By Matt Salusbury
This article first appeared in the English language teaching industry trade paper English Language Gazette, May 2008
Proficiency in English is an important factor in helping to free Indians, particularly women and girls, from the shackles of the India’s ancient caste system.
The caste system has proved hard to dent despite a series of quotas for university places and jobs to be filled by people of low caste and by Dalits (so-called ‘untouchables’, who lie outside the caste system). In a new study published in the American Economic Review, Indian economist Kaivan Munshi and an American colleague examined twenty years’ worth of data on school enrolments and income in Mumbai (Bombay). Over that time India has seen a big rise in non-traditional white-collar jobs thanks to globalisation.
They found that low-caste boys still tended to attend schools that taught in Marathi, the local language, and from which they would graduate into ‘blue-collar’ occupations traditional for their caste. However, some broke with tradition and enrolled in English-medium schools. In a 1990 sample of over 4,000 low-caste males around Mumbai, those with a command of English earned 24 per cent more on average than those with little English.
More dramatic were the changes that English proficiency brought to the lives of low-caste women. In 1980, very few low-caste women were in paid work. But low expectations of them meant there were fewer stereotypical attitudes affecting their choices in education, and many more ended up in English-medium schools than the boys. The impact of this was clear: roughly 2 per cent of women surveyed in an area just outside Mumbai and who had been to Marathi-language schools were in work, compared to nearly 14 per cent of English-speaking women.
Women have surged ahead in education and employment, so much that low-caste families are now willing to spend more on educating their daughters than their sons. Low-caste women are also breaking down social barriers by marrying outside their caste: nearly a third of those who had been to English-medium schools had done so, compared to fewer than one in ten who had attended Marathi-medium schools.
The study concluded that English was the most significant of various ‘forces of modernisation [that] could ultimately lead to the disintegration of a system that has remained firmly in place for thousands of years’.
Copyright: English Language Gazette