Indrani Sen: English vs. Vernacular: The Language Anomaly

21 Dec,2015

By Indrani Sen

 

Recently an interesting discussion was held in Mumbai on localisation of language on digital media and if the same will become a game changer for brands. The discussion focused on the two separate India with different language orientation and different habits of media consumption and hence the need for developing digital media in vernacular languages. The participants debated if it is worthwhile to take the effort of designing marketing communication for targeting vernacular language speakers and felt that the individual brands will have to take the call “after reviewing the cost of acquisition or lead and whether it then seems worthwhile” (http://www.exchange4media.com/marketing/the-growing-importance-of-vernacular-content-in-digital-advertising_62721). While reading the report of the event, I contemplated again on the language anomaly in India between English and vernacular languages.

 

There has been an overwhelming craze for English medium education across India which was reflected in the statistics published by NUEPA (National University of Education, Planning and Administration) in 2012. The report showed a growth of 274% in the number of children studying in English-medium schools between 2003 and 2011.  According to the same report in 2011, over 20 million Indian children were studying on English medium schools reflecting the growing aspirations of the Indian middle class. It is generally felt by parents that studying in an English medium school will offer better employment opportunities to their children. Our policy-makers also seem to feel that the English language advantage will set the country on its desired path of growth as they are allowing unplanned and haphazard development of education in English medium. In the absence of a National Language Policy, each state has been taking its own call regarding the medium of education at primary and secondary school levels at the whim of the political party in power.

 

Are we doing the correct thing by pushing for English medium education at school level? What is the global view on school level education in a language which is different from the child’s mother tongue? In an article published on September 2, 2015 in Scroll, Anjali Mody, a freelance journalist and researcher, wrote “Yet across the world, and in India, there is a consensus among educators, educationists and linguists that children learn most effectively in their mother tongues. Research collated by UNESCO shows that ‘children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language’” (http://scroll.in/article/750187/).

 

 

Our policy-makers and educationists have to resolve certain basic issues related to education policy. They can also debate and decide on the medium of education at school and college levels.  As a media practitioner, my concern evolves from a different angle. What is the media consumption pattern of these English medium educated children and youth and how the same is different from their counter parts educated in vernacular medium? Unfortunately, the syndicated research carried out in our country only collects data on the education level and does not try to probe further into the medium of education of the respondents. By studying the general pattern of media consumption as well as advertising communication we can make some observations related to this issue.

 

Year after year, the Indian Readership Survey has been showing the supremacy of the vernacular publications. In IRS 2014, among the top ten dailies, nine are in the vernacular and only one (Times of India) is in English. Similarly among top ten magazines, only one (India Today) is in English. It is interesting to note that India Today Hindi edition with a readership of 1.36 million was breathing down the neck of the India Today English edition with a readership of 1.63 million. If we have started producing more and more of English medium educated youth, then why their readership preferences are not skewed towards English? Why their preference for the medium of education is not getting reflected in the growth of readership of English newspapers and magazines? Vanita Kohli Khaderkar pointed out in her book Indian Media Business, that between 2006 to 2011 circulations of English newspapers increased by 70% but the readership increased by only 2% and the time spent on English newspapers dropped by 6.5%!

 

Even if we argue that the youth is shifting away from print to digital, what about the television programmes, which are still the main source of entertainment in all middle class households? The viewership of Hindi and other language GECs are on the growing comfortably, but there is no similar growth in viewership of English TV channels across different genres. Bollywood blockbusters in Hindi keep on drawing movie goers across social strata. Regional film industries in East and South are also showing good score cards.  Most of the content of FM radio stations is also in Hindi or in other regional languages. We can reach out to the affluent upwardly mobile consumers through all these traditional media. It can be safely concluded that our English medium educated consumers (youth and above) are regularly consuming media content related to information and entertainment in vernacular instead of English.

 

When it comes to designing advertising content, we design original content in vernacular for TV and radio, but show a preference for English when it comes to creating content for print. English publications command a premium over vernacular publications in advertising rates and are considered to be better positioned for reaching out to consumers in higher socio-economic brackets. We need to probe more deeply into the media consumption habit of our English medium educated consumers to understand the effect of the education on their media consumption habit.

 

The question which our policy-makers and educationists need to grapple with is can the formal education in English medium be complete without continuously supplementing it through additional exposure in English through mass media?  What kind of hybrid citizens we are producing in India who get educated in English medium, but depend on vernacular media for news, infotainment and entertainment? The digital media can perhaps put an end to this controversy if the English medium educated consumers embrace digital and social media platforms in English and start consuming more English audio and video content through the internet. In such a situation, the divide between the two separate India will get sharper. However, the sheer numbers of the other India educated in vernacular medium will compel the marketing and advertising industry to design content and communication in different languages for digital media.

 

Indrani Sen is a veteran media agency and marketing services professional. She is currently an Independent Consultant and Adjunct Professor, Media Management at Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication, Pune. This column MediaSENse will appear fortnightly. The views expressed here are her own.

 

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