Saturday, March 31, 2007

Are native languages "unprofessional"?

Early on in Photon, we went to a party and the discussion came around to talking in Tamil at work.
One of the drunk developers felt passionately about this - he said in a meeting we should NEVER talk in Tamil. He said it was unprofessional.
I was surprised by the vehemence of this comment - I said if even one person who spoke in another language is present, this is true. But if a meeting consisted ONLY Tamil speakers, I do not see why it should be unprofessional to speak to each other in that language.
I also argued that if this was true, how far do you take this? Is it okay to speak Tamil in casual corridor meetings or is English mandatory for this? What if two people are talking business by the water cooler - can they talk in Tamil? Or does the English rule apply only when you walk into a conference room?
My point was that this rule was unnatural - and I was not objecting to it because I am a "fanatic" - but because it is contrary to natural behavior.
But, of course, the drunk guy veered completely away into how "even China" was switching to English. And how the whole reason India had succeeded in the IT industry was because of English.
This is a digression here -
China is not "switching" to English - Chinese are learning the English language as a language. They are not learning every subject out there in English - that is, there is no English medium in China; they are learning English as a second language.
This is vastly different from India where the middle and rich classes have lobbied for learning everything in English, taking things to such an extent that kids are actually being punished for talking to each other in their native language during recess. Some schools fine you for talking in the native language.
Whenever somebody raises this, he is branded a cheap fanatic or someone brainwashed by the politicians. I respect Tamil politicians for making this an issue.
Secondly, Indian success in the IT industry also happened because of many, many thousands of studnets who learnt in the native medium but learnt English as an additional language. By claiming English medium as a reason for Indian succcess in IT, I only see the usual attempts of Indian urbanized upper middle classes to corner credit for the IT boom.
Digression ends here
Anyway, that argument was fruitless because the guy ended up blaming Tamils for this "unique" behavior - and I had seen most Indian linguistic communities talk to each other in their language at work. By bringing race into the argument, he lost the argument.
This was an year back - I was thinking about this last week and asked another friend of mine this question - say you went to an interview in a company; the interviewer ascertains your native language; say you are Telugu. The interviewer is also Telugu and proceeds to interview in Telugu.
Would you join that company? Would you consider that unprofessional?
His answer was yes - he would consider it unprofessional and he would reconsider joining that company.
This friend of mine is far more reasonable so I could argue with him. My points were:
1. We use English as a common communication medium. That is the sole purpose. If there exists another common communication medium and if it is your native language, then doesn't it make sense to use that? It will probably relax both of you.
2. What makes English professional and Telugu unprofessional? What causes that judgement? Mind you, I am not talking about an artificiallly constructed "pure" Telugu conversation. If a normal conversation you have with a friend at work can be in Telugu, why can't it happen with a candidate?
I believe the one good reason to not ask the native language of a candidate is because it could result in discrimination. But then HR should not ask for age either (you should not discriminate based on age either). Most candidates will gladly mention even passport numbers in their resumes in India - so why is asking for and conversing in a native language such a bad idea?
I do think my friend is accurate about this - I think most people would react the same way. But I am not able to understand why such an opinion about our native languages exists. I would appreciate if readers can share their views.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Human Development Index (HDI)

This essay is meant to counter the views of many middle and upper class Indians who believe that India is exceptional; those who believe that India should try and will become a "super power"; those who believe that we are a mere generation from attaining a developed country status; and those who believe that India is simply a better country to live in than what they call "Muslim" countries such as Iran or African countries such as Namibia.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) introduced the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990. here is a link to the Human Development Report (HDR) home page:
The HDI was introduced principally based on Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Martha Nassbaum's principle that "human capabilities" had a role in defining well-being of humans. They defined ends (such as liberty) as more important than means (having money). They defined some parameters to measure such ends, such as bodily health and control over one's environment.
In India, we focus a lot (in the past few years) on GDP growth; GDP as a measure of a nation's health has been criticised for a long time, because it focusses on the means. For example, if oil is spilled in our seas often and we clean it up often, the GDP includes the amount aspent on cleaning up those spills as a measure of growth!
The most common reason why GDP is confused with the well-being of a society is because of 2 reasons:
1. People believe that growth "trickles down" to poorer people.
2. When it fails to trickle down and causes income disparities, governments wiill correct that situation.
Both these assumptions have never been proved true, although most educated people in India take it for granted. hence the exclusive focus on GDP in India over the past few years.
What we have in India is called by Sen and Dreze as "unaimed opulence".

A partcularly crude version, consists of attempting to maximize
economic growth, without paying any direct attention to the transformation of
greater opulence into better living conditions.

The UNDP says:
People are the real wealth of a nation. The basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.

The definition of HDI
The HDI includes three components of human capabilities:
Health, Education and a decent Standard of Living.
Health is represented by Life Expectancy
Education by Literacy and School Enrollment
Standard of Living by GDP per capita

Where do nations stand in HDI?

In 2006, Norway, Iceland and Australia ranked in the top 3.
India stood at 126; above us at 125 is Namibia.
Iran is at 96. Indonesia is at 108. Almost all Arab countries are better ranked. Lebanon is at 78 (50 ranks ahead of us).
China is at 81. Oman at 56.
Cuba (oh, those communists) is at 50 (70 ranks ahead).
Almost all Western European countries (which are generally socialist) occupy the first 20 ranks. the USA for all its power is at rank 8.
Over the last 10 years of "development" in India, India has gone from 128 to 126.

So the next time someone goes prattling about how backward Muslim countries are or about how developed we are, quote the HDI at them.