Neglected English gets a leg-up in Karnataka

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 13 13:59:49 UTC 2007

Economy and Politics

Neglected English gets a leg-up in Karnataka

The decision to introduce what it calls "conversational English" in
primary schools, and without any exams to boot, is a bold step for the
state government

K. Raghu

Bangalore: Syed Mustafa, a building painter by profession, this year
withdrew his son Akram, 9, from a private school in south Bangalore
and sent him to a neighbouring state government-run school. The shift
meant Akram lost an academic year but his father insisted on the move
to the Hombegowda Nagar Government Kannada Primary School because it
has begun teaching English from this academic year which began earlier
this month, giving Mustafa a real choice for the first time.

"They teach both English and Kannada here," said Mustafa, a Class IV
dropout and father of three, of the decision to shift his son's
school. The Rs150 a month fees for Akram at the private Crown English
School, which was the only way to learn English at his age, was
burning a big hole in Mustafa's household budget, which ran on his
paltry and often erratic earnings. Akram's new school is one of the
55,000 state-run and government-aided primary schools that function in
Kannada but have introduced English as a subject from Class I.

While the move has found wide support among parents, it has been
opposed by Kannada activists, who fear the state's language will be
used less. Typically, state schools had been teaching English as a
subject only from Class V. The decision to introduce what it calls
"conversational English" in primary schools, and without any exams to
boot, is a bold step for the state government. It also weakens a legal
battle the state has been waging with some 2,000 private schools that
it alleges have been teaching English on licences they took to run
classes in Kannada medium.
Further, the administration in this province, which is the biggest
beneficiary among Indian states of tech and business process
outsourcing work shipped to India from large US and European
companies, has long resisted calls from educationists to redeem its
education system that is seen as lagging behind peers.

Eighteen states, including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra,
have English as a subject from Class I, where students begin to learn
to write the alphabet and words as a means to better equip students to
participate in the services boom in the Indian economy.
The difference in Karnataka's "conversational English" programme is
its emphasis on learning through storytelling, singing songs and
rhymes, an approach different to conventional teaching. This method,
local administrators believe, will help the 35 lakh primary
schoolchildren conduct basic conversations in the language.

"It is to keep both the teacher and the students interested and
occupied. In rote writing, the teachers give a task to the students
and then there is no involvement with them," said Gayathri Devi Dutt,
director of the Regional Institute of English, South India (RIESI),
the Bangalore-based autonomous body funded by the four southern states
to devise courses to teach English for teachers and students in the
region. The institute, which helped design the course, has trained
112,000 teachers for 10 days, on how to teach the students in the new
method, to be reviewed in October.
"Children will easily pick up any language. The difficulty would be
for us to teach them," said Jayalakshmi, a teacher at Hombegowda
school, the new place of learning for Akram, who last week received a
resource book with 50 stories, 50 rhymes and 30 commonly used

The students will each get a textbook with over 200 pictures that
match the stories, rhymes and sentences of the teacher resource book.
Karnataka decided to go ahead with English as a subject with a focus
on conversation skills after an RIESI survey in November 2003 in the
state found overwhelming support from parents, who said learning
English would help their children improve social mobility and access
better job opportunities. Of the 613 parents—nearly half from rural
areas and places with low female literacy—surveyed, 592 supported the
introduction of English early on in schools.

As parents preferred sending their children to private schools to
learn English for better future prospects, experts now believe that
introducing the language could help stem attrition at government
schools. "I believe this helps level the field for the children in
government schools," said Rohini Nilekani, chairperson of the Akshara
Foundation, which works with several states, including Karnataka, to
make elementary education available to all children.
The new language policy has divided the literary community in the
state, which has seen Kannada activists take to the streets in the
past to press their demand of jobs for locals in software companies.

Organizations such as the Kannada Sahitya Parishat, Kannada Rakshana
Vedike and Karunada Veerara Vedike accused the government of
sacrificing the interests of Kannada by introducing the English
language in primary schools. "It is unscientific and a policy that is
aimed at the vote bank," said Chandrashekara Patil, president of the
Parishat.A body fighting for Dalit rights criticized such opposition,
calling it regressive and biased. "The middle class and the rich can
afford to send their children to private schools. For the poor, the
only option is government schools. Then why should the poor be denied
an opportunity to learn English?" argued N. Murthy, president of the
Karnataka Dalit Sangharsh Samiti.
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