India is famed as a country with multiple languages and dialects with most Indians being able to understand if not also speak at least two. For a substantial number that number can go up to three and more. Educated Indians also usually have a fascination with French as a ‘foreign language’, though technically, it is spoken or followed at least by older generations in Pondicherry and other former French possessions and a medium of instruction in several schools.
But it is part of a general blindness about all but the developed world that most Indians who wish to learn French do so because they are interested only in France and things French. They almost never think that the largest number of French speakers in the world – and therefore, also a great number of opportunities – exist in Africa. But because Africa and Africans are looked down on by the general Indian population, such possibilities escape them. Spanish and Portuguese are other languages spoken widely in the developing world but arguably have fewer takers in India than German does.
While East Asian languages like Japanese and Korean have gradually gained adherents over the decades following economic reforms and liberalization it is Chinese that has seen the greatest recent growth in interest and number of speakers in India. The reasons for interest in the East Asian languages is obvious – the region is increasingly the source and direction of the greatest trade and investment flows for India.
There is also a class dimension to the interest in East Asian languages. Unlike the European languages where a foundation in English is often useful and therefore, dominated by the upper crust of Indian society, Indians studying East Asian languages come from a wider demographic since the starting line is the same for everyone whether or not they know English.
Recent reports of Chinese being dropped from the National Education Policy 2020 as a subject to be taught in Indian schools have been accompanied by news of government scrutiny of the role of the Chinese state-sponsored Confucius Institutes in India that also offer Chinese language courses. The former might not be entirely true even if the language of the policy document is unnecessarily vaguewhile it is quite possible in the latter case that the government is only seeking better supervision over Confucius Institutes rather than to ban them. However, if both assumptions turn out to be wrong then one must question the strategic vision of the government – how does learning the language of a country deemed an adversary become less important especially at a time when the country’s foreign policy and security establishments are struggling to deal with Chinese aggression on the LAC in eastern Ladakh?
One would imagine that the inability to anticipate Chinese actions and prepare for them adequately stems from a lack of sufficient understanding of Chinese politics, military thinking and strategic thought. A big part of this surely, also has to do with the lack of adequate Chinese language skills within the relevant government departments that are necessary to access material directly in the Chinese as opposed to reading them in sketchy translations, or worse, directly as analyses offered by Western sources in English.
Meanwhile, despite India’s close ties with Japan and Vietnam, and those countries’ exceptional intelligence and analytical abilities vis-à-vis China, it is doubtful if these sources are adequately used for even these require the appropriate language skills. In other words, to understand China well, or at least adequately, it is not only necessary to acquire the necessary skills in Mandarin (a dialect of Chinese sanctioned as the official language) but also in following local accents and other languages like Tibetan used along the LAC as well as in languages spoken by China’s other neighbours.
Currently, the greatest amount of resources for language learning in India are devoted to its diplomats. But the fact is that India’s tiny diplomatic cadre size means diplomats are frequently shuffled out of the areas whose languages they are trained in. This then is a waste of resources spent and results in our diplomats being generalists rather than specialists of any country. Practically, the only exceptions are those trained in the Chinese language who, because of the nature of the relationship, are regularly posted in the region or at the relevant desks at headquarters in New Delhi and thus, both highly motivated and competent.
But China is now a rising power with a global presence and surely New Delhi has learnt by now and at great cost that it is not sufficient to counter China only on matters of immediate or direct interest to India but to do so also across themes and geographies. And to achieve this goal, it is no longer sufficient to privilege specialization only on China. Indian diplomats posted in say, Venezuela or Ethiopia or Cambodia cannot afford not to be able to speak the local languages and fluently enough to interact with the local political elites and engage in public diplomacy. These activities are critical to countering Chinese propaganda and misinformation not just on Kashmir but also on Covid-19 and the South China Sea among other issues.
Alongside, the Government of India will have to reform incentive structures within the military to better utilize the intellectual skills of its officers. A large number of Indian officers learn a foreign language for up to three years before commissioning but this is not a valued skill and is soon forgotten. If, some 15 years later, however, some of these officers are considered for the role of a military attaché in a foreign capital, they are again asked to learn a language and most times, an altogether new one. This would still be acceptable were it not for the fact that both the language skills and the expertise of a country acquired after two or three years at the job are again wasted by the general practice of posting returning military attachés to desks or responsibilities where they will have no further use for whatever foreign exposure they have had.
It is only in the universities and think-tanks that both opportunity and motivation for sustained study of a particular country or region exist currently. But international relations and area studies programmes are woefully underfunded in Indian public universities and think-tanks with fieldwork opportunities rationed or generally unavailable. In fact, in most cases, Indian researchers depend on fellowships from the government of their country of interest to sustain their studies.
The Indian government and its agencies thus, have a penny wise and pound foolish approach to the acquisition of foreign expertise and language proficiency by its officials and scholars, demanding the highest quality of analyses but unwilling to invest either the financial resources or time to allow them to acquire and then deploy the skills required for their tasks.
A shorter version was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Why Indian Foreign Policy Cannot Succeed Without Foreign Languages’, The Quint, 11 August 2020.