This story was originally published by BBC Worklife.
It wasn’t until Prashant Choudhary quit his desk job at a Delhi insurance firm to work as a driver that he began to speak English with some fluency.
Choudhary left insurance because he wanted to be his own boss and have more control over his working life — but there has been an unexpected upside to his new career.
As an Uber driver, Choudhary has to use an English-language app day in, day out, and he has found it has significantly improved his language skills. “I enjoy speaking English and often speak in English with my clients. Being an Uber driver has increased my confidence [in speaking],” he said. “I meet clients from many different countries, and doing so many trips and meeting different passengers has definitely helped me improve my English.”
Choudhary’s just one of the many Indians in cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai now working for so-called shared economy platforms – business models that allow individuals to borrow or make use of assets or services offered by somebody else – such as Uber, Airbnb, freelance marketplace Fiverr and clothing hire platform Rent the Runway. Since these app-based businesses work primarily in English, Indians who work with them every day are improving their language skills as a side-effect.
As well as chatting with his passengers in English and tuning in to English radio, Choudhary made an active decision to use the English-language version of the Uber app, so he follows directions to his next passenger’s destination in English. He’s just one of many Indians choosing to engage with language learning opportunities throughout their working day.
The same phenomenon is mirrored at Airbnb, a website that allows users to arrange short-term lets, where the primary working language is also English. There are currently over 9,000 homes offered through the platform in India. “Human interaction and culture exchange is a big incentive for many [of the people] who use Airbnb,” said company spokeswoman Alison Wood. “For example, some people deliberately choose to travel with Airbnb because it means their children can interact with other children and have exposure to other languages.”
Ram Kidambi uses Airbnb to let out rooms in his three-bedroom home in Central Hyderabad in southern India. Although he already speaks English well, he says meeting native speakers has been helpful for picking up new phrases and mastering the art of both British and American slang. “Exposure to different cultures and languages in close quarters and an informal setting has been the single most rewarding experience as a host,” he said.
Start-up PlateCulture, a home restaurant website which lets locals host guests for lunch or dinner, has seen a similar trend across its 10 Asian locations, including India. The site is currently only available in English. “We encourage and support any kind of cultural knowledge exchange between chefs and guests, and language is definitely one of them,” said founder Reda Stare. “Even though [it was not part of our initial business plan], we are very happy to see this new dimension of sharing and learning through the website.”
Language teachers aren’t surprised by the trend, and see it as a natural progression given improved access to technology in countries like India. “In a developing country many people don’t have the disposable income to invest in self-improvement with things like language lessons. But access to the internet creates opportunities for self-directed study and to learn from the wealth of English language [content] available,” said Lea Aylett, academic director at global language school, The Language Gallery.
“Smart learning is all about learning the English you need to deal with day-to-day situations that you may encounter. The instant gratification of learning something and being able to apply it in a meaningful way is a huge motivator,” Aylett added.