Economics of Languages

All through my schooling, the primary medium of education was English. Though there were several mother-tongue based sections, I had always opted for the English medium of instruction, which means that all the subjects were taught using the English language with text books published in the English language by teachers who spoke in English all through the one-hour of class per subject. The exception, of course, was the mother-tongue subject (in my case, it was Tamil).

So, I was relatively weak in the Tamil language. Given that the Tamil Grammar was (and is) tougher than that of English, it was no wonder that I struggled. Though I could read and write Tamil quite well, I could not get high marks, comparable to the other subjects.

Though I managed to top my school in the secondary school leaving examination, I always thought I could have done better had it not been for the drag imposed by my relatively poor performance in Tamil language.

So, when I went to University and got a choice of second languages to select, I was happy to discover that there was indeed a shortcut to higher performance if I chose the French language. I was also surprised to note that it was easy to learn the French language, though speaking it took considerable effort and was not appreciated by the fluent French teacher. He coaxed the entire class to invest more time seeing French movies and listening to audio tapes but we thought that the movies were boring. Since there was no oral examination, most of us who chose French did very well, and I scored 99% in the final French examination at the pre-university level – I would have hardly obtained some 75% in Tamil !

Later on, when I moved out of India, I found that Mandarin Chinese was gaining dominance in South East Asia. I saw several non-Chinese learners of the language, which I thought was even tougher than Tamil. Nevertheless, there are what I call “economic learners” – people who try to learn a language for the economic benefits it offers to them for their future success.

In Singapore, I found that though Tamil was one of the three national languages, the Government of Singapore had realized that Indian languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, etc., had more economic muscle than Tamil. While it never disowned the teaching of Tamil in government schools, there was a relaxation extended to the non-Tamil speakers from India by the government so that they could all learn Hindi at some location during the weekends.

All this experience taught me that a language will only be successful to the extent that it is able to influence people with its economic might. Cultural impact will always be there, but that would not be adequate to sustain the glory of a language. One has to also see whether the world wants to learn that language for some benefit. President Obama mentioned recently about Hindi and Mandarin in one of his addresses, encouraging Americans to learn these languages which are spoken by nearly half of the world’s population today !

So, I am not surprised to learn that IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology) Mumbai has recently introduced Mandarin classes in its curriculum. Some management schools in India, such as Great Lakes in Chennai, have made learning Mandarin mandatory for their MBA Students. Surprising ! But it is a reality today !!

Conclusion is simple for most people (literary folks, please excuse !) : simply follow the right language to the money (and the marks, of course !).


Vijay Srinivasan
25th Sept 2011

One thought on “Economics of Languages

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