When we learn a language, we just don’t gain the ability to read one more set of symbols or recognise one more set of meaningful sounds, we also gain access to a whole new world. A language is a passport to the world of accumulated knowledge of a community; a key to understand a different society; a lens with which to view the culture and history of a group of people.
From times immemorial, foreign language learning has played a significant role in strengthening trade, knowledge, and the military and diplomatic strength of nations. Even European colonial powers accorded a lot of importance to foreign language learning to strengthen their grip on the countries and people they colonised.
In today’s world, foreign language as a communication tool is a force multiplier in the fields of trade, diplomacy, defence, etc. India must therefore give serious attention to setting up foreign language universities all over the country to boost the prospects of strengthening its interests globally.
India has the potential to become the leading supplier of global manpower. Traditionally, Indians are known for giving great importance to education and that has resulted in Indians being successful globally. In the US, for a long time, Indian Americans have been the most successful and richest of all the ethnicities. But this is a small percentage of the Indian population worldwide. India’s population, with a considerably large percentage being very young, is a significant asset for the country. Apart from meeting our own demand for skilled manpower in various sectors, we can also aim to be the global hub of skilled manpower. Foreign language skills can catalyse this process to a considerably higher degree.
Indians have a natural tendency to be multilingual because of the many languages spoken throughout the country. Apart from the 22 officially-recognised languages, there are 122 other major languages, but the total number of mother tongues (languages and variants) spoken in India are more than 19,500. Most Indians are exposed to more than one language from childhood. Most Indians can converse in more than one language and picking up languages is not a very unusual task for them. Therefore, as far as learning foreign languages are concerned, Indians definitely have an advantage compared to many other nationalities. Research shows that after learning a language (other than the first language), learning more languages become a lot more easier.
Many countries in the world today are suffering from a population deficit and this has naturally resulted in a workforce deficit. Japan, for example is taking many steps to attract skilled manpower from other countries. Canada, Sweden, Germany, Norway, etc. are some other countries that are on the lookout for skilled global manpower for sectors including IT, Management, Hospitality, Agriculture. If Indians are fluent in foreign languages, they will become an even more attractive segment.
Various Indian languages have some similarities with other languages around the world. This makes it easier for certain Indian language speakers to learn certain foreign lanaguages. We can also capitalize on this aspect to produce foreign language experts in our country.
Foreign language fluency can also immensely help in tourism, hospitality in India.
There are several institutions in India that run various foreign language courses. But these are available largely in cities. The government must aggressively take up the mission of setting up foreign language universities all over the country that will prepare a formidable Indian workforce well-versed in global languages.
Apart from skill development and employability enhancement, foreign language expertise is important for strengthening pro-Indian narratives as well as countering anti-India narratives. Chinese radio stations continuously spread aggressive propaganda through powerful radio signals in strategic Indian territories. India, in recent times, has also stepped up such broadcasts in Mandarin but the effort is negligible compared to that if its most hostile neighbour. The Indian government should also encourage private players to broadcast foreign language content in order to strengthen the Indian narrative on various issues. Emphasising on foreign language learning has to be a major part of this strategy.
Apart from increasing global employment prospects and national narratives, foreign language training can boost foreign trade. It will help Indian businesses to penetrate foreign markets more easily. Learning foreign languages (or any language) has other benefits too. Research shows that multilingualism improves memory and brain-power. It also improves multi-tasking abilities and decision-making and keeps the mind sharper for longer period of time.
We need undergraduate and Master’s courses in foreign languages, as also diploma and certificate courses. The importance of foreign language universities become more prominent because of this. While short-term courses can be relevant for professionals who need foreign languages to simply communicate in another environment, the in-depth study of a language and its literature is paramount if India wants to pursue global influence seriously.
(Vijayasai Reddy is Parliamentary Party Leader and National General Secretary of YSRCP.)
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