerges from a Telangana or a Meghalaya will still have to suffer the indignity of translation, this time into a language with which we as a nation, do not even have facility because we weren’t historically colonised by our north-eastern neighbour.


So are we left, willy-nilly, with English, then? I would hazard yes. For a reason that goes far beyond the global dominance of the language itself. It is rather to do with the cultural baggage that appears to attend the use of the vernacular, such as I have witnessed as a teacher in an ostensibly selective central governmental institute. Global examples relating to the dissemination of science have been met with student calls for a preponderance of Indian examples even when there are none to be had. If insularity regarding the nation state is already being countenanced in English, how much more is it likely to happen at the level of the native language? At a moment in time when the role of the mythic appears to hold sway over our collective consciousness, where like in the motion picture ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, the father proudly claims that every extant invention has emanated from Hellenistic sources, we have, in far more pernicious ways trumpeted likewise across a swath of arenas – aviation to surgery. Hence, while I would dearly wish to hasten to champion Professor VijayRaghavan’s position, ground realities must give me pause. It is only when the context arises for the development of a societal objectivity, which can place scientific, medical and technological development across regions in a manner that evokes curiosity rather than cultural cannibalism, that Professor VijayRaghavan’s hope will stand a fighting chance. Even then, I suspect that the more esoteric terms in science will continue to be in English (if immediately inflected by its US hegemonic variant), used as such in other languages, rather than afforded neologisms in them. This is simply because English isn’t simply an imperial language; it has the concomitant advantage of being able to accommodate the possibilities of that imperium in a manner that none of our state languages can, because they do not enjoy that advantage. They never did, except in some dim distant past, where vestiges of old Tamil can be found in say Bahasa Indonesia. However, I suspect, that this is not the needle in the haystack that Professor VijayRaghavan seeks.


John Mathew is an Associate Professor of History of Science at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune.

An associated Confluence article on this topic can be found here.

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Yes, elite society is divorced from vernacular society, but I think the problem with respect to science is that the vernacular society is not taught scientific terms in English. Students who have done their education in vernacular languages in school/college say that they wish they had been taught scientific terms at least (if not the whole of science and math) in English instead of in the vernacular language (in which terms have to be invented). It becomes very difficult to translate between terms and catch up in a higher education institute/ university when they have to switch to English. For instance, if you have Kannada words for, say, matrix, integration, differentiation etc, and hear of the English words only later, it is going to be very difficult to switch. And given that one has to use English eventually (it is hardly practical to start subject journals in each Indian language), one might as well start early. I also find the enthusiasm amongst the elite for the promotion of vernacular languages somewhat pretentious. At a time when students in rural areas want to learn English, saying that the vernacular language is essential for original thinking is a flawed argument, unless we believe that the elites who learnt English almost as their first language have not been able to contribute to science because of English. In which case, why do the elites not enroll their children in vernacular medium schools? As for a double medium of instruction, it does not work unless everyone in the class is familiar with the same two languages, which will often not be the case. In Stellenbosch University, there was (maybe still is) such a policy, and English and Afrikaans would be intermixed in classes. While this helped the Afrikaners, who were the majority, it didn't help the Xhosas or Zulus or students from other African countries, who didn't know Afrikaans.

Anbazhagan Sam Venkatesan

In the history of science in India there appears to have been a stage when a similar situation was faced as can be seen from the following:
" Parallel to the establishment of scientific institutions and scholarships for advanced research, popularization of science and translation of science literature into local languages received attention from Indian intelligentsia for the first time. following the initial efforts of Serampore missionaries in the 1820s and the Delhi College in the 1830s, bengal provided the lead in the late 19th century for vernacular publications of magazines and books in science. Between 1868 and 1910, ten journals and magazines in science alone and forty-seven in technology were reported from Bengal. efforts invested in creating a base for modern science in Indian languages were however not confined to Bengal. these activities extended to other parts of India, as is evident from Table 2."
I urge readers to kindly have a look at the Table at page 41 of the book mentioned below.
The quote is from the article by V.V.Krishna, titled 'The Emergence of the Indian Scientific Community' in the book "Sociology of Science and Technology in India" very diligently edited by Binay Kumar Pattnaik, published by SAGE, New Delhi.

What the Secretary of Dept.of Biotechnology, premising on the need for attaining highest echelons of S&T proposes is, a) reducing the 'centrality' of English and b) allowing 'free-flowing-mix' between native language and English.
Even with respect to falsifying certain facts, if we may call it 'sweet lie' it is preferable to remember what P.C.Ray has said about his work: "If the perusal of these lines will have the effect of stimulating my countrymen to strive for regaining their own position in the intellectual hierarchy of nations, I shall not have laboured in vain" (Habib and Raina 1989: 63) "
It appears Prof.Vijay Raghavan's proposition may be worth considering as a clarion call and work on it remembering what J.C.Bose observed : " it is a false patriotism to assert that our ancestors knew everything and that that we have nothing further to learn..the real golden age is not the past but in future..."


Ramray Bhat: I mentioned 'major languages' as a pragmatic starting point. Eventually, yes, all languages should be targeted. Incidentally, the mother tongue versus english debate, at least in India, is fractal - if state languages are imposed, e.g., a Tulu or Konkani speaker in Karnataka will have to study science in Kannada!

Thangasamy Sangarappan

With the prevalent class and caste differentiations in our society, the differentiation based on the ability of fluent communication in English plays significant role in most sections of people. The advantage of this foreign language ability is overvalued by parents without this skill and hence the current rush to English medium schools. I hope there is no controversy on effective primary education in one's own mother tongue superior to learning in/with another language. Technical skills acquired and transmitted in their own language (mixed liberally with new foreign terms) ensures equal opportunity at work place, this would become the preferred strategy in course of time.
For learning higher sciences and technology, we need to access global resources and none of the Indian languages have all such materials in translated.
While making more and more of modern S&T in our languages can be our long term goal, we need to be on par with global players in scientific research. "Fitness for the purpse" should decide the choice of language rather than considerations of cultural pride and colonial legacy.


"In my opinion, the solution is to enhance the quality of english education across the board, while also making efforts to develop scientific materials for pedagogy in all major Indian languages." True, and I think not many would tend to disagree with this. One question though, is why only "major" Indian languages and not the minor ones. In fact, one of the global efforts in this direction seeks to translate important works and texts of science into the 'minorest' of languages since its been observed that their users tend to be disadvantaged the most with respect to access and privilege of higher scientific education.


I have rather mixed feelings on this. At the present time, english is a very helpful language for communication between people in India from different linguistic backgrounds, and not just in science. In my opinion, the solution is to enhance the quality of english education across the board, while also making efforts to develop scientific materials for pedagogy in all major Indian languages. The situation with english is akin to farsi across a large part of the subcontinent in the medieval period. There is nothing wrong with using a lot of english terms in scientific chatting in one's own language - eventually, those words get assimilated (that's how urdu came about). Many years ago, a construction worker from the plot opposite may house (from his accent from eastern UP or Bihar) asked me in Hindi if I was a doctor and could I give him a medicine for an eye infection. I was trying to tell him I was a scientist, not a medical doctor and said "ham davaiyoN waale doctor nahiN haiN, vaigyaanik haiN" and his reply, somewhat disappointed, was "achhaa, achhaa, aap scientishT haiN". So clearly, 'scientist' is common enough a word in Hindi now for an illiterate person to use it naturally. In fact, when deploying Indian languages for science, there is probably no point using the bizzarre constructions in sanskrit that are often used for scientific terminology - we should just use the english terms.

Rahul Siddharthan

I think I am on Vijay's side in this matter! English can be a common language as in Europe, but there is no reason local languages should not be used for everyday science work, as in Europe. But it is not a problem of science alone. Elite society is divorced from "vernacular" society and the ill-effects are everywhere, not just in science. Imagine if the non-elite, non-English-speaking, 90% had access to the same high-quality education and could learn English at their leisure and not as a prerequisite, how transformative that would be.

I think the biggest problem is that many of us (me included) struggle to talk science in any language other than English, at best it is a bunch of English nouns with the conjunctions etc in other languages. But even that is not a bad thing. I was referring to what I have seen of European labs -- two French people will talk in French, but a French and a German will talk in English (unless one knows the other's language). That happens to some extent in India too. The bigger concern I think is school and university education. Vijay mentions the contradiction between the largely local-language school system and the largely English-language university system (but in urban areas among the well off, it's largely English in schools too!) How to give people an education in the language they are comfortable in? Can technology provide an answer?