Speech of Rob Lynes (Country Director British Council) at the launch of The 11th Language and Development Conference 2015


Namashkar, soo-prabhaat and good morning: (### VVIP ###), speakers, delegates and colleagues from partner organisations and all those of you watching this being webcast live across the world. We are privileged to host the largest and the most diverse of the Language & Development Conference series. From an outstanding response to the open Call for Papers, where we received 155 proposals from over 40 countries, the final programme includes approximately 75 presentations including plenary addresses by Indian and international speakers, workshops, a book launch, a debate and a ministerial panel discussion. Around 30 of the presentations are by international speakers who will be discussing their work in a total of 20 different countries, from Sierra Leone to China, from Myanmar to Denmark and from Pakistan to South Africa.

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I thank the trustees of the Language & Development Conference for their faith in British Council India.
This is the first time that this prestigious biennial conference has been held in India, and I cannot think of a more appropriate host country. India has the linguistic diversity that befits a continent. According to the Census of 2011, there are more than 120 languages spoken by over 10,000 speakers. The Northeast of the country is reckoned to have the highest number of languages per 1000 residents in the world. Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s smallest states in terms of population (at less than 1.4 million), has the highest number of languages (over 90), while West Bengal has the highest number of scripts.[1]
The conference, hosted by British Council India, is being supported by the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Grameen Kaushalya Yojana of the Ministry of Rural Development of the Government of India; Jawaharlal Nehru University’s National Multilingual Education Resource Consortium; the Digital Empowerment Foundation; Research Councils UK and UNESCO South Asia cluster office based in New Delhi.

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When we put forward the bid to host the conference to the trustees, we did a fair amount of research before coming up with the main theme – “Multilingualism and Development” – and the three broad sub-themes:

  • “Multilingualism and the Metropolis”;
  • “Language, Technology, Multi-literacies;
  • and “Multilingualism, Marginalisation, Empowerment.”

These issues not only reflect the rapidly changing reality of India and the wider South Asian area, but almost every other developing country and, in some cases, even the so-called developed countries.

Take the case of “Multilingualism and the Metropolis”. The rapid urbanisation being witnessed in India and many other countries in the South Asia region brings in its wake significant challenges for policy makers in a number of aligned areas. What is to be the education provision for linguistically hyperdiverse cities, especially for those citizens who have little or limited knowledge of mainstream languages? What choices do urban planners make while coming up with signage? How do migrants to cities access healthcare or approach the police or speak in courts? And do they have the right language skills to get on to the employment ladder and then move up the value chain? Linguistic hyperdiversity is as much a challenge in the developed world as it is in the developing world. Over 300 languages are spoken by pupils in public schools in London alone, which is a huge resource but also a challenge in many ways. [2]

On the subtheme on technology and languages, allow me to refer to a British Council India publication – English Next India, published in 2009. David Graddol, author of that report, predicted that though English was then the dominant language of the Internet, all that was set to change. One of the major conclusion of the Graddol report was “India’s language diversity is a major resource.”

Now let me highlight a few recent news headlines on language and technology:

    • Content consumption in Hindi, India’s national language, is growing at a staggering 94%, reports Google[3]. By the year 2020, local languages will account for 30% of revenue in digital advertising.[4]
    • Of 269m internet users in India, almost exactly half – 127m – are local language users. More than 46m of them are from rural India[5] – the same number of people that live in a major European country, Spain.
    • Twitter has just added four more Indian languages (Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada), on top of the three existing ones (Hindi, Bengali and Urdu). The total number of languages in which one can use Twitter across the world is over 50 and growing.[6]
    • Micromax, an Indian company that sells handsets, has launched a smartphone with 20 Indian languages.[7]

I think Graddol would be surprised at the pace at which the future he predicted around language and technology has unfolded. Enabling local language content alone will increase internet access by 39% in India, 75% of which will be from rural India. This particular theme also resonates with the Smart Cities concept being championed by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of .

Languages connect and empower, but also exclude and disenfranchise those who do not speak them. The third subtheme of our conference explores this side of how languages interact with each other in social, economic and political contexts. The theme covers ideas as diverse as pluralism and the rights of minority groups and women in society, the benefits and the challenges of using children’s home language as the language of classroom teaching and the challenge of providing health care and other public services to members of the public who do not speak national or mainstream languages.

It is interesting that by choosing this framework of themes and subthemes, we have touched upon several of United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), primarily # 4 (Inclusive and quality education for all and lifelong learning), # 5 (gender equality and empowerment of women and girls) and # 11 (making cities inclusive and sustainable).

British Council is the UK’s cultural relations agency and promoting sustainable education links between the UK and India is our core remit. We do this through the language we share – English. British Council is committed to what international research has shown repeatedly – the desirability of mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) in the early years of schooling. We remain committed to enhancing the quality of learning outcomes which leads to the creation of opportunities in higher education and employment, social mobility and prosperity.

There has been a 50% jump in parents enrolling their children in English-medium schools in India in the last 5 years (from 2009 to 2014)[8] While the hope pinned on English is perhaps exaggerated, the aspirations of society must be respected and responded to, through a combination of raising the standards of language education in general, including English, and also awareness of the benefits of multilingual education. The British Council is a signatory to the Juba Declaration on Language in Education in Africa which affirms our position on the importance of mother-tongue based multilingual education in the early years of education.

I am delighted to share with you that British Council India has helped put together a research consortium on multilingual education, led by the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism at the University of Reading and a number of Indian partners. We are also initiating a research project which looks closely at the English Medium Instruction (EMI) scenario in the country. Without credible data, research and evidence, policy initiatives on languages-in-education is doomed to fail.

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My sincere thanks to all our supporters and partners once again, and I do hope all of you have very useful and fruitful interaction in the next few days.

[1] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-07-16/news/40613471_1_plsi-linguistic-survey-indian-languages
[2] http://repec.ioe.ac.uk/REPEc/pdf/qsswp1012.pdf
[3] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-08-18/news/65530379_1_second-largest-internet-base-internet-population-google-translate
[4] http://www.business-standard.com/article/management/by-2020-30-of-total-digital-advertising-spend-will-be-on-local-languages-study-115080600703_1.html
[5] http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/locallanguage.pdf
[6] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-07-31/news/65074197_1_regional-languages-marathi-and-tamil-user-interface
[7] http://www.micromaxinfo.com/mobiles/smartphones/bolt/a24
[8] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Number-of-children-studying-in-English-doubles-in-5-years/articleshow/49131447.cms