The Causes and Consequences of the Global Expansion of English in India

English in India is a topic that is very dear to me. My family migrated from Pakistan to England in the early 90s whilst I was still a toddler. Therefore, my first language, which I learnt officially and gained fluency in, was English. However, my mother tongue was still Urdu. This is what has always baffled me because I have always observed with personal experience, that people who are native to land (which does not claim to have English as its national language) are still giving native Indians who are English speakers so much more importance. Many clichés regarding the English language in the Indo-Pak society became more and more apparent to me. Such as a definition of being ‘educated’ meant that a person has command of the English Language regardless of the fact that he may be highly qualified from universities back home. Asians who spoke English were regarded more adaptable sociably in Western civilisation as compared to those who did not. These are my observations, but what actually matters is how these observations came into a visualisation for me, which was a pending effect back home, of how English played a very dominant role that would define the fate of many. This essay shall be divided into two parts, the first shall consist of how English spread in India, and the second part shall discuss the consequences that came alongside it or after it.

Sailaja writes that historically, the first exposure to a European language in India was Portuguese. This was done through the entry of Vasco Da Gama landing on the west coast of Calicut in 1498, thus it lead to the opening of a door through which various European tradesmen and religious dignitaries settled in India by travelling to it on Portuguese ships. Among these ships came the first Englishman by the name of Father John Stevens who set sail to India from Lisbon in April 1579 and arrived in October. His letter to his father is regarded as the first example of Anglo Indian literature in which he expressed his vision of Englishmen to follow the example of the Portuguese.

This initial spread of the Portuguese language played a pivotal role in the expansion of English. The Portuguese language introduced the Roman Text to the natives of India. . A platform had been created for the later English colonial power to imply its domination of the English language on the natives and fulfil the vision of Stevens much better than he could have expected.

A Map of British India

The arrival of the East India Company is understood to be the major reason for the expansion of English in India that began in 1600. David Crystal explains that a group of Merchants were granted a trading monopoly by Queen Elizabeth I and it established its first trading station in Surat. Eventually, by the end of the century, it had stations in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta (which later became major centres of British dominance during the era of the Raj). The company grew stronger financially and militarily. Sailaja argues:

“Slowly but surely, the East India Company gained control of territories across India from Indian rulers, mostly by the means of wars and Dewanees (land grants with authority to collect revenue).”

This financial and military domination created a superiority of the English language in India. To further emphasise this, Gupta explains that during its spread, English had transformed from an alien language into a language of power and social control. . Therefore, for the natives, the people who they had to pay their taxes, were speaking a language that was not only different to any of their languages or dialects; but also it was an identity that represented power and domination. This psychological mindset of that time has been a major influence on how Indians or south Asians perceived the importance of learning English and how it has affected their approach in a prejudicial way, in fact, it left a mark or a scar in the minds of the descendants of these natives (which I shall argue later on).

Queen Elizabeth I

Some of the important dates regarding the expansion of English through the power of print media during the ‘pre-Macaulay’ (1835) period are as follows.

“In 1778, the first English printing press was established in Hoogly. The period 1780-95 saw the establishment of several English newspapers in the three presidencies.”

The reason why this is essential is linked to the fact that the early Portuguese settlers (as mentioned earlier) made the expansion of English in India a lot easier simply by making the locals aware of the Roman Text. This obviously draws towards the question of education, and I say that because to officially learn the language, an official medium of education would be necessary. Some natives would have learnt just enough English to have ease in dealing with the English for business, but there was no official structure of learning English as a second or even first language. That leads us into Lord Macaulay’s minutes that stress the need to educate the locals in the English language.

However, before we go into that, I would like to draw your attention to how an influential member of the East India Company, by the name of Charles Grant, deemed it necessary for the British to give Christian teachings to the Indians. Sailaja mentions some of the most famous quotes of his treatise in which he describes the ‘Hindoos’ to error due to their ignorance, and it is their duty to bring them to ‘light’. This supposed cleansing ‘remedy’ should be done through the teachings of their ‘divine religion’ as mentioned in Mahmood. He later quotes the plea of Grant’s argument in which he says that this should be done in the English Language, which makes it the first serious argument for English in India:

“The first communication, and the instrument of introducing the rest must be the English language; this is a key which will open to them a world of new ideas. ”

(Quoted in Mahmood 1981: 12)

Although these views are controversial and based on the ideology of a superior, more cultured and educated mindset (in its own opinion) and one can argue that the supposed ignorant behaviour of the natives may well have been a resistance to a dictatorial and oppressive regime according to the natives. Grant’s idea of presenting a ‘remedy’ suggests that the English believed there was an illness. How can the later generations of educated Indians accept that without the English language, India was in a crisis or suffering a disease? A consequence is created in the long run through this of a future resentment towards the Imperial English and their negative views. However, there is no denying the fact that English did indeed open a whole new dimension of ideas to the natives. It somewhat explained the mentality and body language of the English to the natives of India.

With the question of education still not fully answered, it is essential to draw your attention towards the renewal of the charter of the East India Company in 1813 in which it was proposed by the parliament that one lakh rupees shall be spent for the improvement of literature, encouragement of learned natives and promotion of the sciences. However, Randle Jackson (a member of parliament) did voice his concerns in 1793:

“We have lost our colonies in America by imparting our Education there, we need not do so in India too”

These words acted as a prophecy and a result to a consequence for the Imperial British who actually ended up losing India as a colony in 1947. This proves that the spread of the English language in India caused consequences not only for the natives but for the English as well.

The need of the education of the English language in India leads to the pivotal, historic event in which Governor-General Lord William Bentinck accepted the minute proposed by Thomas Macaulay in 1835. Macaulay saw the need of educating the natives in the English Language, some famous lines of his minute are:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”.

Governor-General Lord William Bentinck

Macaulay’s vision was to create a class that would be subordinate to the hierarchy of the English government but superior to the natives, giving them the hope of achieving supremacy through the means of education in English and replicating the dominance whilst not being English. The second directive of Bentinck was that all funds should solely be spent on English Education and imparting to the natives the knowledge of literature and science through the medium of English. Thus, English became the official language of Education in 1835 and the official language of government in 1837. This action was further solidified with the establishment of universities in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in 1857, which guaranteed its status and steady growth for the next century.

Thomas Macaulay

These were some of the key factors that played a major role in the spread of English in India. However, even though it could be argued that learning English has great benefits if you are an Indian citizen, it is equally vice versa in terms of consequences as well. I will argue this through my personal experience being the first generation of my family who learnt English as a first language as compared to ‘Hindustani’. Through my experiences in life, I have come to learn that people like myself, who have a command of the English language, have psychological confidence, some may call it arrogance over those people who are of the same colour and creed as them but cannot speak English or speak very little. In support of this, I would like to quote M.K. Gandhi regarding his feelings, who himself like many of us, learnt English but had parents that were illiterate to it. A.V Kumar quotes Gandhi:

“The English medium created an impassable barrier between me and my family who had not gone to English schools….I was fast becoming a stranger in my own home. I certainly became a superior person…”

The reason why I feel it is highly necessary to mention Gandhi’s quote is that he is like a father to the nation. His experience is based on traditional Indian values and western ideology because of the education he received. We can symbolically identify his home as India, where his family represents the masses of uneducated Indians who do not know English, and himself, being the representation of the elites who because of knowing English are superior in sense and style, but are a stranger to the masses because they cannot seem to relate to one another.

However, it can be argued through this whether this is not what Indians should look to do? To outgrow and expand from their restricted mindsets which shackled them through the medium of Asian languages and prosper universally through the medium of English that offers an opportunity to upgrade in status, education and rationality? Macaulay’s vision was a mindset embedded into the minds of the natives and since then, English has been seen as a very stable bridge to a more prosperous lifestyle. I reluctantly understand that and accept something which I cannot change, but my only question and problem is whether this ‘stable bridge’ is available to all of India? Did it remove the caste system? Did it offer a channel for the Dalits, the poor and the people dwelling in remote villages to upgrade them? Sadly that is not the case. A V Kumar argues that due to an ‘uneven distribution of educational resources’ 90% of the society does not stand in the queue for the passport (English) of opportunities. Furthermore, R.K Agnihotri writes that higher, upward social mobility is available through English, however:

“We do not have the resources or the will to take English to the poor people, how can we then move towards a more just social order?”

Thus, I believe that the medium of English being a means to success in India is unfair and has caused the democratic government not to focus on creating a path towards success through languages such as Hindi or Urdu, which already were the national languages of the country. Does Italy, Spain, Germany, China and various other financially stable nations require English as the gateway to social mobility? If they do not, then why does India, a country rich with history, especially considering it is the home of one of the oldest recorded languages (Sanskrit), idolise English, a language that was only formed a few centuries before?

Another consequence in trying to ‘impose’ English is that children going to English medium schools do not grasp as much knowledge as those children who go to traditional Hindi schools simply because they have the added headache of learning a foreign language. In R.K Agnihotri’s general consensus of the impact of English in Indian schools, he presents a personal account of a teacher from Hyderabad who says exactly what I have just mentioned. This should favour the students who pursued an education initially or completely in the national language rather than the associate language. However, with the fascination of English or the supposed superiority of a person with English knowledge (the mark which was left by the colonialists upon the natives as I mentioned earlier), and bearing in mind the implications of Macaulay’s vision, the favour has always been given to the ‘Indian who speaks English’. This I believe is highly demoralising for students who have worked hard their entire lives, but have not been able to convert their hard work into achievements because their opportunities became limited due to being handed to English speakers. Even this is acceptable if it is the way to go, but once again draws towards the issue of giving equal opportunities.

To conclude, I would like to express my concern regarding the consequence of how English is creating an ‘imposter’ identity of the sub-continent instead of its own highly rich and historic identity. The English are proud of imposing their unique identity upon the world, many nations such as India try to replicate that identity within them. English gains its proud stature through works of literary art and great writers such as Shakespeare and Chaucer. Sanskrit became a root cause for many languages; even English can trace its history to this language. Therefore, why does the nation of such a great language require trying and creating a new and supposed ‘modern’ identity through a language that officially was recorded a few hundred years ago? With the cast expansion of English in India, the concern is growing of native Indians forgetting their mother tongue. In an article published in ‘The Times of India’, Monika Reddy writes,

“Majority of children of Indian origin (whose parents were born and brought up in India) speak only English at home”

She further states,

“It is unfortunate that most languages are on the verge of dying but that’s the price of progress. What we lose is essentially an enormous cultural heritage.”

It is therefore necessary for the masses of Indians to realise the threat of the extinction of their mother tongues with the growing threat of English.

Bibliography and works cited

  • Agnihotri, Rama Kant, Amrit Lal. Khanna, and Neeti Ahluwalia. Problematizing English in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1997. Print.
  • Crystal, David. English as a Global Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
  • Gandhi, and R. K. Prabhu. Evil Wrought by the English Medium. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Pub. House, 1958. Print.
  • Gupta, R. S., and Kapil Kapoor. English in India, Issues and Problems. Delhi: Academic Foundation, 1991. Print.
  • Likki, Mounika R. “’ Parents Must Speak to Children in Their Mother Tongue at Home’ – The Times of India.” The Times of India. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Jan. 2015.
  • Mahmood, Syed. A History of English Education in India: Its Rise, Development, Progress, Present Condition, and Prospects Being a Narrative of the Various Phases of Educational Policy and Measures Adopted under the British Rule from Its Beginning to the Present Period, 1781 to 1893, Comprising Extracts from Parliamentary Papers, Official Reports, Authoritative Despatches, Minutes and Writings of Statesmen, Resolutions of the Government. Delhi, India: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Dellil, 1981. Print.
  • Sailaja, P. Indian English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009. Print.
  • Shah, Nila, and Amee Sinroja. English in India: Issues and Approaches. New Delhi: Creative, 2006. Print.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Rana Attaur Rehman

Rana Attaur Rehman

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