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International Interdisciplinary Symposium on 'English - The language of Economic Enhancement'

Written by Dr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan |

Senior Research Fellow, Dr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, delivered the keynote address at the Language of Economic Enhancement Symposium at the SDNB Vaishnav College affiliated to the University of Madras in Chennai, India in April this year.

The statement ‘English – the Language of Economic Enhancement’ sounds familiar, an article of faith. Who can disagree? Madras (renamed Chennai in 1996) has been a good example of the benefits of the English language in achieving economic enhancement through its use in administration, education, and communication architecture since 1639 when the Raja of Chandragiri granted permission to the East India Company to establish settlement which became colonial Madras.

In the language familiar to students and staff, and the administrators, there are now at least two disciplines in the statement – Language and Economics. Both disciplines have clear identities underpinned by processes of curriculum development, face-to-face or online or hybrid delivery, oral or written assessment, quality assurance mechanisms such as examination boards and external examiners, and measures/metrics that public or private external organisations use for ranking Departments/subjects.

By envisaging English as the ‘language of economic enhancement’’, one can see an interlocking relationship that can be understood not just in passive bi/multi-disciplinary linkage but more so in active engagement that is interdisciplinary. Such disciplinary exchange and cross-fertilization would involve integration of methodologies that are in general practice used separately in discreet disciplines [1]. Methods of study of language that are mostly qualitative mesh in with the metrics and analysis that are quantitative and more commonly used in Economics.

Now focussing on the English language, one can see how important it is in economic enhancement. Its footprints are visible/audible everywhere, at least in Chennai, from neon light advertisements to conversations about choice of schools, especially the medium of instruction, for children. Large sections of population have moved beyond starvation and poverty, reflected in greater expectations that are ‘aspirational.’ English is the main language of that aspiration, expressed in parental preference amongst all social groups for English-medium schools/colleges and in countermeasures by governments at the state and federal levels to shore up support for use of native languages.

Trade, and commerce lead to economic development/enhancement and the language that facilitates such outcomes, especially, internationally, could be considered the language of economic enhancement, in this case, English.

Broadly speaking, the idea of English as the language of economic enhancement is supported by evidence that its use is helpful in specific situations and interactions. For example, economists at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London estimate that the cost of trading between Commonwealth countries is 19% lower than that of trade with countries outside the Commonwealth, which is known as the ‘Commonwealth Advantage’, thanks to what our countries have in common [among others] – the English language …. [2]

In the world of interconnected trade and supply chains, English is also helpful in conducting trade with countries outside the Commonwealth too, especially the United States, where English is the most used language.

However, economic enhancement is a complex process, and it needs to be understood in the context of sub-national and local levels in India where educational infrastructure and social norms help some sections of society more than others to engage in economic activities aligned closely to international markets, mobility of skilled labour, and service sector industries such as tourism. Measuring economic enhancement that is specifically linked to the acquisition and use of the English language is also a complex process, especially in economic activities that are unorganised/informal, and often outside official data gathering mechanisms.

English is a global language, and local dialects and variations make its use complex. These variations are underpinned by assertions of regional/social identities, especially in spoken language or in creative writing where the writers try to capture the local idiom and flavour. How far can ‘standardised’ varieties be useful when people switch varieties/linguistic codes from the formal to the informal in vocabulary, grammar, tone, and body language? When business deals are made in social spaces outside the board rooms and formal meetings, how useful would ‘standard’ English alone be as a tool for business success or economic enhancement?

What might be more helpful is to recognise that English is not just a language, but a carrier of a collection of identities and politics, [3] where it provides a neutral space as a lingua franca in contested multilingual contexts. However, attitudes towards ‘pure; ‘standardised’/’prestige’ varieties of English constrain the adoption of less ‘prestigious’ language use such as dialects, local varieties, pidgins, and creoles. For example, the use of pidgin is actively discouraged via official boards on the University of Buea Campus in Cameroon:

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[Photo credits: Dr Seraphin Kamdem, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London]

However, Language and Economics as distinct disciplines could evolve into new disciplines, by using the tools and practices that help to form/reinforce disciplines, such as curriculum, delivery, assessment, and quality assurance/enhancement. This sets up a discipline life cycle in higher education, from creation to preservation to creative destruction, like the trinity Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva in Hindu mythology. New disciplines such as Area/Regional Studies emerge as multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary formulations that encompass both Language and Economics. In multi-disciplinary formulations disciplines exist together but are neither conceptually nor structurally linked by design, unlike interdisciplinary formulations.

However, to analyse the topic ‘English – the Language of Economic Enhancement’, an interdisciplinary approach that draws on allied or cognate disciplines in the Humanities, but also, where necessary, from Scientific disciplines, for example, STEM [4] would be helpful. More than one boundary must be crossed in the spirit of ‘Yaadum oore, yaavarum kelir’ [‘Every village is mine, let everyone listen’] of Tamil Sangam literature (300BCE-300CE, especially the above poem of Kaniyan Pungundranar, or of Ubuntu philosophy in Africa, ['I Am Because We Are']. This process would involve borrowing and discarding concepts and methods in pursuit of fresh ‘belonging’ to achieve ‘problem solving’, which is a key driver in real-life interdisciplinarity, inter-professionalism and the use of ‘fluid’ creativity [5].

Thus, new taxonomies of knowledge would emerge, taking cues from the Renaissance in Europe and knowledge specialisms that emerged in the wake of industrial revolutions in Europe and the US, and notions of affinity (‘Asabiyyah’), growth, decline, and replacement used by Ibn Khaldun, who pioneered modern Sociology and Historiography.

The Government of India in its National Education Policy 2020 [NEP, 2020] [6] foregrounds multidisciplinary institutions and interdisciplinarity to encourage creativity. It offers flexibility in programmes of study (multiple points of entry and exit, dual degrees, and joint degrees through national and international collaborations), acquisition of credentials (Academic Bank of Credit), undertaking research in the final year of undergraduate courses to address real-life problems, and/or preparing for higher-level research. These opportunities should be seized by institutions that have the autonomy to experiment educationally.

A supply chain of ideas and practice-based evidence from both reputed centres of learning and, crucially, from affiliated/government colleges could inform the process/progress of multi/interdisciplinarity. Only then, a sustainable ecosystem of knowledge production, consumption and recycling will emerge that can draw inspiration from deep wells of knowledge of the past, evaluate it in the present, and prepare for the future. Only then, the knowledge taxonomies of the past such as the sixty-four ‘kalaas’ or arts that Banabhatta (7th century) describes in his work Kadambari, which the NEP refers to, could be adopted for use in the educational system: 

The very idea that all branches of creative human endeavour, including mathematics, science, vocational subjects, professional subjects, and soft skills should be considered ‘arts’, has distinctly Indian origins. [7]

Or, reviving an earlier Indian intellectual tradition, one could use the categorisation of the ‘Agam’ and ‘Puram’ of Tamil Sangam literature, the former dealing with ‘subjective’ and the latter with ‘objective’ topics/issues, and how these categories could be used for multi or interdisciplinary methods, as in the case of this symposium focussed on (English) language and Economics

While the NEP is helpful in freeing up specific logistical roadblocks to operationalisation of multi/interdisciplinarity, systematic and nuanced investment in staff training and student support in engaging with disciplines other than the ones they are initially trained in would be necessary. Such interventions would ensure that success is built and sustained on a strong knowledge base and sound professional skills, including communication skills.

English language is a powerful tool of communication and connectivity at one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many levels in our ‘connected’ and mobile world driven by technology, economics, and social media. Access to and proficiency in English certainly helps in economic enhancement at individual, community, and country levels by engaging with global networks that use English.

Significant economic enhancement could be achieved through nuanced intervention and democratisation of the spread of English beyond contact communities that, historically, by custom and convention, had access to literacy and numeracy and benefitted from the ‘first mover’ advantage through participation in administration and commerce in the Chennai of 1645 and later years.

In the current literature on the topic, the link has not been sufficiently established or articulated on the nexus between English language as a discipline and in developmental economics on the economic advantages of English language proficiency and usage. This is especially true on the potential impact of widening the spread and use of English language beyond specific social groupings that had the 'initial mover' advantage of contacts with East India Company. Traditional education/literacy acquired through religious instruction in places of worship, improved literacy, and numeracy though family businesses, as well as social capital built through family-community-caste emphasis on education and/or land ownership were helpful in fitting in with the new order and administration. These areas deserve further scrutiny and close study. A level playing field to overcome historical and social disadvantages has been acknowledged especially in the Indian constitution adopted in 1950 in the form of mandatory 'quotas’ (Reservations] in educational institutions and employment for the castes designated as 'Scheduled Castes' and 'Scheduled Tribes’. [This was later extended to 'Other Backwards Classes (OBC) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among the 'General' Category].


However, Reservations -- pre- or post-1950, at Presidency/state or national levels -- failed to recognise/address the inequalities created by lack of access to English, the language of economic enhancement which is the topic of the Symposium. Consequently, there is a pressing need for English language studies and Development Studies to collaborate in the exploration of the correlation between English (in its variations) and economic enhancement of different sections of the society past and present. As the English language gets embedded in the linguistic repertoire of wider sections of the population, economic enhancement at various levels is likely to happen. More individuals and communities will be able to make personal contacts internationally using English, which could be socially and culturally enriching, and provide opportunities for participating directly in international supply chains of labour, commerce, and trade.

The equitable spread of opportunities for economic enhancement is enmeshed with equitable access to the acquisition and use of ‘neutrality’ afforded by English as a non-native language/lingua franca, although ‘nativised’ through use in several public domains over recent centuries. If English remains an ‘elite’ language, language-enabled economic enhancement might be limited to specific social groups of caste/class/gender or some states or regions by the country. Thus, English language symbolises complex links between equity and economic enhancement in India and many countries in the Commonwealth.

For the Departments of English, and Economics at Vaishnav College, it is an interdisciplinary challenge to undertake research to analyse the correlation, if any, between the spread of English and economic enhancement in erstwhile Madras and present-day Chennai and elsewhere. As language is a carrier of personal, social, and political identities, the above interdisciplinary research could incorporate other disciplines too and provide academic/scientific evidence to inform debates on language(s), cultural identities, and economic enhancement in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and India.


[1] Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam and Stephen, Fallows (eds), Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: theory and practice, New York: Routledge, 2009.

1999: Chandramohan, B. (1999) ‘Introducing an Interdisciplinary Course’. In Fallows, S. and Ahmet, K. (eds) Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner. London, Kogan Page, pp 149-157. ISBN 9 780749 428723.

[2] The Commonwealth Secretariat (London), Harnessing the Commonwealth trade advantage, 26 April 2018.

Very simply, if you trade within the Commonwealth, exporting from one member to another, it is approximately 19% cheaper to do so than it would be outside, that is thanks to what our countries have in common – the English language, similar legal systems and mostly common financial systems.

[3] Mpoche, Kizitus, and Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, editors. Cameroon Journal of Studies in the Commonwealth

[4] STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

As more institutions broaden their pure and applied science curricula to leverage benefits of creativity, STEM is evolving into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics).

See Post no. 38

2022 CASTME Chisman Memorial Lecture, 16 March 2022

Our Children, Our Future: STE(A)M from the Lens of Babies [STE(A)M: Science, Technology, Engineering, (Arts) and Mathematics].

Peter A. Okebukola, Distinguished Professor of Science and Computer Education; Lagos State University, Nigeria

[5]  Jaiswal, Ashish, Fluid: The Approach Applied by Geniuses Over Centuries, Wisdom Tree, 2018.

[6] National Education Policy 2020, Government of India

9.2. Some of the major problems currently faced by the higher education system in India include:

(a) a severely fragmented higher educational ecosystem;
(b) less emphasis on the development of cognitive skills and learning outcomes;
(c) a rigid separation of disciplines, with early specialisation and streaming of students into narrow areas of study …
e) limited teacher and institutional autonomy; ….

9.3. This policy envisions a complete overhaul and re-energising of the higher education system to overcome these challenges.[7]

National Education Policy 2020, Government of India

11. Towards a More Holistic and Multidisciplinary Education

11.1. India has a long tradition of holistic and multidisciplinary learning, from universities such as Takshashila and Nalanda, to the extensive literatures of India combining subjects across fields. Ancient Indian literary works such as Banabhatta’s Kadambari described a good education as knowledge of the 64 Kalaas or arts; and among these 64 ‘arts’ were not only subjects, such as singing and painting, but also ‘scientific ’fields, such as chemistry and mathematics, ‘vocational ’ fields such as carpentry and clothes-making, ‘professional ’fields, such as medicine and engineering, as well as ‘soft skills’ such as communication, discussion, and debate. The very idea that all branches of creative human endeavour, including mathematics, science, vocational subjects, professional subjects, and soft skills should be considered ‘arts’, has distinctly Indian origins. This notion of a ‘knowledge of many arts’ or what in modern times is often called the ‘liberal arts’ (i.e., a liberal notion of the arts) must be brought back to Indian education, as it is exactly the kind of education that will be required for the 21st century.