Learning to Unlearn|Mar 29, 2005 12:38 PM| by:

The English Class System

The economics of language

When English becomes the official language of a country, does it help or hinder economic progress? The answer is – it depends. To study how economics impacts language, we compared countries by GNP and official language – and came up with some surprising results.

Let us take a look at the top and bottom countries in the world by GNP per capita and examine its correlation with official language. In using per capita measures countries with a very small population may lead to less meaningful results, so we filtered out countries with populations less than 5 million. Then, we sorted the results by per capita GNP and looked at the top 20 and the bottom 20 countries. Here are the tables:

Richest countries by GNP per capita*
Rank Country GNP per capita ($) Official Language
1 Switzerland 38,380 German/French/Italian
2 Denmark 32,050 Danish
3 Japan 32,030 Japanese
4 United States 31,910 English
5 Sweden 26,750 Swedish
6 Germany 25,620 German
7 Austria 25,430 German
8 Netherlands, The 25,140 Dutch
9 Finland 24,730 Finnish
10 Belgium 24,650 Dutch/French
11 France 24,170 French
12 United Kingdom 23,590 English
13 Australia 20,950 English
14 Italy 20,170 Italian
15 Canada 20,140 English/French
16 Israel 16,310 Hebrew
17 Spain 14,800 Spanish
18 Greece 12,110 Greek
19 Portugal 11,030 Portugese
20 South Korea 8,490 Korean

*Population greater than 5 million only [1]

The first fact we note is that there is a wide variety of languages found in this list, dominated by European languages. The more interesting fact is that in none of the top 20 richest countries is the language of official business (and the primary medium of education at the school level) different than the native language used by the general population. In cases like Switzerland, which has multiple common languages, the medium of primary education follows the dominant linguistic group on a per-canton level with multiple official languages reflecting the major linguistic groups, without an inherent class structure privileging a colonial language. In fact, in none of the 20 countries is there a significant class system based on perceived language superiority of a minority language. And finally it is evident that the pursuit of both primary and secondary education and higher studies, including those in the sciences, proceeds perfectly well in a large number of non-English native languages. Furthermore, the top 20 are not restricted to European languages alone – Japan and Korea have done perfectly well economically by using their native languages as the medium of education, including in the sciences, over choosing a non-native language such as English. Switzerland and Israel are both multi-lingual countries, but different significantly from India in that they do not suffer from a similar class system and perceived superiority of a foreign language, i.e. a language not part of their native roots. The case of Israel’s choice of language is particularly illuminating and we shall look at it in greater detail further on.

The have-nots

Let us look now at the other table, the 20 poorest countries in the world.

Rank Country GNP per capita ($) Official Language
1 Congo (DRC) 100 French
2 Ethiopia 100 Amharic
3 Burundi 120 French
4 Sierra Leone 130 English
5 Malawi 180 English
6 Niger 190 French
7 Chad 210 French
8 Mozambique 220 Portugese
9 Nepal 220 Nepali
10 Mali 240 French
11 Burkina Faso 240 French
12 Rwanda 250 Kinyarwanda/French/English
13 Madagascar 250 French/Malagasy
14 Cambodia 260 Khmer/French
15 Tanzania 260 English/Swahili
16 Nigeria 260 English
17 Angola 270 Portugese
18 Laos 290 Lao/French/English
19 Togo 310 French
20 Uganda 320 English

*Population greater than 5 million only [2]

One immediate observation is that we find many of the same European languages in this table as in the table of the richest countries. The difference, of course, is obvious. Eighteen of these twenty countries (90%) here have official languages that are the languages of colonization that are foreign to the native culture of these countries. The vast majority of this list of the poorest countries has a class system similar to the one in India, where the language and culture of the colonial masters is considered superior to the native languages. Much of government and much business is conducted in this language of the elite, often different from the languages spoken inside the home by the majority of people. This elite attends the “colonial-medium” schools and uses those terms and concepts to understand their own experience and those of the “natives.”

Note that there are more countries in this list of poorest countries with English as the official language than in the list of richest countries – obviously that hasn’t helped their economic good.  

What does this data say?

We are not suggesting here that the issue of language is the only significant variable in this regard to explain the difference in economic conditions of these countries.

Correlation, by itself, does not establish causality. We are not suggesting that all these countries are poor simply because of this language class-separation. To look at the direct causality we do not need to look far — 19 out of these 20 poorest countries were colonies of exploitation by European powers, the 20th being a protectorate. This, by itself, is a significant enough data point for us to seriously consider the effect of colonization itself and the resultant economic and cultural rape of these countries that are now the poorest in the world and see how this shared learning can help us in comprehending the problems that we face.

Nonetheless in this study of colonization, studying the slavery of language, with its resultant class-separation and the destruction of native self-esteem with long-term economic and social consequences, is clearly an important issue. This language-based class separation hurts the people in multiple ways: (1) It privileges a foreign culture over the native culture, thus eroding self-esteem and a basic belief in people. (2) It disconnects the intellectual and policy discourse of the country, often carried out in the colonial language from a colonial worldview, from a broad participation by the people. (3) It imposes the cost of re-education of an entire population into a different language for the purpose of higher studies, thus creating a glass ceiling for progress for those educated in the native languages, and it hold up the colonized elite classes as the standards for the rest to aspire to.  

English in India: the mask of conquest

Unlike some of the African colonies, India had very well developed systems of education and written and oral literatures in Indian languages. How then did English get established as a language of the elite? Gauri Vishawanathan, a professor at Columbia University, in her book “Masks of Conquest”, has done a study of the establishment of English language and literature in India. The establishment of the English-speaking elite in India took a 3-pronged approach:

1. The destruction and/or denigration of native education
2. The requirement of English for becoming part of the governing elite
3. The establishment of English only, i.e. English medium schools, along with the cessation of teaching English as a language in native-language schools.

In particular, the soul of a nation is carried in its native literatures. In turning a nation away from its soul, the British bred ignorance and contempt of the native experience, while placing the idea of the “perfect” Englishman, contained in its literature, on the native pedestal. This created a class of native “brown sahibs” more comfortable with the English idiom than with their own and the establishment of a literary and cultural elite that was completely dissociated from their land.

“Charles Trevelyan, brother-in-law of Macaulay and one-time president of the General Council of Public Instruction, proudly exclaimed that the educated Indians “speak purer English than we speak ourselves, for they take it from the purest models, they speak the language of the Spectator, such English as is never spoken in England.” If Calcutta citizens spoke the language of the Spectator, it was by no means accidental, for editors of Calcutta journals and newspapers deliberately wrote in an Addisonian style under names like “Candidus,” “Verax’ “Oneiropolos,” and “Flaccus’ and on subjects having not the remotest bearing on Indian life, such as the fashions of the day in England, and on imagination, etiquette and morality.'[3]

The same slavishness, in different form and degrees is to be observed amongst the intellectuals in social science departments of Indian universities and English-language newspapers in India today. When many English-language writers present the Indian experience, it is often presented like exotic anthropology, looking down from above on native customs, completing the slavery of the mind. The aim of English education was manifold – one was to secure a “buffer zone” of trained bureaucrats who could be controlled and who would rule over the masses, and further more to use education as a means of establishing intellectual hegemony over this class by a mix of denigrating and exoticizing the native culture – more importantly, to have this elite class identify with the values of the conquerors rather than the conquered.

English-medium education, and the study of English literature was very much seen as part of the “Christianizing” mission as well, whether aimed at explicit conversion or simply at inculcating “Christian values” as objective truth. In any case, a destruction and denigration of “Hinduism” was very much part of the agenda of English-language education. Indeed even within “secular” English literature, Rev. William Keane, recognized:

“Shakespeare, though by no means a good standard, is full of religion … sound Protestant Bible principles, though not actually told in words, are there set out in advantage and the opposite often condemned. So with Goldsmith, Abercombie on the Mental Powers, and many other books that are taught in schools; though the natives hear they are not to be proselytized, yet such books have undoubtedly sometimes a favorable effect in actually bringing them to us missionaries.”[4]

The extent to which this mission succeeded in the formation of the present-day elite makes for a fascinating study. Some “Orientalists” protested against the extinction of native state literatures, and the explicit creation of a language-based caste-hierarchy, based on state policy:

“By annihilating native literature, by sweeping away from all sources of pride and pleasure in their own mental efforts, by rendering a whole people dependent upon a remote and unknown country for all their ideas and for the very words in which to clothe them, we should degrade their character, depress their energies and render them incapable of aspiring to any intellectual distinction.”[5]

Nonetheless, the Orientalists, despite their professed study of Indian literature were equally complicit in establishing British hegemony. According to Vishwanathan, “… a curriculum may incorporate systems of learning of a sub-ordinate population and still be an instrument of hegemonic activity… both the Anglicist and the Orientalist factions were equally complicit in the project of domination, British Indian education having been conceived in India as part and parcel of the act of securing and consolidating power.”[6]

Note that British administrators forbade the teaching of English as a language outside of English-medium schools. By the 1835 English Education act, the teaching of English was taken out of native language schools – because learning English as a language, while retaining the native medium of education would allow the natives to understand the British on their own (native) terms. This is because a native brought up thinking in their own language and merely learning English as a foreign language, would be able to objectively study the British, outside of the colonial framework presented to them as objective and neutral. Thus the change of medium, and the establishment in the native mind of an English based class structure, was a necessary part of the colonizing mission.  

The role of the contemporary Indian University System

The establishment by the British of colleges and universities, organized on the lines of the London University, and training an intellectual class in the colonizer’s worldview was very much part of the colonizing mission. Macaulay’s successor, Charles Cameron who campaigned vigorously for a centralized university system, “went so far as to call for the total exclusion of the classical languages of India—Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian—on the grounds that they were inextricably bound with system of ‘pagan theology’.”[7] That neo-colonial academics in India that opposed in contemporary times the proposal to start a Sanskrit department at JNU, New Delhi, shows to the extent the British colonizing mission succeeded in academia.

Even when studies of classical Indian languages and texts were carried out under “Oriental studies” this was part of maintaining a hegemony of power and control. While the Orientalist Horace Wilson argued for the preservation of native languages, he recommended co-opting the maulvis and the pundits as teachers and translators of Western tests. Vishwanathan suggests, “Wilson refined the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of destruction from within, to urge that the traditional men of learning of India also be co-opted as ‘additional instruments in our power’.” Even while accepting Wilson’s arguments up to a point, “under no circumstances was the Bentinck administration or any other administration following his willingness to support Oriental learning if it meant the perpetuation of Oriental languages and literature as the source of intellectual values, morals and religion.”[8]

Along with the destruction of native literatures, “an increasing number of British administrators … discovered a wholly unexpected ally in English literature to maintain control of their subjects under the guise of a liberal education. [9]

This was true even when many missionaries who had studied Hindu scriptures were fighting their own battle for an explicit Christian education vs. secularized Anglican education influenced by the “age of reason” from their fear that the “equation of reason with individually realized truths unwittingly fortified the position of Hinduism,[10] since Hinduism emphasized individual efforts and self-realization over belief in a received, institutional religion.

Nonetheless, the success of the systematic efforts of the British administrators in creating an elite English class in these universities who trace their intellectual roots solely in the Western civilization can easily be observed today. The continuity of their stance from the original colonial positions is indeed remarkable, as they decry all attempts to connect with the native culture, languages and classics as “saffronization”, a move towards the roots of a civilization they have been systematically taught to despise. Having internalized the negative stereotypes about their own roots, their only psychological defense remains to distance themselves from these roots as much as possible by attacking them as their conquerors taught. When the colonized identify with the mental worldview of the colonizer, the slavery of their mind is complete. This attitude of the mind, above everything else, is what we speak of in talking about the “colonized.”

Ngugi WaThiong’o: breaking the mould

World history that is taught in Indian schools usually limits itself to European or American histories. To understand ourselves today, it is far more useful for us to study the histories of Africa and South America and their experiences with colonization, than to study the history of Europe. Alas, the same class of intellectuals, only able to see with European eyes, writes the history we are taught in schools, and intermediates most of what we learn. Ngugi WaThiong’o decided to break out of this mould in Kenya.

Thiong’o was a popular Kenyan writer in English, who realized the impact of what he called the “culture bomb” and decided to switch to writing exclusively in the native language Gikuyu. “Decolonizing the Mind” was one of the last books he wrote in English, in which he describes the “culture bomb”:

“The biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed … is the culture bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other people’s languages than their own.[11]

Thiong’o speaks of the “acceptance of ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature’” – a logic that immures an entire class of people from reading nothing other than the colonial literature, and writing in none other than the colonial language. Even when the “native’ culture is included, it is done with the sole aim of presenting to the conquerors for approval as exotic museum pieces, as in the writings of luminaries such as Rohinton Mistry, Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy and their ilk. Thus native culture is used for the pleasure of the colonial master, either as a symbol of contempt or as an exotic amusement that will not deeply challenge the master’s worldview, continuing to steal from the native culture to enrich the masters’, symptomatic of what Thiongo’ calls “demands that the dependent sing hymns of praise with the constant refrain: ‘Theft is holy’.”

Thiong’o describes his schooling in English-medium schools and universities in Kenya, where the mother tongues of the children were literally beaten out of them – children would be punished for speaking anything other than English.

“In schools and universities or Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities that make up Kenya – we associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under-development, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were intended to graduate with a hatred of the people and culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment.[12]

Thiong’o speaks of the relationship between culture and language and how a native language is a unique product of the history of a culture. This is something that was keenly realized by the British administrators in India as well when they noted, for instance, that English education was “replete with Christian references” just as the vocabulary of Indian languages was imbued with their basis in Indian philosophical and religious thought. Edward Thornton, British parliamentarian went as far as to say – “As soon as [the Indians] become first-rate European scholars, they must cease to be Hindoos.[13] While Indian culture is still struggling with this bold assertion, certainly a whole class of humanities scholars in Indian universities is proof of the efficacy of language in cultural denigration and destruction.

No surprise, since, as Thiong’o continues, language is an image-forming agent in the mind of the child. “Language as culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and my nature.” While language is universal, the particularity of a language and the sounds and symbols it chooses, reflects the particularity of a cultural experience. “Thus a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history.”

A colonial child is forced to live the dichotomy between their outer and inner worlds – the language spoken at school and at home, the language of spoken expression and the language of external writing, till the child slowly and surely starts to think and perceive his world through the eyes of the colonizer. “For a colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the teaching of history, geography, music, where … Europe was always at the center of the universe.”

Thiong’o suggests that the ultimate impact of using a foreign medium as the primary medium for study is a deep colonial alienation on a personal and societal level.

“Colonial alienation takes two interlinked forms; an active (or passive) distancing of oneself from the reality around; and an active (or passive) identification with that which is most external to one’s environment. It starts with a deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualization, of thinking, of formal education, of mental development, form the language of daily interaction in the home and in the community. It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger social scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies.[14]

It is perhaps due to this dissociation that multitudes of bureaucrats and academics can write tomes about “social problems” in India without making a whit of positive difference on the ground. In practice the academics are completely dissociated from the society in their study. When they do study the society, they do this under colonial categories from a colonial viewpoint, disconnected from an authentic personal experience. These studies are often used to craft solutions by misguided activists and colonial, often foreign funded, NGO’s, leading to persistent despair about the “problems of Indian society and its backwardness”, where the problems may well lie in mindsets that view society and the solutions that are crafted arising from these mindsets.

Thiong’o succinctly captures the attitudes of the colonized elite class with regards to colonial institutions and languages, summarizing that “it is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues.” This indeed is the case in India, where everything of value is automatically attributed to the “civilizing force” of the European conquerors, their values and their languages; while all the problems are decried and caricaturized as resulting from the indigenous culture by its gaggle of triumphant neo-colonial English writers (measured, of course, by the bestowal of Western honors – be it selection by Oprah or the Booker prize).

The software question and the case of Israel

Few statements have been parroted with as much certainty by the colonized elite than the idea that India’s software success primarily results from its large English-speaking workforce. This view is put forward mainly for lack of a serious study into other factors as a result of colonial lessons well absorbed in India’s humanities’ curriculums – that all good must emanate out of colonial rule and everything native is merely “holding us back.”

Let us examine this statement. If it were true, then English-speaking countries must display this advantage consistently. In particular, countries like Kenya, with comparable histories to India of colonization and resultant poverty, an English-based colonial class system and a large English work force, must also be disproportionately successful in software. This turns out to not be the case. Furthermore, this theory also fails to explain why Israel, which follows largely Hebrew and Arabic-medium schooling, is also a notable software success.

People in Israel migrated from all parts of the world in the twentieth century. These people spoke many different languages, yet Israel chose Hebrew, not English as the official language, reviving for modern times what had been declare a “dead” or classical language. This would be the equivalent of India choosing Sanskrit as its official and link language, instead of the colonial choice of English. While it can be argued that a choice of Sanskrit would have instilled a far greater sense of pride, rootedness and nationhood in India society, even contemplating such a choice was beyond the ken of the colonial elite, so well trained by the British, that ruled India at her independence.

To understand the success of Israel over Kenya in software, the explanation, indeed, must be found elsewhere, other than in language. I remember reading in one of the physicist Richard Feynman’s early books how a respect for learning was a deep part of Jewish culture. In a similar way, in India traditionally learning has been considered the highest good. All of our scriptures extol learning, and parents have traditionally placed a great emphasis on learning. Even our varna system ultimately chose knowledge, over money or physical strength, as the highest good. In the Indian schooling system, even today parents emphasize academic success over other achievements. It is indeed remarkable that even today in India the children at the top of the class academically are the once most looked up to – in contrast with American society, for instance, where they are dismissed as geeks and the “jocks” rule the roost.

Furthermore, India is a society where the right for freedom of thought was always largely taken for granted and was not the result of a struggle against the mighty Church authorities as in Europe that ultimately ended with the age of reason. A sophisticated system of monistic religious thought in India was balanced by an equally luxuriant allowance for poly-conception – seeing truth in different ways. This can be contrasted with the rigidity of mono-theistic systems, which in actuality where mono-conceptual systems where only one right way of thinking was possible – all others could easily be condemned for the sin of heresy and put to death. Thus the correlation of India’s success in software to the traditional love of thought and knowledge in Indian society bears investigation.

While the learning of English as a language can still be considered a positive factor in the development of India’s software industry, English as a primary medium of education and the resultant English-based class system can only be considered an impediment to this success. This is because its often blinds the English elite, carving out realms of privilege, to the untapped potential talent in Indian villages and the need for the development of primary software interfaces in Indian languages to reach out this segment. They also serve to erode the very cultural values that are the basis for our strength.

To continue India’s success in this areas we need to build on the best of both worlds, leverage and expand knowledge of English as a second language where it is helpful, while not losing our strong cultural assets in this process by restoring the primary medium of education to native Indian languages.

De-colonizing the mind

Even though this essay is about the impact of English education, we do not intend to imply that English-language elite education is the sole reason for the class divide or for all real social issues. Nor will we automatically connect with our cultural roots simply by switching the language and translating the educational material currently written in English into Indian languages. Nothing could be further away from the truth.

Also, throughout this essay we distinguish between the learning of English as a language to using English as a primary language in elite schools and higher education. While learning English as a language subject can today be an empowering tool and needs to be encouraged, when it is turned into the primary medium of elite education its destructive effects in the creation of a disconnected elite class far outweigh any putative benefits.

This state of affairs has been brought about as a result of conscious state policy, and thus conscious state policy is required to remedy this. Colonization is perpetuated through the state-supported institutions that are the legacy of British rule and it is these institutions that will need to be changed to remedy its effects. While it is not in the scope of his essay to examine a comprehensive new language policy, we explore here some ideas for discussion.

A first step would be the exploration of converting all English-medium schools into, at the very least, dual-medium schools, through changes at the central board level in CBSE and ICSE. In particular, there is very little reason that social sciences need to be studied in English. This will allow proficiency to develop in native Indian languages that will increase demand for written materials in native languages.

Learning of multiple Indian languages should be encouraged in different ways. One way to boost Indian languages would be to create a common script for all the languages, much like the usage of roman script for European languages. Because of a high degree of similarity between different Indian languages, cross-language learning and reading would be greatly encouraged by a common script. The development of a common script, possibly based on an enhanced version of devanagari, would also expand the market of readers for non-Hindi Indian languages in India.

The study of humanities and social sciences in Indian languages, particularly in higher education, needs to be systematically privileged. The departments of social sciences in colleges and universities in India are the refuse of colonial policies, and have largely been a destructive force towards native society in producing new generations of disconnected neo-colonized who exhibit a contempt and disdain for indigenous traditions. As a result there is very little net value being created in humanities studies in Indian universities. The state should examine current funding to these institutions and knock down a few ivory towers. In particular, Indian language and Indian classics study requirements need to be made part of any advanced degrees in social sciences. Subsidies for of higher education in social sciences needs to be stopped till a positive correlation can be established between such study and its impact on real-world social issues. At the same time, scholarships should be made available to those who choose to pursue these studies, and write their dissertation in Indian languages and based on Indic roots.

In distinguishing language as a tool from language as a primary medium, a suitable language policy should support the teaching of English as a 2nd language while eroding its influence as a primary language. In particular, jobs for teaching English as a 2nd and 3rd language should be created in rural communities. This would provide employment to the multitudes of English-language teachers, while serving to break down the debilitating institutional elite class-structure that has been created by privileging the knowledge of English in India.

Sankrant Sanu

(Sankrant Sanu is a software entrepreneur and free-lance writer based in Seattle. The article first appeared on Sulekha.com)  


[1] Raw language, GNP and population data from Microsoft Encarta®, 2002.
[2] Raw language, GNP and population data from Microsoft Encarta®, 2002.
[3] Gauri Vishwanathan, “Masks of Conquest”, Oxford University Press, Pg 115.
[4] Ibid. Quoted on pg. 80.
[5] Ibid. Pg 41. From Horace Wilson, “Education of the natives of India,” Asiatic Journal (1836)
[6] Ibid. Pg 167
[7] Ibid. Pg 113
[8] Ibid. Pg 113
[9] Ibid. Pg 85
[10] Ibid. Pg 77
[11] Ngugi WaThiong’o “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature”, 1986.
[12] Ibid., Pg 28.
[13] Edward Thornton, Parliamentary papers, 1852-53. Quoted in Masks of Conquest, pg 23.
[14] Ngugi WaThiong’o “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African  Literature”, 1986, Pg 28.







  • http://Website Raj Joshi

    I found the article “The English Class System” quite revealing and disturbing. Having a convent education background myself I could readily relate to lot of facts/situations as I went through growing up. Wonder how Bharat-Mata will eventually free herself from these foreign influences and rise again to Her true Mission.