02 Jun 2015 20:58 IST

Why learning English is overrated

Reluctance to learn other foreign languages is hurting trade, commerce and education

It is often said that the colonial legacy of English language has benefited India in many ways. In a globally interdependent economy, the ability to communicate in English has given Indians the edge to win the business of the west. Just imagine how we would be placed in the BPO and IT service industries if we did not speak English the way we do. But, travelling through continental Europe last month, I realised again that perhaps we think too much of our command over English. So much that we have consciously elected to not seriously engage with those countries that do not speak English as well as we do. This disdain towards learning other foreign languages is hurting us because we end up depending on just a few countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia for trade, commerce and immigration. In truth, there are so many developed countries where English is hardly spoken and life goes on just fine.

Dèsolè, no English

I rented my Ford Cmax from the Hertz counter at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and that was where the limits of American power (and English) ended. Getting out of the airport, I tried to change the language of the car’s GPS system to English. It refused, stubbornly sticking to French. My command over this language of romance is limited to bonjour and merci, so I stopped at a highway rest area to ask a fellow driver if he could press a magical button on the system to reveal an Anglais option. This kind soul tried his best, but in broken English and sign language, he confirmed my worst suspicions. The GPS system was only capable of French.

Later that evening, in Germany, I stopped at a restaurant for dinner. I can have a decent conversation in German, so this was not all bad. I bought a Magnum ice cream bar for dessert and as I unwrapped the brilliant packaging, I looked at the ingredients list. This Unilever product, from the venerable Anglo-Dutch giant, had no markings at all in English. The languages were limited to German, French, Italian and Spanish.

In tourist-dense Switzerland, all instructions in a parking garage were in German. Trucks on the highway advertised services to the three Germanic nations of Austria, Switzerland and Germany. In my hotel room in San Remo, Italy, I counted through 120 channels. Only one of them was in English, the BBC.

In Europe, it felt as though English as a language simply does not exist. The locals learn a few passable phrases in English to get by with those of us who refuse to speak their language. True, they learn English in school as a second language, but how much of your second and third languages do you still remember?

Europe, unchartered territory

Which brings me to how Indians need to think differently. If you visit a major English speaking city in the US, the UK, Canada or Australia, chances are that you will run into a fellow Indian in less than five minutes. But during my ten-day European adventure, I barely saw Indians anywhere. There were the usual Thomas Cook travellers, of course, but I saw very few Indians integrated with the locals, running businesses, working in local companies as employees and raising children in the local language.

The Europeans are known to be less welcoming of foreigners and this has given rise to suspicion in the Indian diaspora that there are racist elements in these countries. But European government policies regarding immigration have substantially liberalised in recent years. Germany is said to face a shortage of over 120,000 Science, Technology, Engineering and Math graduates to fill expected openings over the next five years. Higher education in Germany and six other European nations is practically free even for foreign students. And Germany gives masters degree holders 18 months to find a job which can ultimately result in a "Green Card."

In the World Bank’s list of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita, there are only four English speaking countries in the top 25 – Ireland, the US, Australia and Canada. Of the top 15 countries with which India trades, only three countries figure from Europe – Germany, Switzerland and Belgium – and all of them export more to India than import from us. The non-English speaking numbers are mind-boggling. Take Spanish. This is the national language in 20 sovereign states totalling 442 million people. French is spoken by an estimated 90 million people worldwide and is the official language of 29 countries.

Indian students, entrepreneurs and businesses are leaving many opportunities on the table by not aggressively pursuing options in European countries that do not speak English. Doing so, however, requires the successful individual to speak the local language like a local. Language opens us to understanding the country’s culture and practices, both of which are crucial to business success. One just hopes that this is apparently not too high of a bar for today’s business school students.



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