June 29, 2012
“We have room but for one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans of American nationality and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 20th President of USA (1856-1918).
On the same subject, Lord Macaulay, in colonial India’s context, had said, in 1835: “We must at present do our best to form…a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” This crystallized an imperial approach to the English language that, unfortunately, continues to work to its detriment today. Writing on this, under the title “Language Without Barriers - Knowledge of English is an inspirational ideal and a practical, enabling tool”, in The Times of India in an edit-page article (11-3-2010) Sanjiv Kaura, CEO - Corporate Social Responsibility, BCCL, heading a trust for imparting spoken English and life skills to under-privileged youth, made out an impassioned case for kissing English on a wider scale. Sanjiv said: “The old resentment about English being the language of the ruling classes, the old accusation about it being an imposition that dilutes our cultural ethos continues to be political currency.”
According to Sanjiv, we have Mulayam Singh Yadav and Samajwadi Party proposing a ban on English in Indian schools (since relented) or the Karnataka government banning 2,100 educational institutions in 2006 for using English as a medium of instruction. But there is a disconnect between the section of the political class that denigrates English and the aspirations of India’s burgeoning middle class and its poor. They are playing to a constituency that is diminishing by the day. The English language is both an aspirational ideal and a practical tool that propels economic empowerment. The people have realized this even if politicians who represent them have not.
According to a study carried out in Mumbai few years ago and published in the American Economic Review, access to English education reduced gender inequalities and the relevance of caste. It multiplied the choices and career options available to children in urban working-class homes, enabling a far greater percentage of them to move on to white-collar jobs than children who studied in Marathi medium schools. The broader range of economic and social opportunities available to those from English medium schools also resulted in much higher percentage of inter-caste marriages among them. It is notable that Brahanmumbai Municipal Corporation is being forced to shut down Marathi medium schools because of lack of demand. According to anecdotal evidence state language medium schools have reduced demand, and consequently many shut-downs in Karnataka and other states. Parents feel that English can boost their children’s chances of securing better jobs and better living.
They have good reason to think so. English has demonstrably been one of the building blocks of India’s remarkable economic growth over the past decade. By laying much emphasis on the tertiary sector, the growth model has ensured that knowledge of English becomes an essential part of a professional’s skill set. 80 % of the sector’s offshoring business comes from the US and UK. But, even outside of those two countries, English has established itself as the language of international business.
“Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race and range of time.” – Walt Whitman, American poet (1819-1892).
A quiet movement, on individual level, has taken English to commanding heights as a medium of instruction for primary education in India. And it is gaining ground by the day despite the aggressive efforts by netas in power in some states to dam its advance.
Writing in The Times of India under the title “English Closing on Hindi –Is No. 2 Medium of Instruction”, Rema Nagarajan said: “While the Marathi manoos and various others fight over the supremacy of languages, English has quietly marched on and has now become the second largest medium of India’s primary schools, second only to Hindi. In 2006, English as a medium of instruction was fourth behind Hindi, Bengali and Marathi – in that order - but by 2007 it had climbed to second place and grew even further in 2008, beginning to eat into the Hindi numbers too.” Regional language medium schools have witnessed steady erosion in their share over the years, and in some cases even in absolute numbers, as parents seem to have decided that English is the passport for a bright future for their children.
According to the data collected by National University for Education Planning and Administration, the number of those opting for English medium from class I-XII has grown by 150%, while the number of students opting for Hindi grew by just 32%. Of the total number of students surveyed, about 188 million, data on the medium of instruction was available for over 92%. Prof. Arun Mehta, connected with the survey, said: “… the quality of the data and the collection has vastly improved. However, the data pertains to recognized schools. In most states, there are thousands of unrecognized schools, most of which are English medium schools. Hence, the number of those studying in English-medium schools could be even higher.”
Commenting on the subject editorially, Times said: “…the Chinese are pumping massive amounts of resources to acquire English-speaking skills. For it is quite clear – from several studies, trends and logic – that English will remain language the world does business in for at least a few decades to come. From Hungary to Egypt, Russia to Korea, teaching English is getting top billing in schools. A skilled work-force with English-speaking abilities is one of India’s economic advantages. This is the main reason why it ranks as the top BPO destination in the world.”
There is a great demand for English education in India. And this is not just a middle-class longing. Those from poor backgrounds also view learning the language as a passport to better economic and social prospects. They often go out on a limb to secure access to English-medium schooling for their children. Fulfilling that demand could unlock a floodgate of talent that will serve well our collective aspirations to progress. Government must incentivise the teaching and learning of English in both public and private schools right from the primary level.”
Against this, what we find in some states, with Karnataka in the lead, aggressive efforts to dam the advance of English, often by using rule-making powers to deny permission to run English-medium schools. Even court orders, from the Supreme Court included, are either ignored or flouted to push state or regional languages. Like the devil, they quote the Bible to say “Man doe not live by bread alone!” Basha does not feed anyone. It is cruel to give stones when asked for bread – in the name of parochial culture or language. An empty sack cannot stand erect and soldiers march on their stomach. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs starts from food, clothing and shelter and language and culture come higher up on the ladder. It is a question of basha or bread. So, should we dam English if it provides the passport to secure the basic human needs by equipping one to secure a proper job?
A bit of background is in order. With British Raj ruling the roost in India, the likes of Macaulay thrust English down the throat of elite Indians – only to be enlightened thereby and use it against the colonisers. English also gave access to choice professions and white collar jobs, especially more recently in the IT/ITES sectors worldwide. Yet there are some, like the current netas in power in Karnataka, who would bite the hand that fed them.
In a victory to lakhs of parents who want their children to learn the global language, English, the Indian Supreme Court on July 21, 2009 directed the Karnataka government not to stand in the way of parents’ dreams. Castigating the state government for imposing Kannada as medium of instruction in primary schools, a Bench headed by the Chief Justice, asked the Karnataka government not to force Kannada as the medium of instruction in the primary classes. It also directed the government not to close any private school which decided to go against the state policy by imparting education through English medium. The apex court refused to stay the July 2, 2008 order of the Karnataka High Court of allowing private schools to choose the medium of instruction.
The state government had ignored several raps from the High Court for not implementing the July 2, 2008 order. Instead, it went to the apex court in appeal hoping that it would come to its rescue. The state argued that the educationists were of the unanimous opinion that a child’s reception was maximum when he was imparted education in his mother tongue. The Bench did not question this, but drew attention to the practical side of the problem. “Students studying in mother tongue stand at a lesser footing as all the competitive examinations are conducted in English…They are unable to get even clerical posts”. The apex court said that if mother tongue was imposed on students, it would only further aggravate the problem of those studying in villages. “Parents are ready to pay Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000 for getting their children admitted to English medium schools. This is the real state of affairs. They do not want to send them to schools of their mother tongues. It should be left to the parents.”
Despite such sane words of practical wisdom, the government’s response was prevarication. It is the typical crab mentality: if being not able to lift to a higher plane, pull down those who aspire to climb higher. The netas are known to send their progeny to English medium schools and for foreign degrees. It is like getting into the train and keeping out those who later try to get in. There is also this aspect of uncivilized behaviour of not accepting judgments after going to the court with an appeal. It sends wrong signals to the janata about litigation – which happens to be at the cost of public exchequer. To top it all, the government threatened to bring out legislation to control CBCI/ICSE streams of pan-India education which have carved out a name for themselves for quality and competence – with English medium. Fortunately, of late the Karnataka netas are no more in a state of denial because the parents and students have voted with their feet by walking out of Kannada medium schools and walking into English medium schools. Kannada medium schools are closing down by droves and the near-depleted numbers in such schools have led to merger of schools. The Karnataka High Court has now been promised by the government that free transport will be provided to students if they have to cover a certain distance to their new school.
This is not to argue that we should orphan the state or local languages. Unlike Roosevelt, we are not arguing for English to the exclusion of other languages. Our rich cultural expressions can continue to be in these languages. But, there is no reason why multiple languages can’t co-exist. English is a practical skill, a tool of empowerment which will help everyone access the world of commerce and opportunity.
John B Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).