Teaching English in schools

An article What price English education? in the Deccan Herald talks about the issue of teaching in schools in English (English medium) as opposed to the “mother tongue”, in this case Kannada. It’s an interesting piece and worth reading.

After reading the article, I realised that I had different thoughts regarding some of the points in the article. Just for the record, I speak three languages with varying degrees of effectiveness and am picking up a fourth at a glacial pace.

Poor quality of English taught in primary schools: One of the arguments is that English teachers aren’t paid as well as their counterparts in other professions (media, advertising) and they end up moving to better-paying professions. As a result, the students suffer and end up with poor grammar, etc. If this is the case with English teachers, it should be the same with other teachers.

Are other teachers paid any better? Probably not. Then, the students must be suffering in learning Kannada as well as their other subjects too. So it’s not a question of paying only English teachers more, it’s about increasing the pay for all teachers. Whether this will happen or not is anyone’s guess because teaching hasn’t been a lucrative profession in India. Tuitions are another story.

Decay of Indian languages: The argument is that if English becomes the “medium of instruction”, then it will lead to the decay of Indian languages. The big picture question here is about learning and continuing to speak in one’s “mother tongue”. If your parents are from different states, then what is your mother tongue? Mother’s language or father’s? Or is it the language of the state in which you were born?

Maybe you have parents from the same state but they speak different languages. In Mangalore, for instance, you’ll find people who speak Konkani, Tulu, and Kannada. Which language should students in Mangalore be taught in?

Also, in the regions of Karnataka that border other states, like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, you’ll find people who speak two languages.What should their medium of instruction be? You could force people to learn a state’s language and please the majority but that still leaves out a section of people.

These are difficult questions to answer because the issue of language is a complicated one. Our states were divided along linguistic boundaries but it wasn’t exactly the best job. Also, consider that the first language you tend to pick up is the one that your parents speak at home.

Languages dying out and their effect: In the article, the writer opines that many languages are on the brink of extinction. I’m presuming that he’s talking about Indian languages. Here in the South, I’m pretty confident that the Tamilians are speaking Tamil, the Andhra-ites are speaking Telugu, the people of Karnataka are speaking Kannada, Tulu, or Konkani, and those in Kerala are speaking Malayalam. So it brings up the question of which language is dying here. The writer also explains what would happen when languages die out.

It leads to loss of information essential for survival.

Non-degraded ecosystems such as rainforests in the Amazon, Borneo or Papua New Guinea are often inhabited only by indigenous and traditional peoples. When their languages disappear, their knowledge about how to maintain diverse ecosystems sustainably also disappears, including important knowledge about human survival (for instance, about medicinal plants) that is encoded in their languages. By killing languages, we are ruining the prerequisites for human life on the planet.

Firstly, we’ve not established that languages are dying. If a language is dying, then another one takes its place, so there can be a knowledge transfer. Languages are simply a medium of communication. Also, consider that if you meet a Dutch-speaking person and you only speak Kannada, you’ll figure out a way to communicate. It would be hard at first but slowly you will point to things, teach each other your language and learn to communicate. We tend to glorify languages a bit too much if you ask me.

Secondly, some languages eventually die for various reasons. Latin and Sanskrit are famous examples. Sanskrit though lives on in its influence on so many Indian languages, and we do have Latin being used in science and for some religious rituals.

The writer also makes the point of learning about idioms and I’m extending this to stories about Indian mythology. Much of what I know of Indian mythology comes from reading Amar Chitra Katha comics when I was a child. They’re probably not the most definitive source of information but I know many people who read them and learnt about India’s history and/or mythology. The language most people I know I read them in was English. Go figure.

Why English is important: Whether you like it or not, English is the language of choice in our globalised world. One of the reasons for the shifting of BPO jobs to India was the significant English-speaking population. The effect of those jobs moving has been employment for other sectors as well, like the travel sector, the food sector, and the office-support sector. It’s not just the white collar jobs that need English, some of the blue collar ones need a smattering of English as well.

I think learning English essentially makes economic sense, the “status” factor doesn’t enter the picture. If people from the lower economic strata want their children to learn English, it’s because they know the importance of the language in getting jobs and possibly moving their children towards a better life. Of course, there are people who are proud of their “convent-educated English accent” but who gives a crap about them? The accent sounds pretty fake anyway. (Not all convent educated people are snobs.)

As far as teaching subjects in English goes, my take is that people who learn in the local language are at a distinct disadvantage when they go into professional colleges. They have to learn what different terms mean in English and understand their subjects in English, something that is difficult because they’ve not been taught in English. I was in an English-medium school throughout so I am not aware of how difficult the transition can be.

I have nothing against any Indian languages; they’re terrific and they should be taught in schools and parents should teach the languages to their kids. What I’m against is putting people at a disadvantage by not allowing them to learn a particular language, in this case English. If tomorrow, Spanish becomes the language that the world uses for its business, we’ll have to learn Spanish, whether you like it or not. Plus, I’m sure you’ll see Spanish teaching institutes popping up everywhere and a Rapidex Spanish-speaking course.

It’s the nature of the economics in the planet we call Earth, or as they say elsewhere Tierra.

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7 thoughts on “Teaching English in schools

  1. KANNADA RAKSHANA VEDIKE, the intolerant self proclamied saviours of kannada might disagree with you.
    What about Coorgi? Thats also a language spoken in Coorg…
    But most of your arguments break down in a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore. Here tamil, telgu, hindi, english is spoken, unlike other states I have been to.

  2. I am not sure if they’ll read the article since it is in English. ;-) I wasn’t sure if people in Coorg did speak a different language, so I didn’t list it.

    But most of your arguments break down in a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore.

    Not sure I understand why you say that the arguments break down though. The arguments are valid in a place like Bangalore.

  3. “Here in the South, I’m pretty confident that the Tamilians are speaking Tamil, the Andhra-ites are speaking Telugu, the people of Karnataka are speaking Kannada, Tulu, or Konkani, and those in Kerala are speaking Malayalam. ”

    In Bangalore, its common to see kannadigas talking to people from TN/Andhra/North India/Foreigners in Tamil/Telgu/Hindi/English. So that rule doesnt hold. Its the same even in Mysore. On the otherhand have you ever tried speaking in Kannada to a shopkeeper in MAdras? Doesn’t work…

  4. Ah, now it’s clear. But, the argument I was making was to point out that languages are not dying out in their “native” states.

    Also, if you go to Hyderabad, you’ll probably be able to manage if you speak Telugu, Hindi, or English.

    I wonder if Bangalore’s location (proximity to other states) has a lot to do with its multi-lingual identity.

  5. I am an american working as a pratice consultant here for the RPO industry and I can tell you it is appauling to see 95% of the international recruitment teams writing and speaking. I can not believe people have MBA and can not write a proper English sentence.

  6. The only way to learn a language is through exposure outside the classroom. Those who don’t have English-speaking parents or access to English books and television will learnt it badly, and struggle to understand other subjects taught using it.

    It’s not very different from English-medium students struggling to learn second languages. Mine was Hindi and despite studying it for 10 years, I struggle to read a short novel in the language. This was because my only outside exposure to Hindi was movies (not enough of them, obviously!).

    I always think that if I’d studied in a school like Kendriya Vidyalaya–where they teach Social Science in the second language–I would’ve surely flunked the exams.

    So I would say there’s some merit in the argument for native language instruction. However, it’s not something that cannot be overcome–schools would have to look at the big picture. Providing access to books and media would be a good start.

  7. Terrific points Suchi. I especially liked what you said about reading a novel in a “second language”, which is something I couldn’t have done after 10 years of learning Hindi or 6/7 years of Telugu.

    I made the point about “native language” instruction being difficult to determine, especially in non-homogenous areas. Even if you do figure out that problem, the people who don’t learn English and practice it will be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, at least in the cities. (I realize now that I was looking at the issue from a city-person’s point of view.)

    But you’re right, providing access to books, to media, and a means to practice the language would be a good way to learn any language. Nothing against translators but I would’ve loved to read Munshi Premchand’s novels in Hindi. Or revisit Kabir’s dohas. Sigh.

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