The New # 1

A huge country where people speak 850 languages is home to six times as many English speakers as the birthplace of the language. This is not the United States.

The world has experienced a cross-over in recent years. Today non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers.A single Asian country has more people using the language than the US and the UK combined. That country is India.

How did that happen? Why aren’t these Indians bypassing English for one of their home-grown tongues. And how many now use English?

Several nations around the world use English as a second language, but India is unique in having a long and intense exposure.

A couple dozen generations ago, the language was limited to fewer than ten million islanders in the North Atlantic. But – greatly helped by armies, navies, publishers, broadcasters, movie and music studios – it has spread amazingly far.

How did India, so distant from the source, become such the runaway success for English? The situation began even before Americans started to break away from England. From 1765 until 1947 the British Raj government enforced English for all teaching and administration.

When independence came, it was followed by a government move away from English. The constitution declared Hindi to be the new country’s official language. For a region that’s home to over 800 other active languages, this was a bold move, which seemed to mark the end of English in India.

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Hindi, however, was and is spoken by less than half of the country, mostly in the north. On the other hand English was already well established throughout the country. So, to keep the country running, nation builders of that day fitted the constitution with a language change-over plan. In 15 years English would be phased out. Hindi, it was reasoned, would be left standing as the single official language.

By the mid 1960’s as the deadline drew near many Indians, especially non-Hindi-speakers in the south, protested. Hindi, they insisted, would not be welcome as a sole official language. Keep English, they demanded.

In the end the prime minister backed down. English, he allowed, could continue as an official working language until the states were ready to accept Hindi. Generations later that day has yet to come.

Today among many educated Indians, English is almost a first language. They speak not – as you might imagine – a mixture of Indian language and English. Instead their speech follows the style of the British Broadcasting Company, sometimes with impressive ornateness.

The many private schools and colleges – run as they often are by missionaries – teach English as a first language. The resulting standards of Indian English have been high. High enough to produce world-renown English-language writers such as Salman Rushdie.

Widely accepted estimates ascribe English to about 350 million Indians, more than to Chinese, Europeans, or even Americans.

More from Joseph JK . . .