India’s New ‘English Only’ Generation


Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

A schoolgirl writes in her notebook in English.


Sudhir Nagaraj and his wife, Bidisha, live in the mini-India that is Bangalore. She, a Bengali speaker from a family hailing from India’s east, heads marketing for a social networking start-up. He, fluent in the native Kannada tongue of Bangalore, runs a subsidiary of a multinational telecommunications company. Between them, they speak and understand half a dozen Indian languages.

Quite ironic then that their daughter, Ahana, six-and-a-half, growing up in a country with a profusion of tongues, speaks only one language: impeccable English. And English is the common tongue that binds the Nagarajs as a family.

In Bangalore and elsewhere in Big City India, factors like great mobility, a demanding school system and mixed marriages are churning up a startling consequence: a generation of urban children is growing up largely monolingual — speaking, thinking and dreaming only in English.

This is a country with 20 official languages including English, some three dozen languages spoken by over a million native speakers each, and a few hundred “live” languages.

“How do we define Ahana’s mother tongue?” asks Mr. Nagaraj. He speaks Kannada with his mother; his wife speaks Bengali with hers. Both grandmothers live nearby and attempt to converse with Ahana in their respective tongues. But she responds only in English.

It is an issue that at once cheers and distresses an entire band of middle-class Indians.

On the one hand, English has opened the doors to great job mobility in the past decade and much economic success. In a country of so many varied languages, English is the only linguistic commonality. Yet as the language increasingly becomes the de facto mother tongue in urban families, many are dismayed at the trend, contending that its rampant use will strip them of their sense of Indian-ness.

“English is unifying us with the rest of the world but alienating us from our familial and cultural roots,” says Mr. Nagaraj, who still turns to Kannada metaphors when he needs to drive home a point.

Like Mr. and Mrs. Nagaraj, a fifth of India’s population — some 250 million — is multilingual. Many Indians of their generation are polyglots. They string sentences in English, but insert words from multiple Indian languages.

But even as scientific evidence mounts that being bilingual or multilingual makes a person smarter and could shield against the onset of dementia, many fear that future Indian generations may turn monolingual. Already, English is the first language many urban children learn.

Preeti Kumar, a communications professional and her husband, Nipun, who works in the apparel industry, are native Hindi speakers from India’s north. However, their two daughters, Eva, who is 8, and Inika, who is nearly 2, speak only English at home and outside. “They’ve learned Hindi by watching cartoons on TV,” says their mother.

Even the children of the Kumars’ friends, couples who have a common language that they grew up with, have adopted English as their primary language at home, she says.

The situation is exacerbated in diverse Bangalore, where residential buildings represent a microcosm of India. “Somewhere in this cosmopolitan-ness, kids growing up with only English are missing something,” rues Ms. Kumar.

Kavita Sabharwal, who runs a chain of upmarket preschools in the city called Neev, says that English has become the common language denominator in families. That is a fraught issue for some parents, including herself.

“As both an educator and a parent I find myself asking, ‘Where is the Indian-ness in India?’ Is losing our languages the first sign of our dying culture? Or, is it the cause? ” she asks.

At her schools, Ms. Sabharwal counsels parents to raise children to speak a native tongue alongside English. In her home, she has knuckled down and initiated compulsory “Hindi time” in the evenings for her children, Dhruv, 10, and Noor, 7.

Her husband, Manish, initially predicted the death of all dinner-table conversation. Ms. Sabharwal happily reports to the contrary. A year on, both her children speak Hindi with confidence.

In the lower socioeconomic strata, where learning English is aspirational, the language is trickling down quickly. Neighborhood private schools have unstated admission requirements: at 3 and 4, the child is required to be toilet-trained and speak English.

Parents who stretch their family budgets to get their children into “English medium” schools see that the language has obvious economic benefits in an increasingly globalized world. Higher up the economic ladder, though, it is a matter of convenience.

Rimjhim Chakraborty is 9. Her mother, Pinky, a realtor, speaks Sindhi, a language from the northwest. Rimjhim’s father, Apurba, who heads sourcing for a sporting goods multinational, is fluent in both Punjabi and Bengali. Rimjhim, despite learning Hindi at school, refuses to answer when spoken to in anything other than English. So that is the language that rules the Chakraborty household.

That is unfortunate, says her mother, who wants to make an effort to teach Rimjhim an Indian language. But “between her math homework, sports, a little bit of PlayStation and television, where is the time?” Ms. Chakraborty asks.

She ends up scolding Rimjhim in Sindhi. “Not the best introduction to a language,” she admits.

Then she makes a dire prediction: “At the rate we are going, all Indian languages will die.”



Saritha Rai sometimes feels she is the only person living in Bangalore who was actually raised here. There’s never a dull moment in her mercurial metropolis. Reach her on Twitter @SarithaRai.



Source :, le 1er juin 2012





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