Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How many English-speakers in India?

"How many English-speakers in India?" A member of the Esperanto discussion group UEA-Membroj had this question. He went on to say:

"Here's one of the web-pages: WolframAlpha. They assert that in India more than 18% of the inhabitants speak English. An absurd figure... Many years ago I read that [in India] only 0.1% of those appearing for the school-leaving examination succeed in passing in English...."

To which Probal Dasgupta replies: "The truth must lie somewhere between 0.1% and 18%.

Here's my take (in Esperanto):

Perhaps it might be useful to start with David Graddol's booklet English India Next (2010; there are also a couple of video-interviews with him on that page). See, especially, the section "How many speak English?" (pp. 66-68).

He gives some well-known numbers:

- Under 1%: National Knowledge Commission: Report to the Nation 2006-2009 (2009): "Indeed, even now, no more than one per cent of our people use it as a second language, let alone a first language." (p. 27)

- 3%: David Crystal, English As A Global Language (2003: 46): "A figure of 3%, for example, is a widely quoted estimate of the mid-1980s (e.g. Kachru (1986: 54))."

- 10.4%: Census of India 2001: David Graddol: "the 2001 census data (released in late 2009) reports that 10.4% of the population claimed to speak English as a second or third language" (in the book cited above. I haven't been able to find the relevant table on the census website.)

- 18%: the WolframAlpha website link above. Once again, I haven't been able to find this percentage. As far as I can see, that page gives only native-speaker figures.

- 20%: Encyclopedia Britannica (2002). Cited in Crystal 2003 (above, p. 46).

- 33%: An India Today survey (18 Aug 1997): "contrary to the census myth that English is the language of a microscopic minority, the poll indicates that almost one in three Indians claims to understand English, although less than 20% are confident of speaking it." Cited in Anderman and Rogers, Translation Today:
Trends and Perspectives
(2003: 160). The page in Google books:

The influential Crystal (2003, above: 47) cited this figure in a footnote ("A 1997 India Today survey reported by Kachru (2001: 411)" -- looks like Crystal himself hadn't seen the survey!). Now it began to be cited often. As far as I know, no one has confirmed or refuted the claims of this survey.

Thus it is that Graddol concludes: "No one really knows how many Indians speak English today - estimates vary between 55 million and 350 million - between 1% of the population and a third." (p. 68)

On the other hand, India's biggest school-education survey ASER (about which I've blogged before) in its 2010 report says that in rural India more and more children (6-14 year-olds) are registering in private schools (i.e. non-government, fee-paying and, for the most part, English-medium: the regional language is one of the subjects taught). The all-India figures of children in private schools grow from 16.3% of all children in 2005, to 21.8% (2009), to 24.3% in 2010. The growth has been particularly striking in South India.

So, during the coming years we will certainly see many more people whose medium of instruction in school was English. But if we ask ourselves about the quality of education, we get a rather different picture.

In government schools in rural India, in 2007, only 57% of the children in the 5th class (~ 10-year-olds) could read a class TWO textbook. In 2010, this proportion fell to 50% -- half of the children couldn't even read a class 2 text! And this was in the main regional language -- the mother-tongue for most of the children (excluding children of linguistic minorities and tribals).

In the same period, for rural private schools, this fall was from 69% to 64%. I wondered what language these private school children were tested in. On querying, ASER Centre, on Facebook clarified that "the children were tested at home. They were tested [in] the language of the state. In [a] multiple language situation the children were given an option of a language they felt comfortable in."

And yet, in private schools in 2010, over a third (36%) of class 5 children were already 3 years behind in their reading skills.

Confronted with such critical gaps, we perhaps should not expect very much by way of English-language capability in these children. Indeed, perhaps capability in any language.... :-(

1 comment:

E. Merwin said...


I appreciate your research, especially as these numbers are impossible to pin down, and you offer an intelligent range and a variety of sources. Maybe you could offer your opinion about a project on which I'm embarking. I've written 2 e-books, one on phrasal verbs and a second on College Terminology, both for international students. Now I am writing THE PROFESSIONAL WRITER for International Students. As I begin, I wonder if perhaps I should focus this book on one international audience: the young Indian professional. The needs of various groups are so disparate, and my initial research suggests that young people of India, educated in English, need a solid handbook for academic/professional writing. Do you think you might weigh in with your opinion? (You can see my previous ebooks at I think such a book has potential, but my English publisher and I (an American writer/educator) need an Indian perspective. Again, thanks!