The importance of education in India

Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard some concerning statistics about literacy and languages in India. Not sure how true they are, but if even it is only partially right, I can see why India is trapped in the poverty cycle.

India has the largest population of illiterate people in the world. The average literacy rate is 74%. For the rest of the world, it is 84%. They have come an incredibly long was since the British gave up rule in the 1940’s, but when you consider the population, that means they have roughly 300 million citizens who can’t read or write. Studies estimate that it will take until 2060 for India to catch up to the rest of the world. Even worse is the difference between men and women for literacy. Men have an average literacy rate of 82%, while women have an average literacy rate of 64%. That severely limits the capability of women to generate income in non-rural areas. Their main opportunities are in farming and labor. In the hotels, the only female employees I’ve seen are hostesses or at the front desk. All of housekeeping and restaurant servers are male. Even the person who does our laundry is a male.

Only 10% of Indians speak English. It hasn’t been apparent to us as we’ve worked here that the number is that low, likely because 10% of India equals 120 million people. Many of them work in hospitality, retail, and tourism, so we have been fortunate. Why does it matter? English is the world language for business. If you want to build business, that means doing business with America and Europe, all of whom use English as a primary or secondary business language. Think of how many fair trade eCommerce sites have appeared over the last few years. They are all in English. The number of English speakers has risen quite a bit over the past few years as the US moved so many of our call centers to India. It is even encouraged as part of children’s education now. However, does that mean they are writing off the older generations? I’ve noticed many schools advertising that they include English in their curriculum. I haven’t seen any advertisements for adult education.

I mentioned in an earlier post that India has 20+ official languages recognized by the government, and more than 2,000 dialects. I’ve asked a few people if they are able to communicate well with each other. They said that with the different languages, they can’t; when it is a different dialect, they can communicate verbally to a certain degree but not through writing. So now you have 1.2 billion people who can’t even communicate with each other effectively. How clueless am I that I thought everyone in India spoke Hindi? Then I end up in Chennai where the language is Tamil. The font looks nothing alike. Tamil is much prettier with lots of rounded letters – not that I have a clue what they mean. Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world, yet with only 8 million speakers in India out of 1.2 billion people, how much can the Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry residents communicate with the rest of India when they have no common language?

A smaller yet also impactful issue is that they are not taught how to invest in themselves. Our guide said that when an Indian comes into money, no matter how small, they immediately go purchase gold trinkets with it. It makes them proud to display gold baubles around their homes. They do not think to spend the money to build a business or further their education or even invest in anything. They want to put the gold on display. Believe me, I’m a fan of gold. My mom thinks my jewelry cabinet is obscene. But it does nothing to improve the poor’s situation (or mine, darn it). It doesn’t put food on the table, it doesn’t educate their children or themselves, and it doesn’t reduce their poverty cycle when all they do is look at it on a wall. How many opportunities are lost simply because they don’t know any better? Because they do what their parents did or their friends do and don’t know how to look forward?

It’s easy for me to sit in my American “land of opportunity” tower and criticize; I don’t mean it that way at all. It just saddens me to think that so much of the population is restricted from opportunity based on their ability to communicate and plan for self-sustainment, I’d love to see more focus on improving literacy and English-competency. Funny enough, all of the TV shows that are in English as also captioned in English. Maybe that is one small way India is trying to teach written English to their citizens? Then again, they’d have to know spoken English well enough to watch it  and match up the written word with the spoken word. And since Two and a Half Men is on like 20 times a day, not sure I want them watching it because who knows what they must think of American morals… 😉

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