Sunday, October 6, 2013

The History of the English Language and Culture in India

by Ramya Raju

The East India Company or the Honorable East India Company as it preferred to be known, sailed forth in search of new trading posts in the 1600s. It sought trade relations with other nations in the European continent, as well as what they called the East Indies, i.e. the Indian subcontinent. They landed in Surat, in Gujarat, as early as 1608 or thereabouts and in Goa, about the same time. It would be safe to assume that India’s first brush with English began here.

Indian history famously records the ambitions of the trading company as they gradually involved themselves in local politics and soon established themselves as rulers little by little. Over the next centuries, they commandeered all our resources, introduced railways, expanded industries and then set about to create a band of clerks who would document and maintain these developments.

In the 19th century, this was the vision of Lord Macaulay (1800-1859), the Whig politician and historian, who advocated the teaching of English in India with his famous notion of creating “a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”.

This set the trend for the next 150 years. Learning English and adopting British mannerisms and customs gave us wealth and power and position – and therefore that is what people sought to do. Pre-independence, getting a government job involved passing clerical exams in English. This people did to get that coveted job and the post-retirement pension. Any other occupation was often a stop-gap till the ‘son’ of the family got a government job. The daughters were preferably married off to government officials as well.

After independence, in 1947, the brown sahib culture gained momentum. The posts hitherto occupied by the British were now filled by educated (read ‘English speaking graduate’) Indians. And an unfortunate class divide began appearing among men of a single country – officers and non-officers. This happened in the administrative services, in the army, the railways and eventually in the nationalized banks and other Public Sector units. Given India’s caste-ridden society, this was especially detrimental, because the tribal and the urban and rural poor had no access to an English-medium education. They remained where they were, while the middle and upper classes raced ahead.

Surprisingly, the English did not affect the religious life of people at all. The middle classes, for instance, hankered for government jobs and English medium education, but usually chose to marry within their communities. But it did affect the cultural preferences of the younger population. Even in the days of LP records, affluent people would appreciate western music and hum along with the Beatles or Elvis Presley. Hindi cinema, one of the biggest influences on social behavior, was hugely impacted. The heroes and heroines dressed stylishly, preferred English and loved the ‘twist’. The young India of the 60s and 70s watched, wanted and got all of this.

In the 1980s the brouhaha over ‘reserved seats’ for the previously downtrodden classes gained momentum, and thus you saw a leniency in the entry and exit points of mainstream education. With the democratization of education came the democratization of English as well. Small, medium and large, poor, mediocre and good institutions of education began selling their ‘courses’ in the English medium. "There were now too many schools, too many students, but not enough qualified teachers".

India, which had begun priding itself on having the largest number of English speaking graduates had to eat its ‘Hinglish’ words. Aspiring young men and women, who knew their core skills, flocked to fly-by-night courses in ‘Spoken’ English. Young companies hired corporate trainers to work their English and soft skills magic on their ‘otherwise’ skilled employees. I have been part of this difficult process and know firsthand that a job deadline always won over cracking a grammar worksheet or practising phonetics or learning how to write and e-mail correctly. If the employee had to be sent abroad, then an even more expensive trainer would be hired to give them a crash course in accents and dining etiquette. Familiarity with English language and culture was now an economic necessity.

Of course, not everyone followed this pattern docilely. There were dissident groups who would protest against this imposition of ‘foreign language’ and insist that children be taught in the vernacular at schools. Parents however wanted English, given its status as an international language. And so the tussle continues. The political solution to this was to introduce the vernacular as the ‘third ‘language in schools (because Hindi, being the national language had to be above the regional).

Every few years bring a new development. The new media, for instance means that everyone has a mobile phone. So, the poorly schooled daily household maid stores the numbers of her contacts and their names in English. People who have graduated from so-called English medium schools and colleges often speak a highly Indianized version of the Queen’s language, their spelling is poor and the pronunciation often perplexing. India, which had become a popular outsourcing hub, is gradually losing out to China there as well.

The situation today is that educated English is still sought after for professional reasons. In all other spheres, owing to the return of Indianness and tradition in TV and films, people are comfortable in their own space and their own Hinglish idiolect.


Ramya Raju is a freelance writer/web designer from India. I write on varied topics like English Courses, SEO, Web Design, Mobile, Marketing etc., I have an experience of about 8 years in content writing and have worked for top blogs and websites.



  1. Ramya, as an EnglIshwoman by descent I am well aware that the story of the modernization of your great nation has been told to Westerners through the English language, whether via fiction or journalism. As an historical fiction author I'd like to ask if you can recommend a novel written from the Indian perspective which you feel accurately depicts the period. I'm sure I'm not the only reader of this blog who would be interested.

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  3. Hi Ramya, I just wanted to point out to you that Hindi is not the national language of India. India does not have a national language. Hindi is the official language of the Union and English is the associate official language. :)


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