Millennium Post

Folly of downgrading English

The government’s move to ask playschools to adopt mother tongues as their medium of instruction in the place of English is fraught with unforeseen consequences, none of them beneficial. For a start, all the students of a class of, say 30, may not all have a common mother tongue in India’s multicultural, multi-lingual environment. So, the official diktat will relate mainly to the language of the province, which will be ‘foreign’ to some of the students even if they are familiar with it since they live in the state. However, since English will also be in the curriculum, there will be more than one ‘foreign’ language for them.

Considering that it is easier at a young age to pick up languages, the children will have a working knowledge of several of them – their mother tongue, the local language and English. Although it is said that the mother tongue is the most effective medium of instruction, the idea is inapplicable to a subcontinent like India where a person lives in the midst of a medley of languages from childhood to old age. The three-language formula for schools reflects this reality. Nearly all Indians speak at least three languages – their mother tongue, the language of the state (the two may be the same, however, for those who have not migrated from their state) and English, which is spoken by the upper crust – even at home sometimes – and is understood all over the country. In recent years, however, the importance of this ‘global language’ has increased much more than before.

Hence, the proposed dilution of the emphasis on English in the official initiative may not be liked by the parents, who are aware that English is today the key to success in social and professional life. Not surprisingly, there has been a 274 per cent rise in enrolment in English-medium schools since 2003-2004. However, it isn’t only the value of English in advancing career prospects which makes
parents send their children to English-medium schools. Another reason is the falling standards in government schools. The deterioration has taken place largely because of the hare-brained idea in the Right to Education Act to do away with the annual examinations at the end of the term up to Class VIII. The absence of tests may be appreciated by students since it increases their playing hours, but it has led to a situation where an assessment has revealed that half of the
students of Class V cannot read Class II textbooks.

As a report of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has pointed out, ‘a student may not be motivated to work hard to learn if he or she is aware that promotion to the next grade is guaranteed.’ An NGO, Pratham, has also noted that third graders in rural government schools who can identify numbers from 1 to 100 have dropped from 70 per cent in 2010 to 54 per cent in 2012. Little wonder that parents have been transferring their children to private schools.

It is not impossible that if the government restricts the teaching of English in playschools, then the hapless parents will have no option but to engage tutors at home for teaching English to the children. After all, their interest in their children’s future is greater than the government’s interest in unilaterally pursuing its hobby horses. The parents are aware that unless there is an adequate grounding in English in early life, their offsprings will have to bear the burden of an inferiority complex all their lives because of  flawed diction and pronunciation, which cannot be rectified by admissions later in life to ‘colleges’ for teaching spoken English.

It is evident that the earlier angrezi hatao (remove English) campaigns of the Hindi heartland, which was extended for a time to computers as well, haven’t yet died down. While the animus against English was sought to be projected as a continuation of the patriotic anger against British colonialism, it was in reality the expression of resentment of the underprivileged against the elite of cosmopolitan India. The government, therefore, is clearly playing a political game by pretending that its heart bleeds for the poor. But, what it doesn’t realise is that the deprived do not want their children to remain deprived as well, but learn English to get on in life.  

The same political misjudgment made the former Left Front government in West Bengal dispense with the teaching of English till Class VI soon after coming to power in 1977. The subject was reintroduced, however, from Class I, by the same government in 2001, when it realised that generations of students from Bengali-medium schools were unable to secure employment outside the state. Perhaps, the centre, too, will wake up to the same reality. IPA
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