x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The language of success

As Indians in the country's urban centres move on to opportunities elsewhere in the world, those in smaller towns passed by in the recent boom of white-collar work are flocking to English language schools to take their places.

English language schools advertise at an intersection in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where  learning English has become the key to upward mobility.
English language schools advertise at an intersection in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where learning English has become the key to upward mobility.

KANPUR, INDIA // The city of Kanpur is far from a paradise for many living there. An industrial metropolis swelling on the slimy flats of the Indo-Gangetic plain, the city bakes in oppressive heat for much of the year under one of India's worst urban pollution blankets. Missing the historical, cultural or metropolitan allure of the country's foreign business hubs, cities such as Kanpur have grown into industrial bases. That means for the younger generation, there are few employment options other than entering the family business or working in a factory. But as call centres in India's metropolitan centres of Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore lose staff to more exciting opportunities abroad, youth in these second-tier cities are rushing to fill the gap. The key to the big city lifestyle, however, is a sturdy grasp of the English language and Kanpur's aspirants are making sure they are not missing out. Hadeep Kahn, 19, is a student at the Kanpur institute of Trounce Education, one of several hundred English-language institutions that can be found in the city. "English is globalisation and it is modernisation," he said. "Any job you want to get now in the big cities requires English to some extent. Opportunity for us comes only through English now." There is an excited atmosphere in the Trounce classroom. Men and women, most in their late teens to mid-twenties, laugh loudly at jokes told in broken English. Aspirations are swapped and books shared. Outside the classroom, Kanpur's young hopefuls meet for coffee and converse in English or Hinglish, a mixture of English phrases and Hindi. "Hindi is my mother tongue, it is the tongue of my family," said Rohan Gupta, 18. "But I also want English to be my mother tongue, and one for my future." Mr Gupta is the only member of his family who can speak English, and, when he makes his move to a major city, he will be the first among his relatives to do so. Mahendra Singh, 27, sees English as pivotal not only for his own, but for his country's progress. "All the technology and development we are getting is in English. We can do anything and talk to anyone with this language." On the other side of the desk, Kanpur's hordes of English teachers recognise a boom when they see one. "English has become the need of everyone," said Rashid Jamal, the director and teacher of Kanpur-based X-C-Lent English Speaking Institute. "Whether you are a poor person, a rich person or a very rich person. All strata of people come to us." And with lessons costing a couple of thousand rupees for a course (Dh150), willingness seems to be the only obstacle to learn. Mr Jamal, 32, is a recognisable face in his home city. His billboards, which vie for attention with many others looming down on Kanpur, feature his smiling face and a promise of fluency in English. Since setting up his first school in 1998 as a young English-speaking local, Mr Jamal now has six branches in Kanpur and a number more across Uttar Pradesh state. "Students here have this idea now that they want to go to the big cities, work for big companies. The call centres offer this. [My students] have seen that this is quite a vibrant and glamorous job." In one class, he claims, all of the approximately 60 students got jobs in outsourcing centres within a month of graduating. For employers in the major cities, staff from these smaller cities are proving to be a valuable asset. S Nagarajan, the co-founder and human resources officer at the Bangalore-based call centre giant 24/7, has been in the industry long enough to witness the change firsthand. "India is a job-starved nation. Before call centres, we didn't have white-collar industries that employed people in the numbers proportionate to the population growth. Call centres have changed this significantly." As rural India begins to urbanise, urban India is looking to globalise in ways that are catapulting the international outsourcing business to new heights. This has meant that many of those brought up in large cities are no longer satisfied with what the industry can provide for them, and are increasingly seeking overseas postings. In the largest boom since urban India began to modernise its infrastructure, people from smaller cities are finding their feet in 21st century India. "Tier two cities have woken up to the fact that they can compete in English-language competencies with people from tier one cities, and so are able to get these world-class jobs," said Mr Nagarajan. "People from tier two have a better stickiness to the job as compared to [people from] tier one cities. The difference is in the level of personal confidence, learning ability, stability on the job and performance." In the skyscrapers of Mumbai, English teachers have specialised and evolved to suit the market. Richa Joshi is a freelance language consultant who focuses on the American accent. Ms Joshi and her colleagues work on "neutralising the mother tongue", which aims at removing the Indian inflection. Once the language canvas is blank, recruits are trained in the accent of their target market, usually American, British, Canadian or Australian. "What we really aim to do is clean up their English. "Many people have mispronunciation problems while others have dialect influence from their first language." Having trained hundreds of new recruits for major business process outsourcing companies, Ms Joshi, 30, has analysed the influx of workers from fringe cities like Kanpur. "Often those from smaller cities work harder at their training because they send money back home to their families, while kids from the big cities usually are more casual about their careers." Aside from the outsourcing market, the international cities house a large number of expats, as well as tourists, which has created a wider need for English speakers to cater to western interests within India. What this new trend shows is not only the modern capitalisation and development of India's second-tier cities, but also suggests the first Indian job revolution. Having missed out on both the industrial and innovation revolutions of the 20th century, and still building the infrastructure for a manufacturing revolution, India's economic development has been stifled. As a steady flow of willing and motivated young workers continue to gravitate towards companies that cater for the international market, India will continue to urbanise and grow economically. "We all work hard for this and for our families," said Sugandh Arora, the Trounce Education centre's manager. "English is within all our grasps so we have to take advantage of this while we can." * The National