New Delhi: Inside a classroom in Mumbai’s Vile Parle neighbourhood, eight-year-olds are intently listening to the sounds of English characters and words, and watching them take shape on a television screen.
A year ago, such classes weren’t taking place at Shri Madhavrao Bhagwat High School, a Marathi-medium school run by Shilpa Abhyankar. That was when some parents approached her, requesting English classes for their children.
Amused initially, Abhyankar had to eventually give in. She hired Language Labs Inc., a Mumbai-based private language training institute, to teach English to primary section students at the school.
A not-so-quiet linguistic revolution is under way. Abhyankar’s is just one of innumerable schools who are turning to English as either a full or a partial medium of education as demand for speakers of the “global language” surges nationwide.
The Union government has itself recognized English as a vehicle of economic expansion and is moving to bridge the divide between those who speak it and those who don’t.
Intellectuals view English as the “link language” India needs to be on the same wavelength as other countries on a host of common global concerns.
But not everyone believes English is a cure-all. British linguist David Graddol argues in his soon-to-be-launched book English Next India that forcing primary school children to learn everything in a language that is not their mother tongue will only breed an under-educated generation. He recommends that English-medium teaching should begin only at the secondary level.
Historians see the introduction of English in India by British administrator Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835 as an attempt to create a class of interpreters to do business in the colony.
Since then, English has come to be seen as the language of opportunity, and the number of English speakers has kept on rising. Some 191,000 Indians returned the language as their mother tongue, the language first learnt by a person, or the native language, in the 1971 census. Thirty years later, the number had increased to 226,000. The increase of English speakers from 1991 to 2001 was almost 27%.
Plugging the hole
Nonetheless, the spread of the language remains limited. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2009, released by Pratham—the largest non-governmental organization in the education sector— shows only 43.8% of students in class I could read the English alphabet, even in upper case.
Plugging this hole is a central thrust of the government’s skill development programme, which promotes the teaching of English in schools and colleges as a key vocational education component among other courses. For the programme that seeks to impart skill-based training to 500 million people by 2022, the government has also set up a national skill development board and a national skill development funding corporation for policy direction, review and finance.
At the Central Board of Secondary Education, the examination body for secondary schools in India, chairman Vineet Joshi says he receives most applications for affiliation from English-medium schools.
The Maharashtra state board embarked on starting semi-English medium schools in 2008 in response to growing demand, opting to teach science and mathematics in English at the secondary level.
English-medium teaching is often viewed as synonymous with private school education, and is thus reflected in the rising percentage of private school enrolments. According to ASER 2008, the percentage of rural children who studied in private primary schools went up from 16% in 2004 to 26% in 2008.
Government schools are also doing their best to gain ground. Abhyankar’s school in Mumbai, for instance, runs audio-visual lessons for spoken English for classes III-V even though it is unable to provide headphones.
“We are a government school. This is not the ideal way, but this is better than nothing,” says Abhyankar. Tea-ching English, she adds, would boost the confidence of her students, who are mostly from lower middle class and slums.
Graddol, however, told Mint he doesn’t agree with the idea of teaching English at the cost of everything else.
“The whole task of trying to teach English in government schools is an incredibly difficult one. It’s still a mystery to me why people study English when they cannot speak it. If you continue, you will have another generation coming out of schools which didn’t study other subjects properly because you put children prematurely in an English-medium school,’’ he says.
Graddol’s coming book follows the evolution and reform of the English language in India. It will be released in March this year, a decade after his first book English Next.
The new book argues that the advantage offered by its large population of English speakers, which has given India an edge over other developing countries until now, will be neutralized in the coming years.
China has launched an English teaching programme and is likely to have more English speakers than India in a decade. In Russia, English has already become the working language. Even in Latin America and parts of Europe, Graddol says, English is now being seen as a basic skill, and India would get no special benefit once the language is spoken by everyone everywhere.
But the skewed focus on teaching English would mean a “half-baked education” for many Indians, and could see the country losing out to China, the linguist says.
English Next India cites the example of Malaysia, where the government in July 2009 annulled an earlier decision to teach science and mathematics in English after concerns that children’s education was suffering as only 10% of teachers were well-versed in English.
ASER reports, released annually since 2004, have also pointed out a drop in learning levels in schools. Various other studies, including a 2008 report by software lobby group Nasscom, have shown only 10-15% graduates are “employable” in business services and only 26% engineers in technical services due to educational deficiencies.
Graddol suggests using the mother tongue at the primary level and adopting English as a medium of instruction only at the secondary level to ensure that the learning process is meaningful.
He also says consolidating multilingualism could be India’s strength and recommends a three-language formula codified in 1968. The formula promoted primary education in the mother tongue and the teaching of English, Hindi as well as other regional languages at the secondary level.
The linguist points out another danger. “Smaller languages will decline and regional languages will also lose domains of use,” he says.
Threat to vernaculars
In Gujarat, for instance, a poor pass percentage in Gujarati-medium schools compared with English-medium schools has led to the closing down of several vernacular schools.
In Maharashtra too, the mushrooming of English-medium schools has caused a sharp decline in the number of Marathi-medium schools. In Pune, widely regarded as the cultural capital of the state, the number of Marathi-medium schools came down from 719 in 2006 to 604 in 2007, according to the Environment Status Reportof 2008.
The Holy Family School in Andheri, Mumbai, which has both Marathi- and English-medium wings, has seen a steady fall in enrolment of students in the vernacular medium over the past five years.
Principal Francis Swamy recalls children whose fathers farmed their lands or had occupations such as driving buses and autorickshaws, and mothers who worked in households as maids. Yet, when many of them pulled their children out of the Marathi-medium wing of Swamy’s school, they only moved to an English-medium school. “Such is the craze for English that it cuts across class,” Swamy says.
The National Curriculum Framework for School Education in India, drafted in 2005, also makes a strong pitch for multilingualism. States where English is not the official language have largely seen government-run schools adopt regional languages as the medium of instruction, even as private schools have taught in English.
Graddol calls for broader reforms in education, including infrastructure, quality of teachers and academic practices. “English may be a useful catalyst, but the final goal must lie beyond English,” he says.
But Meena Kandasamy, a Dalit activist and poet who teaches English at Anna University in Chennai, sees a larger role for English in Indian society—one of a link language.
“Today, people all over the world face similar problems— terror, violence, exploitation —and they need to learn and understand from each other’s resistance struggles,” she says. “They are all different stories, but they are also extremely similar. If you have to say these stories simultaneously, you would be using English.”