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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why English should not be the medium of instruction in India

n India, one erectile dysfunction for which a miraculous Ayurvedic or Unanni cure is not peddled in technicolour over all media is of hackles. For the good reason that they are always up. That is a required genetic trait for our television anchors and they compensate for nature's oversight in this regard for the rest of the population. So a new outrage cannot make hackles rise, it can make only make them bristlle. Say anything against English, and they not only bristle but also positively come shooting off the snarling mass of the enraged, like quills from a porcupine.

I have no desire to turn into a man-eater, as many leopards in India have, after being maimed by porcupine quills. I hasten to clarify that this column is not against English. I am all for English and for Indians learning it across the board. But I am decidedly against English increasingly being preferred as the medium of instruction in schools.

In January, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar cited, in a column in the Times of India, research findings from those who study cognition to argue against teaching English in Class 1. The easiest language to learn for all human infants is the language they hear spoken at home, the mother tongue. When children who do not hear even a smattering of English at home are taught English in their first year of schooling, their entire learning process is impaired. If they learn to read their mother tongue first, and then learn English, they learn both languages much better. This is just about teaching English. It can be imagined that teaching maths or science or history through English would be even more disastrous. Kids end up learning by rote, not understanding a thing. They pass their exams all right, but end up unemployable graduates, their native capacity to learn damaged for ever, and their creative faculties crippled. This is a tremendous loss, both at the individual level and at the level of society.

Indians are firmly convinced that the only way to learn English properly is to learn everything else through English. This is contrary to logic and empirical evidence both in India and around the world. Children in every country today learn English, but they learn it as a foreign language, and learn it well, in all countries where English is not the native tongue.

Consider countries like Korea, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Brazil and China. They have economies that are better than most. Their schools teach English, but employ their own mother tongues as the medium of instruction. Korea's population is smaller than Tamil Nadu's. Japan's,smaller than Bihar's. The Scandinavian countries are comparable, in population size, to Mayur Vihar, Thane, White Field or some other suburb in India. Their languages remain vibrant, they create new knowledge and literature in their own languages and produce Nobel prize winners and world-beating companies. Of course, they also learn English, the de facto world language. Except in colonised India, nowhere do people believe that unless they abandon their mother tongue and embrace English as the sole language of instruction, their future is doomed.

Today, many Indian languages are slowly dying. The best and brightest among them learn only English. The poetry they write will be in English. Their creativity will not nourish the roots of their mother culture. Great Indian languages whose proto-sounds have resonated with sense and sensibility for thousands of years will languish and die. Sounds implausible? Welsh is almost dead. Irish writhes in its death throes. The print order for a book of poetry in Hindi, nominally the mother tongue of over 450 million people, is 500. But for Hindi films, Hindi poetry would probably be dead by now.

Premium advertising in the print media goes to English publications. When people have money to spend, they defect from their mother tongue to English. Everyone wants to earn more money, they will want to imitate the habits of the elite, who wear Fab India ethnic and converse only in English. The current fetish with English Medium destroys learning and creativity, produces unemployable graduates and sets Indian languages on an inexorable course of destruction. What is the alternative? Teach kids in their own mother tongues. Produce world class textbooks, translate them, by all means, from English, for all levels, and revamp the teaching of English as a second language.

With a proliferation of television channels in all languages and the coming spread of wireless broadband, use of multimedia to expand the scope of teaching English to cover speaking is not difficult at all. (Disclosure: I studied in Malayalam all through school and how I speak English is an endless source of amusement for my two Delhi-brought up, deracinated children).

English itself will be the biggest beneficiary from Indians deciding to teach their young in their mother tongue while also teaching them English separately and thoroughly.

Can Indian languages lend themselves specialised registers required for academic rigour in varied disciplines? But of course. In Europe, the language of science used to be Latin, till science and society got democratised. Many Latin terms continue to be used in science. Indian languages can continue with Latin and English for technical terms instead of going for long-winded artificial coinages. If Korean and Swedish can deal with microelectronics and Abba, there is no reason why Indian languages cannot.

Indians need to be multilingual, and they can be. Learn English, we must, but in a manner that does not kill off Indian languages, children's ability to comprehend or even English itself. Stop bristling, please. 
Source : The Economic Times, August 29, 2012

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