Why English matters…
Kiswah Ashfaq and Abhinaya Rao
Eight-year-old Harish attends a government school in Hyderabad. His face lights up at the mere mention of the word ‘English’. “I know English,” he says and backs this up this by doling out a few words that are his personal favourites. He goes on to say (in Telugu), “My best friend Vishnu studies in a private school and it feels good to be able to speak with him in English.”
The latest decision to make English compulsory from first standard in all government schools across Andhra Pradesh is probably good news for children like Harish. For children in such schools, a greater familiarity with English could be the stepping stone towards a better future, with more opportunities.
This rule is not new to many states in north India where English as a compulsory subject in the curriculum has been in vogue for 3-4 years now. Says Nandini Sarangal from the Directorate of Education (DoE), Delhi, “517 Prathibha schools in Delhi are already following this at the primary level with a new interactive textbook.”
Even though this might seem to be for the better, many are sceptical of how well this will be implemented in AP and across South India. Even if implemented, what about the teachers; will they be able to work according to the new syllabus? This step with its ambitious ends is facing problems with the means. Even in private schools, most teachers are not adequately trained to teach English and if they are, it is age-old teaching methods and textbooks which disappoint the student fraternity and often do not take them very far. For most schools training is certainly a top priority. The problem is particularly keen in government schools. Kuheli, an English teacher from a private school in Kolkata, notes that many teachers are first generation learners in relation to English and need to be trained to make language teaching interactive and effective. The West Bengal Education Board has stepped up its training programme and among other things, recruited district resource persons to train the teachers.
Organisations like the British Council and several private service providers run e-learning programmes and workshops where the focus is on improving spoken English capabilities of the participant teachers. The British Council also runs an online forum (TeachingEnglish) where teachers of English across the globe come together to exchange views, creative methods of teaching and materials used for the same. Recent years has seen a huge growth in the English Teaching-Learning market, from certifications like the Cambridge English competence tests to institutions offering spoken English courses at every street corner.
Once the training is imparted it is the student-teacher ratio that plays a vital role, adds Nandini. She says, “Even if the teacher is doing his/her best in teaching 55-65 children, how can one be sure that every student actually understands everything? Every child is different and works at a different rate and because of this over population of classes, a brilliant student may fall through the cracks just because he/she wasn’t given the required attention.” One needs to note that English is not a language alone; it is a medium through which other subjects like mathematics and sciences are taught, and therefore comprehension represents a double burden of sorts – children need to understand the language and the subject!
So this leads us to another question, does this focus on the English language take away the importance of other subjects in school? On the contrary, experts feel, an early focus on the English language can help students understand other subjects in a better fashion especially at high school level where Physics, Chemistry, Civics and Geography etc. are introduced. In fact the education system in South India places more focus on Maths and Science, leaving hardly any space to explore what language study might have to offer. This seems to have a long term detrimental effect on their spoken English capabilities.
A majority of schools employ teachers just to fill the vacancies no matter what the subject expertise or requirement, but there is a dire need to have fluent English speaking teachers who will be able to educate children. A small private school in Hyderabad, for instance, hired a young teacher whose training was in Telugu teaching but they needed her to teach social studies, so that’s what she ended up doing. Though the subject is supposed to be taught in the medium of English, she is not fluent in the language so ends up teaching in the local language. This is not uncommon, across all types of schools. So if the teachers themselves aren’t able to handle English then who are the children supposed to fall back on? It is one thing to build capacity among teachers to speak and interact fluently in English, and it is another to help children acquire language capability.
Just training cannot make all the difference, feels Sheelu Mary Alex from SCERT, Delhi. “Teachers need to do a lot of homework. Instead they prefer to be in their comfort zones and resist every change brought into the system. Despite being trained to make teaching language in class interactive, teachers instead tend to choose the easier way of just reading out the material. This is where constant monitoring by a body can bring in accountability.” she says.
As the adage taught in primary school goes ‘The early bird catches the worm’, experts feel starting at an early age makes a huge difference. Shailaja, a government school teacher says, “Children are like sponges, they absorb whatever they are given. So if they are taught to speak and write English from a young age, they will not face any problems later on trying to catch up to privately schooled children.”
Apart from starting early, bilingual or even multilingual education is another approach that is gaining popularity amongst English teachers in the rural areas. Certain schools in Orissa are systematically using native language terms while teaching. Multi lingual education (MLE) aims to help children who come to school with a lot of vocabulary already in their head. Sometimes, being able to speak the mother tongue of the students can be to the teacher’s advantage as knowledge of the local colloquialism makes it easier to communicate and the child is also able to grasp it easily. One teacher from Orissa also notes that multilingual education helps keep the parents connected to their children’s learning – they are able to see what is going on, which does not happen if the children switch to English from an early age.
Sunil, who teaches in the tribal areas of West Bengal says, “English has become a global common language because of which there is a need for us to have fluency to comprehend and communicate with the world.” This is possibly why one has seen a major spurt of spoken English institutes all over the country. The general opinion of people who enrol in these centres is that, learning the skill of communicating in good English has boosted not just their confidence levels but their careers too.
Professor P. Shailaja, a professor at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, says that education is not about learning to write and speak in English it is rather learning to write and speak any language. She says, “I do feel that mother tongue is the best medium of instruction and it has been empirically proven. In the Indian context, it is vital to have good teachers, who are adept in not just teaching text but in spoken language skills as well.” Shailaja further adds that for children in primary school it is advisable to not teach more than two languages as it might wear the child out.
Education is defined as ‘the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process’. How then is one described as being educated? Why has knowledge of English become synonymous with the idea of education? It was during the colonial period that the concept on learning English was termed as education. Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon note that ‘The emergence and spread of education in India in the pre-independence period is the legacy of British colonialism and nineteenth century reform movements among Hindus and Muslims, which were primarily a response to the Westernisation implicit in the colonial process’. So in a way the idea of ‘education’ started with ‘modern’ or Western-style education, therefore ignoring the long history of education in pre-British times.
Several scholars have documented the growth of English and its influence on shaping education in India, and its indirect impact on cultural and social changes across the country. English has clearly been an instrument of “progress” in the conventional sense of joining the rest of the modern world, but it has also driven a wedge between traditional systems and processes of knowledge gain and generation and the newer ones. It has complicated interactions in the classroom, and has influenced our expectations of the education system. But beyond all these structural and philosophical issues, lie many pragmatic questions: How do teachers equip themselves to handle these expectations? How can we also privilege learning in and of other Indian languages while acquiring this essential global tool of communication? How do they empower children with the knowledge of English so they can better handle themselves in a changing world, yet recognize the value of the languages they come with?
No easy answers here. But the plethora of courses, courseware and institutions selling competency in English and English education are perhaps symptoms of our search for these answers.
Yoginder Sikand on Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon ‘Unequal Minorities’ Retrieved on October 28, 2010 http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_501_550/educating_muslim_girls.htm
English and Empire
The Story of English in India by N Krishnaswamy and Lalitha Krishnaswamy (Foundation Books, 2006) provides a broad look at the way English was introduced and the manner in which it has acquired new roots and spread across modern India. In their introduction, the authors note:
The history of English in India is inextricably entangled with the politics of the Empire, both political and economic. The English language and English literature were central to the cultural indoctrination and transplantation effected through English education.
Although we have passed through several decades after the end of that particular empire, we have entered an era where different “external” imperatives have dictated the style and structure of education in India, and English remains central to this project as well. Issues of marketability of school and university graduates, social mobility, and identity are tied into familiarity with English, as the cover story suggests. While discussions go on about the politics of language teaching and its cultural assimilation in our country, we have for the most part made our peace with it. The authors, later in the volume, describe it thus:
The changing role of English, the liberalization of the economy, the opening up of the market and the increasing employment opportunities for English-knowing educated Indians have made the English language acceptable to a vast majority of Indians in contemporary India. Familiarity with English has become India’s selling point in the international market; the ‘English advantage’ that India has, thanks to Macaulay and the colonial legacy, is being appreciated by many in India, even by populist politicians who were earlier inciting their followers and the masses to chant Angrezi Hatao, particularly in the northern parts of India. All shades of opinion now favor the learning of English. At last, the whole of India is at peace with English because it has become a global language.
The questions now are somewhat different; a large part of the debate is about how we can make other languages and their associated cultures continue to matter and co-exist in a diverse linguistic environment that does not privilege one over the other. How do we create learning environments that give children the ‘English advantage’ without robbing them of the means to continue to dialogue in and with their own tongues.
English at what cost?
The other day, when I was in Chennai, I was talking to my servant maid who has, unfortunately, never been to school. She was telling me about this drunkard husband and how he often ‘disappears’. I asked her where he was at the moment. Pat came the reply: “Aalu addressey kanoom” (literally translated into English as: his address cannot be found, implying that there was no sign of him). My maid in Hyderabad, also illiterate, always asks me for permission to “okka phone cheskuntaanu” meaning, I’d like to make a phone call. And when she cannot come to work, it is, “amma nenu leavu, repu” “I am on leave tomorrow”.
These are not the only examples of English words in our speech. Loads of nouns, (bus, train, car, ticket, cycle, van, telephone, TV, cell phone,… table chair, … birthday, wedding, marriage) quite a few verbs, run, walk and talk to mention a few, and many adjectives including of course all our colour words. Even prepositions intrude into our lives; we ask people to switch on or off a light/fan, even in our own languages.
I have a friend who carried out a study on this. He documented the number of English words that the Kui tribe in Orissa knew; his list had a minimum of 500 words and about 250 or more were cycle spare parts.
Without English our lives would be incomplete. More importantly, English has become a part of our everyday life. As N S Prabhu put it, there is no zero level of English in India. This fact makes the teaching of English a little easier; there are English words in advertisements, on soap and toothpaste cartons, on our calendars, our watches, (the numbers are not the Indian systems) and in the naming of everyday objects that we can use to begin our classes. In one sense this is good, for it implies that we have taken English and made it our own. At another level this is very worrying and it disturbing. Many terms and words in our own languages are disappearing and being replaced by English words.
Why is it disturbing? Is this not a good sign? We all need to learn and know English, so what is the problem?
To help us answer this question, I would like to propose a small exercise. Sit in a quiet place and write down answers to the following questions.
In which language do I count, add, think, dream, curse, pray, talk to a child, or husband/wife/lover? Once you have written down your own answers to these, go and ask the same set of questions to 10 children and compare your answers with theirs. In my generation, many of these things were done in one or more languages, but probably not in English. Except in rural areas, my suspicion is that slowly these ‘activities’ are being carried out in English.
This implies that we are getting English, but at the cost of our own languages.
No one should mistake me, however, and think that I do not want English as a part of our language lives.
English is the language of social and economic mobility and it is the birthright of every Indian to have access to it. But my argument is that at the same time, we cannot afford to neglect our own languages. This is one kind of alienation. Another is when we teach English in isolation. When English is introduced into classes where neither students nor parents speak it or use it at home, we are alienating those children if we introduce the language without linking it to the home language.
We need to remember that none of us will ever become monolingual speakers for whom one language will do. As Indians, we are and always will be multilingual. Multilinguality is a part of our life. We use different languages for different purposes and sometimes with different people; shopping, banking, entertaining, with grandparents, relatives, friends… But this variety and diversity can and will dwindle to nothing if we do not value our own languages. English has already entered and taken over our schools. It is there from class one. Many states are now converting all regional medium schools to English medium schools. This, I feel is a bad trend. We forget that in our country the first words, the first naming of objects, the first knowledge of the world happens only in our first language, our mother tongue. If we push for everything through English, then this initial base knowledge is never valued. Also, little by little, without realizing it, we will begin using English for more and more purposes.
In the end, we will land up trying to relate and emote in a language that is really not our own (not in our hearts).
We need English to help us grow economically and maybe socially, but we need not help that language grow. More importantly, while we grow, we can try and ensure that this growth is not at the cost of something else, our own languages, our ethnic and cultural identity.
The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An edge over others?
It was my first lecture with the newly admitted students of the computer applications course. I smiled and asked my usual question, ‘Students why do we need to develop our personalities?’ I got the stock answers ‘Ma’am, to get jobs’, ‘to improve’, etc. One student in the corner hesitantly raised her hand, ‘To learn English…’ I immediately asked the class, ‘Do you believe that if you speak Hindi only, you cannot develop your personality and become confident?’ The entire class, save for a few, chorused ‘Yes!!’
This, unfortunately is the common perception in our country, especially among the youth. The learning of the English language has in some strange way become synonymous with raised self-esteem and confidence. I have watched shy, diffident students blossoming and blooming into confident young professionals in a span of three years all because they progressed step by step in learning this foreign language.
Let me tell you about young Namita Mishra, her father worked as a driver. In the first year of her course, she took great pains to hide this personal detail from her friends. She would occupy a seat somewhere in the middle of the class hoping she would not be noticed by the teacher. With my years of teaching experience, I would make it a point to draw out such students encouraging them to speak. Many of them would go through the exercise of standing up in silence for a couple of minutes and then sitting down, hoping someone else would give the answer. Namita responded similarly. I quickly wrote a tongue twister on the blackboard ‘PROPER, COPPER, COFFEE POT’. I asked Namita to repeat after me. She shyly whispered ‘Propurrr cropurr coffee pot’. The class giggled. I reprimanded them and reminded them that English was not our language and since it was new for Namita, she would take some time to learn it. I then wrote the pronunciation on the board in Hindi. Namita’s eyes lit up. After the class she met me in the corridor and said ‘I want to speak English.’ In the next class she stood up when I called out her name and repeated the tongue twister. Her pronunciation was still not perfect but she seemed much more confident. That was three years ago. Today, Namita is a Programmer with a leading software company. She holds her own and strides confidently on her career path. She believes she has what it takes to be successful. The English tongue twister helped her to move on to learning spoken English and short poems. I, particularly remember her standing in front of the class reciting a short piece on ‘Winners and Losers’. She sure is a winner!
The learning of this language was obviously very important to her. Perhaps it raised her self-worth, made her feel good about herself. Time and again I have noticed that fluency in the language helps students to start believing in themselves which is not to say that all students who know English are very confident. However, it is worth mentioning that the language does make them feel they have an edge over those who are not well versed in English.
Is that right? Should they only learn the national language and their own mother tongue? These questions are good for debates and state politics. The ground reality is that in today’s world where business transcends borders, communication is key to progress in the global world. If life improves in any which way with the learning of the English language, then I say why not? Certainly English matters!
The author is a lecturer in English and Personality Development at Dr. BMN College of Science, Mumbai. She can be reached at email@example.com.