Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Does it pay to speak English?

The answer is a clear yes.  I came across an interesting article in VOX titled "English skills raise wages for some, not all, in India" by Mentabul Azam, Aimee Chin and Nishith Prakash.  They argue:- 
"Being fluent in English increases the hourly wages of men by 34% and of women by 22%. But the effects vary. Returns are higher for older and more educated workers and lower for less educated, younger workers, suggesting that English is becoming a complement to education."
Their work has been cited by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha (Mint, May 30, 2010).

Some excerpts from the VOX article:
  • One in five Indian adults can speak English. Four percent report that they can converse fluently in English, and an additional 16% report that they can converse a little in English according to the 2005 India Human Development Survey.
  • English-speaking ability is higher among men (26% of men speak at least a little English, compared to 14% of women), younger people, more educated people, higher castes, and urban residents. 
  • The smaller territories tend to have the highest English ability, suggesting that English serves as a working language in a linguistically diverse country where people will often not share a mother tongue.
  • Education and English skills have become more complementary over time. For example at the entry level, workers with English skill may have been able to find a good job decades ago whereas now only the subset with more education would find a good job. This could be because it has become more competitive to get good jobs – because the supply of educated workers has expanded so much – or because there are new jobs that require both higher education as well as English skill to perform – such as many jobs in information technology.
  • Given that English skills are costly to acquire – it takes time, effort, and often money, to learn English – choosing the optimal amount to invest in English-language skills involves comparing expected costs to expected benefits. This study provides the first estimates of these expected benefits.
  • This study also provides insight on the more general question of the value of English in a context where English is not a prevalent language. English is often used as a working language and many countries, even ones that are not former British or American colonies, invest in English skills.
  • There are large, statistically significant returns to English-language skills in India. But the returns are considerably lower for younger workers – who are more recent entrants into the labour market. For recent entrants English skills help increase wages only when coupled with more education – those who have not completed their secondary schooling will not see their wages increase due to acquisition of English-language skills. As a result, providing English to adults may not necessarily raise their wages.
  • Policymakers should be aware of the complementary nature of language-skills when designing policies. For example, English programmes for children in schools – which would be in time to influence their educational attainment – would be more effective than adult English classes.
Government should open more English medium schools.  Investment in education would pay well in the long run.

Many times, I wonder, why not close down Doordarshan as an entertainment provider and convert it to a massive National Educational Service provider?  There are literally hundreds of TV channels - news, entertainment, sports etc.  One another idea is, why not make it compulsory for these channels to air atleast for some specified hours (say 2 to 4 hours) something that is of use for children across the country - either in terms of language skills, science & technology etc? 

The benefits are many - most important being making available the services of high quality teachers to the rural masses across the country.  This would make it a level playing field for the children from the semi-urban and rural areas who have schools but no teachers or inadequate teachers or teachers with lower skill sets etc.  This would also make it a level playing field for the urban children from government schools as against children who are enrolled in private institutions who are able to pay more and get the benefit of better quality and better trained teachers.