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How English became the global language: perspectives from South Asia and Africa.

Sometime in 2007 India is expected to achieve the status of having the third largest number of English speakers in the world, after the United States and the United Kingdom. This is not very surprising, given India's long history as a British colony and its immense population. However, from a different perspective it is rather surprising that it has taken sixty years since independence for India to achieve that status. The country currently in third place is the West African country of Nigeria, which has the largest population of any country in Africa, but that is only about a tenth of India's 1.3 billion. Moreover, Nigeria was under British rule for only sixty years, less than half as long as India, depending on how you calculate. This essay examines why Nigeria emerged as a leading English-speaking country so much sooner than did India. It proposes that the explanation has less to do with British colonial policy than with the language policies Nigerians and Indians pursued under colonial rule and after independence.

British language policy was quite similar in its non-settler colonies in Asia and Africa. As a general rule indigenous languages were not to be interfered with beyond efforts to standardize their usage and orthographies for the purpose of their use in schools, broadcasts, and printed works. This was consistent with a theoretical and pragmatic policy of interfering as little as possible with the cultures of the subject peoples. The first Governor of Nigeria, Lord Frederick Lugard raised this to an influential theory of colonial rule, which he called "indirect rule." (1) The promotion of English, therefore, was to be limited to producing the relatively small number of local people whose administrative tasks brought them into direct contact with British administrators. Near the top of the administration highly placed indigenous rulers (or their translators) needed English to comprehend and carry out policy. Much lower down clerks, messengers, and some in the police and military needed English to carry out their tasks. A few more were needed to assist British merchants, manufacturers, and missionaries.

The effects of this official policy may be seen in the schools in Northern Nigeria (which had been administered as a separate colony from 1900 before being combined with Southern Nigeria in 1914. In the year 1938-39 Northern Nigeria had 25,000 students in schools, nearly all in government-sponsored schools. English was introduced in the early grades of these schools and became the medium of instruction in the upper grades Twenty-five thousand students was a modest number in a population of 11.5 million. That same year there were 268,000 students in schools in the less populous southern half of Nigeria: 14 times more students per capita than in the north. Only a small number of these were in the three government schools (see Table).

What had produced such diverse results in two regions of the same colony? Both pre-colony histories and responses to new conditions were critical, along with a small bit of British policy. The area of Northern Nigeria had been united at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a Muslim revolution that created the Sokoto Caliphate. This Islamic state had greatly expanded the existing Koranic school system. After the Caliphate was forcibly brought under British rule along with some other territories to become Northern Nigeria in 1900, those emirs continued as key parts of the colonial administration. There were many Muslims in northern Nigeria in 1900; sixty years later the region was mostly Muslim. British policy promoted not only the continued rule of the Muslim elite, but in many ways encouraged that faith's spread. In keeping with that policy, Christian missions were prohibited to operate in the region, so as not to antagonize those on whom British power rested. The effect was also to minimize social change and slow the spread of schools.

Southern Nigeria has a different pre-colonial history and a different experience of the colonial era. The coastal part had been in continuous contact with European traders for four centuries. By the eighteenth century many coastal people could speak English, some rather well. A few English schools existed; one trader even kept a diary in English. In the nineteenth century a number of Christians had moved back to southern Nigerian homes from Brazil, Cuba, and Sierra Leone and some Christian missions established themselves, including the creation of the first Anglican diocese headed by Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who had been born in the region. Despite this longer period of contact it would be fair to say that the number of English speakers and Christians in Southern Nigeria was insignificant in the region as a whole. As in the North, the experience of the early colonial period was critical. Although there were many Muslims among the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria, the colonial government allowed missionaries pretty much a free hand in Southern Nigeria. Though few in number, the missionaries and their many African catechists received a massive response in much of the region. Irish Catholic missionaries were particularly active in promoting Christianity, education and English. Especially in the southeast, African communities competed with each other to fund primary schools and later secondary schools. At independence in 1960, 90-100 percent of school-age children in the south were attending school, versus 5 percent in the north. Clearly government policy was not the operative explanation.

During Nigeria's transition to independence there was some public discussion of adopting an African language as the country's official language. Many intellectuals admired the symbolic importance of such an act but the stumbling was which language. Only Hausa was in contention, a language spoken by about 38% of the population in the North and more widely known as second language, but there was very little support for it in the South and the much better educated southerners were running the show. At the official level there was no serious debate about language. Southern nationalists were unanimous in their support for the language in which they were already educated: English. Northern political leaders, though fearful of southern domination, were also fluent in English and acquiesced to making it the country's national language.

In independent Nigeria the push to broaden the school system was also a move to broaden proficiency in the national language. Tremendous efforts were put into building new universities, expanding secondary education, and in making elementary education free and universal. Between 1960 and 1984 the number of elementary students increased 5-fold and the number of secondary students increased more than twenty fold.

Writing shortly after independence, the celebrated Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe defended the literary use of English on pragmatic and nationalist grounds: only English could reach the myriad peoples of the new Nigeria and, along with French and Arabic, serve to communicate among the new nations of Africa. He wrote:
   Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many
   things, but it did create big political units where there were
   small, scattered ones before.... And it gave them a language with
   which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it
   at least gave them a tongue for sighing [sic]. There are not many
   countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of
   the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for
   mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have
   chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart
   alecks with an eye on the main chance--outside their own countries.
   They are by-products of the same process that made the new
   nation-states of Africa. (2)

Most of the rest of British West Africa followed this same road, as did British Central, Southern, and East Africa (in the later region Swahili was also accorded official status, but English dominated higher education). Even Ethiopia, which had never been a British colony though it had been liberated from Italian rule by the British during World War II, made English its national language.

In South Asia the independence struggle had a different outcome with regard to language. The differences began early. Like Northern Nigeria South Asia had a pre-colonial tradition of formal education that reached down to the village level, as well as a literate tradition in a number of languages. Western style schools were opened in the nineteenth century including a growing number of English-medium high schools mostly with English staff. By 1870 there were nearly 800,000 students in over 24,000 elementary and secondary schools. In 1854 the colony pledged to open universities in the capitals of each of the three presidencies (Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras) with two more being added before the end of the century.

After the First World War, nationalists (and some officials) criticized the educational system as too elite and called for a broader national education system. The creation of provincial assemblies in 1921 opened the door to promoting more broadly based systems using mother tongues and the addition of high schools offering instruction in Hindi and Bengali. Mohandas Gandhi was by no means alone in the late 'thirties in advocating a national system of instruction in mother tongues and the introduction of Hindi as the common national language. In 1938-39 British India has a combined student population of about 13,500,000 at the primary through secondary levels (out of a population of some 400,000,000), plus 120,000 university students. This gave the colony a level of enrollment at that point that was slightly above that in Southern Nigeria (340 per 10,000 vs. 315 per 10,000). (3)

Although English was the de facto language of the Indian Congress and the link to the Muslim League, when it became evident that partition was inevitable, the push of Hindu nationalists for according Hindi official status became a strong force in India. Unlike Nigeria, in India the largest language was very well represented in the nationalist leadership. Despite strong resistance from speakers of India's many other languages, the Constitutional Assembly moved to grant Hindi the status of official language of the country. During a fifteen-year transition period, English would remain in official use and would serve as the basis for inter-provincial communication. (4) During 1950s and early 1960s, school systems were revamped to emphasize instruction in local vernaculars and to teach Hindi as a second language outside its heartland. Similar transitional schemes were set up in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to make Urdu and Sinhala the official languages.

None worked out as expected. As the transition period drew to an end in India in 1965, few who were not native-speakers felt they were sufficiently fluent in Hindi to compete with native speakers at the official level. There were riots in Tamil Nadu in the south against being forced to use Hindi. This led to a new compromise permitting the continued use of English in the national Parliament and in non-Hindi-speaking states. State boundaries were adjusted to correspond more closely to linguistic frontiers and in most states the local language became the principle medium of communication, with English taught as a second language, and Hindi third. As historian Paul Brass commented in the late 1980s:
   In practice English has continued the dominant language of elite
   communication in the country as a whole.... It is still accepted as
   the medium of examination for admission to state services,
   alongside the official state languages, in every state and union
   territory in the country. Hindi has not succeeded in displacing
   English as a lingua franca for the country. (5)

However, in practice English proficiency at that time was confined to the elite.

In recent years the nationalist compromise has been profoundly altered from without and from below. India's growing prominence in global trade and information processing has led to a huge increase in the demand for people proficient in standard English. Despite the election of an avowedly Hindu nationalist government in 1998, the proliferation of teaching and study of English has grown at a rapid rate in India. As a 2003 New York Times article put it, "In the past decade, English has moved from being the gatekeeper of the elite to being a ladder up for the masses." (6) This has been accompanied by the growing use of English as a literary medium by Indian writers. Indeed, Salman Rushdie has argued that the key fact is qualitative not quantitative: the best recent fiction by Indians is being written in English. (7)

A similar string of events occurred in Pakistan, where the new constitution designated Urdu as the country's national language, while continuing English for official purposes for 15 years. Urdu was widely used (especially in cities) as the lingua franca, even though it is the first language of less than 8 percent of the population. Its official status resulted in some resentment and occasional riots, but in practice Urdu has continued to function. However, English did not fade away but remained entrenched in the upper levels of education, the military, and other parts of society. As a Pakistani scholar noted in 2003, "English is as firmly entrenched in the domains of power in Pakistan as it was in 1947." He also suggests that English is now gaining support as more non-elite persons able get the education to function in the high status areas, just as is happening in India.

Nationalism also moved independent Sri Lanka to abandon English, making Sinhala the only official language in 1956. Education in Tamil was also severely curtailed. However, in 1989 the govt reversed path, partly after the revelation that one of the cabinet ministers had enrolled his own children in English-medium schools, but also in part because the lack of proficiency in English among the youth was seen a root problem of youth violence. Education in Tamil was also promoted. (8)

In conclusion, while there can be no denying that the British Empire was a powerful force for introducing the English language to many parts of the world, that language's continuing importance was determined by the dynamics of individuals and nationalist movements in different non-settler colonies. The shallower tradition of writing in indigenous languages and the absence of an acceptable local candidate made it easier for Africans to opt for expanding the colonial language, while South Asians were moved in the opposite direction. But the South Asians' efforts to create national unity around an existing language had problematic outcomes. The growing importance of the United States and of globalization has also reshaped the Asian decisions. From the perspective of globalization, it could be argued that Nigerians and other Africans made the "right" decision, but that ignores the fact that the decision was made for pragmatic and nationalist reasons.


(1) Marjory Perham, Lugard: The Years of Authority, 1899-1945 (London, 1960).

(2) Chinua Achebe, "The African Writer and the English Language" (1964) in Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1975), 92-95, quote p. 95.

(3) Syama Prasad Mookerjee, "Schools in British India," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 233 (May 1944): 30-38.

(4) Paul R. Brass, The Politics of India since Independence (New Cambridge History of India, part 4, vol. 1) (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), 140.

(5) Brass, Politics of India, 145.

(6) Amy Waldman, "In India, a Heyday for English (the Language)" New York Times, 14 Dec. 2003.

(7) Salman Rushdie, "Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You," The New Yorker, June 23 & 30, 1997, 51-60.

(8) Rahman, Tariq. "Language Policy, Multilingualism and Language Vitality in Pakistan" 2003, accessed 18 Jan. 2006.

(9) Barbara Crossette, "English Is Making a Comeback in Sri Lanka," New York Times, 7 January 1990.
Table: Education in India and Nigeria, 1938-39

                                    Northern    Southern       British
                                     Nigeria     Nigeria         India

Population                        11,500,000   8,500,000   400,000,000

Students, primary & secondary         25,067     267,788    13,500,000

Students, university                       0           0       120,000

students per 10,000 population            27         315           335
(primary, secondary

Source: Michael Crowder, "White Chiefs of Tropical Africa" table
3, in L. H. Gann and Peter Guignan, eds., Colonialism in Africa,
1870-1960, vol 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970),
Mookerjee, "Schools in British India."
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Title Annotation:A Look Back
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Previous Article:Reflections on the WHA in 2004 and 2005.
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