[lg policy] We cannot erase hegemony of English, so why can’t our kids learn it in govt schools?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jul 27 11:25:54 EDT 2018

 We cannot erase hegemony of English, so why can’t our kids learn it in
govt schools?
As a government college professor, I have seen generations of bright
learners lose out on opportunities only because of their linguistic

   - Manika Ghosh
   - Thursday, July 26, 2018 - 12:04

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cannot erase hegemony of English, so why can’t our kids learn it in govt
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In his recent announcement to introduce English-medium classes from Class 1
onwards in government schools, the Chief Minister of Karnataka has opened
doors of opportunities for a large section of children in the state.

The language policy in the state was adopted in 1994, mandating the use of
mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary classes. This is the
first time since then that an attempt has been made to revise it. Parents
and right-thinking educationists see it as one of the most positive and
progressive changes in school education. Children in government schools who
mostly come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and are mostly
first-generation learners will now get similar opportunities that come
easily to children from private English-medium schools.

Not surprisingly, this initiative has not gone down well with Kannada
activists; they have strongly opposed it. The latter’s resistance stems
from an ill-founded notion that it will compromise the cultural ethos of
the state. How can any culture be so fragile that it gets diluted by
learning one extra language? Culture is an evolving, ever changing,
dynamic, utilitarian force that helps society keep pace with changing times.

*Advantages of a second language*

The 24 years of “mother tongue” formula used in schools has not done much
in terms of improving comprehension levels or academic performances, if
pass percentage in schools is any indication. What it has certainly done is
hamper their ability to learn any language well. In my experience as a
professor in a government college in the state for decades, I found Kannada
spoken by a majority of students, including the native speakers who came
from Kannada-medium schools, to be a queer mix of English and Kannada. They
are neither adept in Kannada nor in English.

Learning English in early school will at least put them at an advantageous
position in higher education and in the employment market. It defies reason
as to why anybody in the right frame of mind should oppose a move that will
elevate the livelihood prospects of a large section of poor children.

During my tenure as officer in-charge for skill development and placement
in all the 356 government colleges in Karnataka and also as consultant for
the newly formed skill development department in Karnataka, I’ve had the
opportunity to interact with a multitude of company recruiters for decades.

Organizing many job fairs and placement drives in different parts of the
state gave me a clear understanding of the employable qualities in
candidates. Apart from the requisite qualification, skill and attitude,
emphasis is laid on the applicant’s linguistic abilities, especially in
English. Knowledge in one or more regional languages is seen as an added
merit. It had saddened me time and again to witness many qualified and
capable young aspirants being rejected in job interviews only because they
could not speak, read or write English well enough.

*Politics of language*

Several states across the country have been guilty of a political ploy that
played havoc with the lives of generations of children. In the name of
upholding the culture of the land and promoting usage of mother tongue,
government school children have been denied the kind of education they
needed and aspired for the most. By virtue of government policy, children
in primary classes were forced to learn only in their ‘mother tongue’ at
the cost of learning English. The struggles of these children to match up
to the more privileged ones begins right from there.

In 1983, the Left Front government in West Bengal banned the teaching of
English till Class 6 for varied political intentions, which was masked as
cultural pride and student welfare. It raked up misplaced chauvinism among
the lower- and middle-class Bengalis much to their regret in the later
years. It has had a disastrous effect on several batches of school children
throughout the state in terms of their job prospects, especially outside
Bengal. Many brilliant students, by virtue of their academic records, found
themselves in reputed institutions, but it was very unfortunate that their
confidence levels dipped due to their inability to speak fluent English.
The same inability came in the way of them getting deserving job offers,
losing out to less meritorious persons with better English knowledge.
English became the primary defining point.

Language chauvinism in modern India perhaps has its roots in the anti-Hindi
agitation of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu. It is etched in people’s minds as the
bloodiest fight for retaining language identity of a people. It soon fanned
the linguistic sentiments of people from other non-Hindi speaking states.
What began as an opposition to imposing Hindi gradually saw the exclusion
of English as well. Education, especially school education, is the softest
target for any government. Thus, succumbing to pressure from culture
chauvinists and also to score political mileage, several state governments
rolled out lopsided policies. Introducing mother tongue as a medium of
instruction in schools was certainly one of them.

*English as an aspiration*

The undeniable hegemony of the English language cannot be wished away. It
must be accepted however grudgingly that a significant advantage of the
once-colonized India has been its access to the English language. It is not
providence that has given a competitive edge to India in the global market
against several developing countries. English is the language of commerce,
of science and technology, of employment and hence of development. With the
advent of social media, English has gained renewed importance.

Learning English is aspirational for a vast majority of people in the
country who have been systematically kept away from it by vile political
scheming. While the masses suffered under such mindless policies,
helplessly losing out on a crucial competitive edge, the leaders,
chauvinists and the elites brazenly continued to get their children
enrolled in English-medium schools. Their blatant discriminatory attitude
is similar to the Brahminical tyranny that denied people of lower
socio-economic strata access to knowledge of Sanskrit, the erstwhile
language of the elite.

It is a great tragedy for Indians that even after 70 years of sovereignty,
our national identity is determined by a certain mindset we portray. We are
yet to come to terms with living in a free country where democratic
principles granted by the Constitution of the land reign large. How else
can one explain the trespassing of personal spaces of citizens and growing
mayhem unleashed by the self- proclaimed guardians of culture?

In the recent past, right from what we eat, what we wear, how we celebrate,
whom we marry to what languages our children need to learn in schools are
being dictated by these culture extremists. Anybody who deviates from their
diktat becomes the target of mob frenzy, lynching, arson and loot. The
intolerant bigots who perpetrate these crimes roam freely, fearlessly,
emboldened by lack of punitive actions against them, with tacit support of
the state and Central governments. The apathy and the appeasement politics
played both by politicians only add to the public outrage.

The language policy of the various state governments has only catered to
the advantage of business-inclined private English medium schools that have
mushroomed all over. Over the last five years, private schools have gained
170 lakh students despite the exorbitant fee structure and government
schools that offer free education have lost 130 lakh students across 20
Indian states.

Despite hardships the poor prefer the English-medium schools. Anasuya, who
barely made both ends meet, staked every little thing she had to enroll her
child in an expensive English-medium school. Uniform, books, bus pass,
building donations further drained her. Her only solace she poignantly
explained when asked, “She will get a good job and people will address my
daughter as ‘Madam’ like you”.

*Language as an emotion*

With emphasis on imparting employability, skilling-training government
bodies like National Skill Development Corporation and Skill Development
Departments of several Indian states have been set up with huge budgetary
allocations. Interestingly, a large part of their training curricula, that
are outsourced to private organisations for a considerable per candidate
cost, comprise spoken English coaching. Wonder who is responsible for this
unnecessary drain on the exchequer’s money.

However, it must be said that although English learning is crucial, there
is no denying that learning mother tongue is just as important. It is a
language of feelings and emotions. The mother tongue is a naturally and
easily learnt language at home, taught lovingly in the cozy environs of the
family. Language is germane to cognitive development, like thinking,
perceiving, recalling, and decision-making. Learning multiple languages not
only broadens these capabilities, but enhances a child’s intellectual,
social and psychological environment, opening a wider world of knowledge.

It is time that policy makers, language chauvinists and culture sentinels
understand the science behind language acquisition. Ample research evidence
suggests that prior to the onset of puberty, that is, before the ages of
9-12 years, a critical learning period exists when children are capable of
learning and mastering multiple languages with equal ease. Any language
learnt post puberty or as an adult may not have the same kind of dexterity.
Observing a migrant family clearly demonstrates this phenomenon. Although
parents may live in a new place longer than their children, they can never
match the fluency or ease with which the children speak the language of
that region.

Primary school children are in their pre-puberty stage, when they can hone
their multilingual capabilities. Given an opportunity, they are capable of
learning mother tongue alongside English with equal élan. Limiting children
to learn one language, either mother tongue or English is a great
disservice to children’s natural lingual gift. Living in a shrinking
globalized world, linguistic pluralism or multilingual ability is what
stands to benefit children most.

In this milieu, the progressive step taken by Karnataka is to be emulated
by others. This will herald social engineering in the true sense of the
term. Every child in our country has a right to education, especially for
meaningful education that brings promise of a better and happier future.
Elected governments have a commitment towards it.

*Views expressed are author's own.*

*Dr Manika Ghosh is the Director, Eudaimonic Centre, Bengaluru. She headed
the first skill development initiative in government colleges and has been
a senior consultant to the Skill Development, Entrepreneurship and
Livelihood Department, GOK, and United Nations Development Programme.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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