It may be the lingua franca of business and, increasingly education, but just how important is English? There are 2 billion people expected to speak English by 2020, but even these numbers don’t show just how vital English has become to some groups. For example in Bankra, Northern India, Angrezi Devi is the Goddess of English, a new deity for Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables and the lowest rank in India’s Hindu caste system.
Angrezi Devi is a somewhat controversial god, being the ‘invention’ of Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit journalist, anthropologist and social commentator. Prasad sees English as a key tool that can help India’s 200m Dalits (India’s population is approx. 1.2bn) escape the strictures of India’s caste system and the attendant grinding poverty that afflicts them.
While the notion of Angrezi Devi is really a social and political campaign, it goes some way to show how important English is in the world’s most populous country. For India this is also about economics – the ability to speak and write in English is seen as a key national economic advantage, but one that is under threat from China’s rapid uptake of English.
I doubt many parents in countries like Britain, Australia or America, realise just how fortunate they have been to live in English-speaking communities, nor just how huge the impact will be on their social and economic future in a multilingual world where native speakers of English will soon be the minority. Perhaps soon, it won’t be just Dalits who will need the help of the Goddess of English!