Only in Kannada, Eh?

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on February 5, 2007.

You’ve probably never heard of Kannada – the native language spoken by 7 out of 10 Karnatakans. You’ve probably never heard of Karnataka either. But there’s a good chance you’ll chat with a Karnatakan if your iPod ever locks up or you have trouble installing the new Windows Vista operating system.

That’s because Karnataka is the Indian state whose capital city, Bangalore, is “the back office to the world.” Bangalore is awash in call centers for Western companies such as Apple and Microsoft, boasts over 200 high tech companies of its own, and is reported to enjoy the highest number of engineering colleges of any city on Earth.

But if an Indian court doesn’t step in soon, the out‐​sourcing capital of the world may put itself out of work.

As of this April, the government of Karnataka will force 2,000 private elementary schools – enrolling nearly 300,000 students – to shut down. Their crime? Teaching in English instead of Kannada.

Bangalore’s incredible success in the information technology field stems not just from its wealth of skilled workers, or the lower cost of employing them relative to U.S. or Canadian workers, but from the fact that so many are fluent in English. And that’s a skill they are likely to have picked up in private schools.

English is the mother tongue of only a tiny fraction of Indian citizens, and public schools use regional native languages (like Kannada) for the majority of instruction. English is relegated to a separate course, usually not taught until the later grades.

But, as many Canadians have discovered, teaching a second language as just one course in the curriculum is less effective at promoting fluency than immersion programs that teach all subjects in the second language. Many Indians have discovered the same thing. So, dissatisfied with the performance of public schools and their lack of English immersion programs, Indian parents have fueled the growth of a vast private education sector that teaches primarily or exclusively in English. In parts of India, the majority of students are now enrolled in private schools – even in some of the country’s poorest urban slums.

Karnataka’s ban on these schools is technically the result of a 1994 court ruling – a decision that remained unenforced until last September. But, in the wake of increasingly vigorous and finally successful lobbying on the part of Kannada language activists, the trigger was finally pulled.

There is no question as to why the government dragged its feet for so long on enforcing the ruling. If the crackdown on these schools succeeds, the English‐​fluent high‐​tech labor pool will gradually drain away and the sucking sound of jobs leaving Bangalore will be audible all the way to North America.

In fact, that’s a lesson that Kannada activists could learn from… Canada. In a fascinating 2004 study of interprovincial migration, geographer Kao‐​Lee Liaw showed that non‐​Francophones were five times more likely to emigrate to another province if they lived in Quebec than if they lived in Ontario. And there’s no end in sight. A new report from the Association for Canadian Studies finds that, in 2006, Quebec incurred its single largest net population loss since 2000.

Given that attracting and retaining skilled immigrants is an important ingredient to sustained economic growth, the effects of this non‐​Francophone exodus are inevitable. Quebec’s economy consistently lags those of Ontario, Canada, and the United States. In fact, Quebec’s per capita income ranks 54th in North America — behind all but two U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.

It is impossible to precisely apportion blame for this dismal performance between Quebec’s economic policies and its English‐​hostile language law, but there is certainly enough blame to go around.

Fortunately, just as Karnataka seems poised to repeat Quebec’s mistake, there is a glimmer of hope. This week, the New Delhi‐​based Centre for Civil Society launched an India‐​wide school choice campaign. The ultimate aim of that campaign is to make the option of independent schooling universally affordable, letting families, not judges or bureaucrats, decide how children will be educated.

So these are the dueling visions of Karnataka’s – and perhaps India’s – educational future. Forcibly ban English as the primary medium of instruction because it is viewed by some as a threat to native languages and a legacy of colonial government oppression (is there a word for irony in Kannada?), or make it possible for all parents to decide what sort of education is best for their children – public or private, English, Kannada, or some other language altogether.

If the Karnatakans do decide to learn from Canada’s experience and opt for the path of educational freedom, it will be interesting to see what Canadians can or will learn from them.