Monday, September 6, 2010

A Melon That Wants to Speak The Language of Cherries

China and India are neighbours thrown apart by history.

The British East India Company set up its first trading post at Surat on India's west coast in the early seventeenth century. Over the next century, the loose federation of tiny monarchies built by the Mughals crumbled into a fractious bunch of local 'kingdoms'. The Company seized this opportunity to wield political power and control the terms of trade with native Indians.

In China, one dynasty was ruling over the entire country, and several colonial powers vied to carve the 'single' melon on offer. India's situation was a mirror image of this:

Great Britain was the single colonial power, but India was carved up into hundreds of intrigue-ridden, weak 'kingdoms'. It was a lush but unguarded orchard of ripe 'cherries', easy to sweep away into a tidy political basket. As the British East India Company plucked more 'cherries', annexing territories and small princely states, English became the language of power.

English had come to India as a 'peripheral trade language', competing with Portuguese, more than two centuries before Thomas Babington Macaulay, a member of the British Governor General's Council in early nineteenth century India. Macaulay's famous Minute on Education (1835) brought English out of its imperial closet; with one stroke of his powerful pen, he made English the official language of India and the medium of instruction in all educational institutions.

Today, with over 350 million Indians displaying a reasonable proficiency in the language, India can claim to be the world's largest English-using country in the world.

English was called the 'milk of the tigress', creating new energy and opportunity for the natives. In 2008, India could have earned $140 billion from its computer and English skills. Experts now hail India as a country with the 'intellectual infrastructure of a developed nation in English'.

English was once called a barbaric language in China.

After four centuries China's and India's destinies converged, for a fleeting moment in the late 1940s. History's tangential moment was all too brief. China became a totalitarian state. India became a parliamentary democracy. Once again, these ancient civilizations-the non identical twins-were flung irretrievably apart.

Two events occurred at the turn of the century to decisively settle the language debate in China. Beijing won the rights to the 2008 Olympics, and China entered the World Trade Organization. Today, China has the largest English-learning population in the world, estimated at 200 million children and 13 million young people at university. But even as the state pushes to increase English learning, it remains highly suspicious of unregulated foreign content.

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