Turkey vs. India: The English language debate

Turkey vs. India: The English language debate

Turkey is a fascinating country on the crossroads of multiple civilisations and cultures. It lies in both Europe and Asia and has been formed successively by Christianity, Islam and the modern vision of Kemal Atatürk, who removed Islamic institutions from public life and developed a modern state. Istanbul feels like a European city. Turkey’s development indicators far exceed India’s. On my visit there I could see that Istanbul is also far cleaner than Indian cities.

I stayed in the home of a photo journalist from Al Jazeera. By the standards of India’s elite, his English was basic. By Turkish standard, it was quite good. His brother, who stayed with him, spoke hardly any English. It is worth remembering these are all modern, educated, well-to-do people. Speaking English is not a requirement to be modern, prosperous or educated. Hundreds of millions of people around the developed world speak little or no English. My recent visit to Poland, the Czech Republic, and now Turkey, strengthened my conclusions that denying professional education in the mass languages of the people is a sure shot barrier to overall development. All of these countries have science, social science, engineering, medicine, law and business available in their own languages. None of them suffer from the class system of privileging a foreign elite language above the common languages of the people.

I also met Tolga Kobas, who is doing a PhD in sociology at Columbia University. He was literally shocked out of his chair when he learnt that in the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India you can only plead in English. This would make law and justice unavailable to the common people, he said, and it is unimaginable that independent India would still follow this policy after the British left.

Naturally, all multinationals conduct their business in Turkish. Advertising by multi-nationals, even in the international airport is in Turkish. All product labelling is in Turkish. Multi-nationalize localize for whatever area of the world they are in. When I visited Barcelona, I was surprised to learn that they used Catalan, which is different from Spanish, the dominant language of Spain. All engineering, medicine was in Catalan. Companies localised their products for Catalan. It is only in India that we imagine that multi-nationals must mean English. In countries across the world, multi-nationals operate, internally and externally, in the local languages. Since we don’t respect our own languages and culture, we can hardly expect to be respected or to be developed.

Tolga had also apparently seen a Hindi movie. He was very surprised to see the Indians constantly use English words and break out into English sentences while speaking Hindi. Is this how the Indian elite speak, he asked, very curious about this.

I didn’t tell him that the problem was much worse than it seemed in movies. Indian educated classes can hardly speak three sentences without mixing in English. They are linguistic cripples in their own languages. An American who lives in Delhi, on the flight from Istanbul to New Delhi, told me that some Indians he met in Delhi proudly told him that they could not speak any Indian language well and only knew English. He wondered what there was to be proud of in it.

All around Turkey, I heard people speaking to each other only in Turkish. On a local train I observed a group of teenage boys and girls. They were wearing jeans and carrying the latest iPhones, chattering excitedly. In all their conversation I detected not a word of English. There is no Hinglicisation of Turkish happening. Later I saw another family, with a young child. They were speaking fluent Hindi to the child. Their Hindi was not completely mixed so I had a feeling they were not from India. Later, I asked them and learnt they were from Pakistan.

At Atatürk airport, waiting for the flight, I heard someone speaking in Hindi again. As I listened they mixed in “actually” and “generally”, switched one sentence to Hindi and then another to English. Normalcy had returned, I knew I was headed back to India. I knew without asking where they were from. There is only one major country that is taking pride in destroying their own languages. That practices a linguistic apartheid where the top, the Supreme and High Courts, Armed Forces, Higher and Professional Education is reserved for one imported elite language that is not even understood by 75 per cent of the country and the native languages are looked down upon. Where people feel happy destroying their languages and have convinced themselves that this is the path to development. In fact, it is the path to our perpetual backwardness.

In my trip through Europe, I did find that English was becoming more commonly used. I had little problem even making my way around Paris as a tourist using mostly English. This was not so even 10 years ago. So there is no denying that English is increasingly finding its way as an international link language. But hundreds of millions of well-to-do, educated, modern people across the world don’t know a word of English or may know some basic English for travel.

What they haven’t done is switched their primary medium to English and created a hierarchical class system in their countries where English becomes a requirement to access higher education and the best jobs. Learning English as a secondary language is an asset, compelling a switch to it as a primary medium for non-native speakers is disastrous. As I show in my recent book ‘The English Medium Myth’ summarised, the English Medium obsession and the English class hierarchy in India remain a source for India’s under-development and backwardness. If you still need convincing, take a flight to Turkey, or South Korea or Japan.

~ Sankrant Sanu



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  • Interesting reading but I feel without practical nature. In Turkey or France or Germany or Thailand, they have only one language to contend. Unlike India, they do not have to grapple with multiplicity of language with strong interaction with respective culture. I feel therefore, there should be no comparison.

  • I agree with K.P. Mohan, you have a very good point. Indeed, India is quite a unique place on earth – should not be compared with any other countries…

  • Multiple languages is not a problem. Just about few centuries (300 may be), all over india (Bharat), all people used to learn in their prakrut as well as in sanskrit language. Sanskrit was a link language. So multiple languages cannot be reason for our so called foolishness. We have rich language (and mother of all) in our Bharat and i.e Sanskrit.

    • Ok, point noted! But generally speaking, how many people actually speak Sanskrit or even know Sanskrit? And how many people would actually be willing to learn Sanskrit? First, we need to get a good grasp over Hindi, then we can proceed on with Sanskrit.