Teach me English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Oct 7 13:51:12 UTC 2006

English-medium schooling is in great demand these days. The rich and poor
in India yearn for it because of its pervasive use in higher education and
employment. The market has responded by providing separate English-medium
schools for the middle class and the poor. At the upper end of the
spectrum are established boarding and day schools.  Educational
entrepreneurs have set up a new breed of schools, providing upper middle
class and rich children with educational buffets, served in five-star
comfort and five-star prices.

More modest but larger in number are English-medium schools, often
government-aided, that cater to the expanding middle class. Fee-charging
English-medium schools for the poor have mushroomed in slums and villages;
these are English medium only in name. The fact that even the poor want
their children to study in English reflects a sea change from the Angrezi
hatao days. English-medium schooling is now promoted aggressively as being
absolutely critical to empower the poor.

It is a view that has many articulate spokesmen, such as Dalit activist
Kancha Ilaiah, Infosys mentor Narayana Murthy and Andhra Pradesh chief
minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy. As an example of this new wave, Sulabh, an
NGO known for its work in low-cost sanitation, has set up an
English-medium public school in Delhi for scavengers. In the last decade,
state governments have taken various initiatives to promote English-medium
schooling. This amounts to a major reversal of decades of language policy,
when regional languages were the medium of instruction and English was
taught as a subject in the curriculum. No significant benefits will accrue
to the poor from the spurt in English-medium schools of the kind that we
see today. Few understand what it takes to start a school, recruit and
sustain good teachers, and provide a reasonably good education.

Even in well-known English-medium schools, ambitious parents and highly
paid tutors play a critical role in supporting school learning and
remedying any deficits. In educated middle-class homes, the presence of
books, newspapers and computers, and interactions with relatives and
friends expose children to varying degrees of spoken and written English.
Most poor, semi-literate parents are not likely to provide this

English-medium schools that cater largely to their children will need
enlightened leadership, dedicated English-speaking teachers and well
equipped schools that are sensitive to the special needs of poor children.
At present, state budgets cannot even provide toilets and basic facilities
in most schools. Hence, good English-medium schools for poor children
cannot be instantly produced in large numbers. Reserving seats for
children in private schools, as well as industry starting good schools,
should be encouraged.  But this will not produce the required number of
English-medium schools.

A superior pedagogical and cost-effective option is to make significant
improvements in the teaching of English in regional medium schools. There
is overwhelming research to show that education in the mother tongue is
best for the mental and overall development of children. English is best
introduced in the later primary years, when its absorption is strengthened
by the acquisition of early literacy skills in the mother tongue. In the
last decade, there has been yet another striking reversal of language
policy. Many states that began English at the middle level in regional
medium schools, have now started introducing it in Standard 1. However,
almost nothing has been done to train primary school teachers, the vast
majority of whom can barely speak, leave alone teach, English.

Fearing accusations of being casteist and anti-poor, many are reluctant to
voice doubts over whether introducing English in Standard 1 will best
serve the interests of the poor. There is a false consciousness that India
has an abundance of English speakers which gives it a competitive edge. A
significant improvement in the teaching and learning of English in all
schools, especially in our regional medium schools, is critical to our
aspirations of becoming a leading knowledge economy.

The writer is director, Centre for Learning Resources, Pune.



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