Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

They have good reason to. Even passable knowledge of the language is an opportunity to break out of the traditional job trap, especially in urban areas where there are ample opportunities in call centres, retail outlets and clerical jobs. The globalization of the Indian economy naturally means that there is a wage premium for those who speak the global language.

But how big are the returns to English skills? Mehtabul Azam of the World Bank, Aimee Chin of the University of Houston and Nishit Prakash of Dartmouth College have recently used data from the 2005 Indian Human Development Survey to estimate the extent to which wages rise in the case of a person with knowledge of English (see chart). For example, the average wages of a male who is fluent in English is 34% higher than a male with the same background and education, but with no English skills.

While the returns are higher in the case of men than of women, there is clear evidence that the parental struggle in poor urban families to send their children to English schools is neither ignorant nor futile.

Write to theplainfacts@livemint.com

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