“India After English?” is the misleading title of Samanth Subramanian’s very interesting piece for NYRBlog; English, the only national language India has, isn’t going anywhere, but the economic boom the country has been experiencing means that the local languages are becoming much more prominent in print:
For a couple of decades now, the rise of English-language journalism was assumed to be a natural consequence of India’s steady gains in literacy and rapidly growing middle class, which now includes more than 200 million people. In 1990, India had 209 English dailies; two decades later, the number had increased nearly seven-fold, to 1,406. […]
Most recently, though, India’s major newspapers have been expanding in a different direction. In 2012, Bennett Coleman, the publisher of The Times of India, the world’s largest English daily, started a Bengali newspaper and poured fresh resources into its older Hindi and Marathi papers. Last October, the publisher of The Hindu, a 135-year-old English paper, launched a Tamil edition. Another leading English daily, The Hindustan Times, has enlarged the staff and budgets of its Hindi sibling Hindustan. And this past winter, a few months before the election, The Times of India launched NavGujarat Samay, a Gujarati paper for Modi’s home turf.
In nearly every case, the publishers of these new papers aim to be more sophisticated than the existing vernacular press. Editors are asked to court the young and the middle class by covering technology, world news, and business, so that the Ukrainian revolution or the launch of a new iPhone, for example, gets as much serious play as in an English daily. The tone is less partisan, the style less tabloid. These papers are finding exceptionally diverse audiences: youngsters buying their first paper, older adults to whom a paper has never been marketed before, people who are the first readers in their families, and urban subscribers who purchase The Hindu in Tamil or Bennett Coleman’s Bengali paper alongside their regular English daily.
A decade or more ago, the publishers of English newspapers scorned Indian language readers, assuming that, as hundreds of millions more Indians became literate, they would turn automatically into consumers of English papers. But the steady rise in literacy rates—from 64.8 percent of the population in 2001 to 73 percent in 2011—has had unexpected consequences. The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English. Meanwhile, major media houses have discovered that English readership is declining or stagnant, and that advertising rates in English papers cannot be pushed much higher. Along with an influx of politicians from non-elite backgrounds and the growing importance of regional and state-level politics, these developments have begun to challenge the assumption that English is the default medium of Indian public life. By putting more energy into regional languages, said Ravi Dhariwal, the chief executive of Bennett Coleman, “We’re just adapting to the way our country is changing.”
You can read more about this heartening development, including further analysis of the causes (as well as a great deal about politics), at the link.