S. India: English as an unsanctioned language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jan 19 13:22:28 UTC 2007


English as an unsanctioned language
Schools in southern India, where call centers are king, face closure if
they don't start teaching in their native tongue.

By Henry Chu Times Staff Writer

January 17, 2007

BANGALORE, INDIA Few cities have been as successful as this one in
parlaying a knowledge of English into an economic boom. Every day, an army
of call-center workers chirps, "Can I help you?" in lilting Indian tones
to thousands of customer-service callers half a world away. In other
gleaming high-rises, legions of software engineers toil at their computers
designing programs for clients in the United States, Britain and Canada.
Bangalore is the world's back office, an information technology
outsourcing champ and a jewel in India's burgeoning economy.

But a recent move by state authorities threatens to tarnish that
reputation. In a twist that has caught many here by surprise, hundreds of
schools across Karnataka state, of which Bangalore is the capital, face
closure for making English their chosen language in the classroom. Amid an
upwelling of activism promoting indigenous languages across India, the
state government announced in September that any campus established within
the last 12 years must teach in the local tongue, Kannada, or shut its
doors. The fates of nearly 300,000 students now hang in the balance as
2,000 schools, almost all of them private institutions, fret over what to
do before the ax falls in April.

Officials say they are merely enforcing a 1994 court ruling that
prescribes Kannada as the primary language of instruction in elementary
schools. But the crackdown has triggered vociferous protest from educators
who complain of infringement on academic freedom, parents who see English
as the ticket to their children's success and business leaders who warn
that Bangalore could lose its competitive edge if it shuns one of its
greatest assets. "This is a bad policy. They didn't think of the
consequences," said G.S.  Sharma, head of an association of 1,000 private
schools in this southern state, the vast majority of which teach in
English. "The government is forcing us, like dictators, to follow its

Across the country, movements to emphasize indigenous languages have
scored successes, most notably changes in the names of some of India's
biggest cities. Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata, and Madras
goes by Chennai. Even Bangalore officially became Bengaluru a few months
ago, though the new appellation has yet to catch on. Those who support
ditching colonial-era designations hail it as a way of scrubbing India
clean of its subjugated past, particularly the centuries of oppressive
British rule. But globalization has made English an indispensable
ingredient in India's economic rise of the last decade. It is still spoken
in the corridors of power in New Delhi, the capital. And to the
frustration of advocates of local languages, almost all educated Indians
speak English as their second, or in some cases even their first,

In Karnataka, native speakers of Kannada make up about 70% of the state's
53 million people. A Dravidian tongue, Kannada is one of polyglot India's
official languages, along with more than a dozen others, including Hindi,
Tamil and Bengali. Local linguistic pride runs strong among some segments
of the population here. When Rajkumar, a film star and icon among Kannada
advocates, died in April, thousands of fans mobbed the streets of
Bangalore in mourning, then went on a rampage when they were prevented
from viewing his body. They burned buses and battled police in clashes
that left several people dead. Some Kannada advocates also speak
disdainfully of Anglophone professionals as greedy sellouts who have
turned their backs on local culture for a chance to make money as "cyber
coolies" in call centers and engineering firms.

"The mother tongue is the right of the child, not the choice of the
parents," said Chandrashekhar Patil, president of a Kannada literary
organization and a supporter of indigenous-language schools. "We do
provide for teaching English, but at a later stage, after two or three
years of primary education." A high-ranking state education official, who
requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media,
said pressure from pro-Kannada groups that are vocal and powerful, but in
a minority, goaded the government into enforcing the 1994 court ruling.
For 12 years, authorities had ignored violations, aware of the popularity
of education in English and grateful that the mushrooming private
institutions could take some of the heat off the state's own overcrowded,
underfunded and, in many cases, substandard public schools.

Disagreement within

The decision to crack down on Anglophone schools sparked some internal
dissent, the official said. "We all cautioned that it would send the wrong
signal, that it would affect Karnataka's development," he said. Basavaraj
S. Horatti, the state education minister, acknowledged that enforcement of
the court ruling had been dilatory until now. But that was no excuse, he
said, for schools to continue flouting it. "Now we are taking action. One
hundred percent, the government is correct," Horatti declared. "It's not a
mistake of ours. It's a mistake of the parents and the management" of the

He said the state system would have no problem absorbing students whose
schools are closed down an assurance doubted by many and from which
parents take scant comfort. He also noted that the hundreds of
English-language schools established before 1994 were exempt from the
ruling and would remain in business. His own daughter graduated from such
a campus, Horatti said. In fact, so many children of state government
ministers 71%, according to a local newspaper attend Anglophone schools
that critics accuse officials of hypocrisy.

Some are defiant

Opponents of the crackdown have pledged to fight back, daring the
government to forcibly close down their campuses and risk a
public-relations nightmare complete with photos of forlorn children
stranded on sidewalks with their backpacks, unable to get an education. A
recent rally in behalf of the affected schools attracted hundreds of
cheering supporters. The schools' backers are hopeful that another court
ruling may come down in the next few months either reversing or relaxing
the 1994 decision. The education official who spoke on condition of
anonymity said many in his department also hoped for a court-ordered
reprieve, which would provide political cover for the government to back
down. "That will save our skins," he said. "It's a futile case we are

That the debate over language has spawned such an emotional and political
uproar is perhaps unsurprising, given India's history. In the 1950s, not
long after the country gained independence, violent language riots
eventually forced the government to carve two states into four, along
linguistic lines. English has always elicited ambivalent feelings here, as
the language of imperialism yet also as a tool that allowed India's
freedom fighters to unite and agitate against the British. "Gandhi, Nehru,
Subhas Chandra Bose all the great Indian leaders learned English," said
Sharma, the private school association head. The importance of English is
not lost on 9-year-old Niba Sultana, an apple-cheeked, pigtailed
fourth-grader at the private New Generation School in Bangalore. "They say
that if you learn English, you can get a good job and learn good manners,"
she said with excellent enunciation.


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