Why we need to look beyond English !

Call centers and BPOs are the poster material for many people these days who firmly believe that English is the way to go forward. I have been trying to see how far their stand goes.

To me the whole hoopla about the necessity of learning English seems more like a rather short sighted view. the BPO and the call center industry primarily serves US and UK now a days. Together they constitute a very small part of the world population. Two of the major developing countries of the world, China and India still have only a rather small portion of their population using English for their daily transactions. The huge number of English speaking population that are reported are a little misleading in this respect.

Consider that India is estimated to have 35 crore English users. For example my father would qualify as a English user since he is able to use it on purpose but he is not comfortable using it in his daily life. Now consider that the developing economies of these countries are creating a huge middle class lead markets which is on the radar of all the major companies of the world. Tomorrow when customer support and call center services would be required for these markets, they will have to come in languages other than English. Reliance has customer support in various Indian languages already.

The current approach completely ignores the potential of the local market and demand for these services. In fact, even apart from local market, there are large parts of world where regional language services (for example Spanish) will open up new markets. Concentrating only on one language in the name of global language would be to loose out on a big opportunity.

I also see the current scenario as a huge opportunity for India and Indian people. For those who believe in looking towards US for inspiration, there is already plenty if they look closely. US is investing huge sums of money in language research and in encouraging students to take up foreign languages. Indians have the advantage of being at least bilingual by default. This is the chance to cash in on that default and expand our expertise to all the various languages and not just English. Already there is a huge market for the translation industry because companies need to translated huge amount of product related documentation in to various languages. EU which has 22 working languages generates a huge amount of translation work. It is an opportunity for not only persons with language skills but also language related technologies.

In a more broader perspective, a lot of digital revolution is still limited to a small part of the world. Now there are two future scenarios. Either it will spread out to all the parts or it will simply not be sustainable because as the world gets connected, the whole chain is only as strong as the weakest link. So let's be optimists and say that indeed the digital divide would be filled and that more and more people would be able to reap its benefits. Now again, we may argue that English is necessary for this to happen and become one of its allies, rooting for adoption of English as a global language or we may see this as a challenge on our part and make the technology more language neutral, make it available to people in the language which they understand best. This way we reach them fast since speed of technological development is always faster than the cultural changes. This way we generate less commotion, face less resistance and most important of all, we save the beautiful things that are languages.

Now that last statement may be lost on many people. Why is it important to save languages? For one rather scientific reason, study of various language and the relations among them gives us important clues about the evolution and spread of man kind on the planet. The huge diversity in various languages gives as an insight in to the human mind and how it works, how it has developed. But more importantly, a language carries with it whole cultures. One language gone is an important part of our heritage gone, wisdom of elders that distilled down the generations gone and one color of the colorful world gone.

Choice is ours and we have to make it now.


Anonymous said…
I have also observed this strange package sizes in swiss but they always write the price also in terms of Fr/Gr. or Fr/lt.
Anonymous said…
Actually I think the market automatically drives many of the cases and things may not be as bad as they seem. For instance, here in the US almost all customer service operations are available in at least english and spanish. So if the companies perceive a market in supplying regional language support, I'm sure it'll happen. This reduces the problem to one of convincing the companies :-)

Slightly OT: I don't completely agree with "This way we reach them fast since speed of technological development is always faster than the cultural changes." In fact, more often than not, I think they go hand in hand. That is, technological changes bring about cultural changes and vice-versa. And in India at least I would argue that cultural changes have out-sped technological changes.
abhaga said…
I agree with the market argument but only to a limited extent. In fact I am also only pointing out that there exists a market. Why companies are not going after it may be because of many reasons. Probably the markets aren't lucrative enough. My argument is that there are benefits in trying to develop these markets which may not be financial and so off the radar of corporate world.

To the question of social and technological change, I am specifically talking about the case when you have two ways of going about solving the same problem and not in general. So while a social change has to happen to solve some problem, technology can surely play the role of being the spearhead and may be reducing the extent of social change required to minimal which might be desired in some cases.

So while I believe that more and more people in India should learn English but they need not learn it in place of their languages believing that they are waste. The cost of letting such believes settle down are huge.
Anonymous said…
i read ur view and i believe it is very necessary to save our regional languages though it would be urdu hindi sanskrit or any other language but as english is an international english we would take care of that as well. i m from pakistan and here also i found many students who are exciting about speaking english and somehow they forgot their own language i.e. urdu. why today's generation would prefer to speak in english and not in their own language.

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