India’s English Advantage is Slipping

By: Tushar Charan

Teaching and studying of the English language is widely believed to be the major factor in India’s impressive presence in the IT world. A good many Indians speak the language fluently and many have made a mark writing in that ‘foreign’ language. But with the current political thrust bent upon discrediting the English language in the country, looking down upon it as a reminder of India’s subjugation by the British, India’s advantage appears to be in jeopardy.

A recently released EF English Proficiency Index, a Swedish enterprise, says that India has dropped two places, down from 22 to 20 in a study conducted across 72 countries where English is not the native language. What should worry those who believe that the tradition of reading and writing English has been beneficial for the country is the fact that China has been improving its position at a much faster rate and so are many Asian countries than India.

China is listed at the 39th position, still much below India’s. But China has improved its position, unlike India, and there can be no doubt that the tempo will be maintained, if not accelerated. According to a CNBC report, 330 million Chinese children are learning English. The figure does appear to be misleading but what is clear is that a very large number of young children in China are learning a language that certain language zealots in India, oblivious of the disadvantage it will bring to the country, decry.

The Chinese are learning the English language with all seriousness, aware of its importance in the world of academics, diplomacy, and international trade and for grabbing better jobs. As a rule, the Chinese, teachers or students, do not believe in doing things half-heartedly. It shows in the end result. There may still be far fewer Chinese than Indians speaking English fluently but those who do generally do it as well, if not better, than most of the Indians who have studied English.

In recent years almost an equal number of Indian and Chinese overseas students have been joining the institutions of higher learning in the US. The army of English-knowing Chinese students is large and will grow larger, increasing the hunger for learning English among their compatriots.

A redeeming feature, if it may be so considered, is that in China the two biggest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, account for most of the Chinese with high proficiency in the English language. The vast hinterland of China is still to catch up with the two metropolitan cities in acquiring English language skills. In India English continues to be learnt and taught in not only the metropolitan cities but smaller towns and cities too, though the standards may be poor.

At a time when the popularity or demand for learning English is spreading fast in China—and many other non-English speaking countries—in India reverse seems to be happening. We have political parties and states where English has been or is being banished from government schools which far outnumber the private schools. The overwhelming number of students in India study in government schools.

The after effects of devaluing the teaching and studying of the English language have been felt in the states which discarded it at the early school levels. An example often quotes is that of West Bengal where today’s young generations finds itself at a great disadvantage because the schools there had done away with English under a government diktat.

Goa, an internationally famous tourist destination, is debating whether to allow teaching of English in government run schools. Students from UP and Bihar are not equipped to find better paid jobs because of their handicap in the English language. Leaders in the Hindi heartland have made sure that if the youth in their states want to attain proficiency in English, they must attend expensive private schools.

The government at the Centre believes that every Indian language has sprung up from Sanskrit, so teaching it should take precedence over other Indian languages—barring Hindi—and, of course, English. It has an ambiguous stand on the English language. It cannot totally throw out the English language but will not do anything to prepare the young acquire a fair degree of proficiency in the language.

The standard of teaching English in government run schools has remained appalling because it does not affect the politicians who could afford to pay high fees for their wards at private schools where the standard of teaching English is decidedly better though not faultless.

It may be wrong to generalise but the proficiency of the English teachers in most government schools, which attract many more students than private schools, is questionable. What makes it safer to make this assumption is that surprise tests have shown in Delhi that the majority of students in primary and junior high school classes have been found unable to read Hindi text correctly.  Some might blame the ‘system’ of education or the students for this kind of poor show. But teachers cannot be absolved of blame.

Some time ago, the education minister of Punjab, alarmed over the large percentage of class X students who had failed the English language test, decided to do a spot study. He gathered about 200 English teachers to judge their proficiency in speaking and writing English.

He was shaken by the results. Most teachers could not converse in English and few were able to write correct sentences in English. There were grammatical and spelling errors; howlers really. What might have shocked him more was the replies given by the teachers for the poor results of the students and their inability to write or speak English correctly.

One teacher put the onus on the students. ‘Students mental level is not well in these syllabus’, was the strange and ungrammatical reply of one. Continuing in the same vein, another said that it was all because the ‘staff of our school was vacant’ while a third teacher pointed out that (vacant) ‘posts need to be fulfilled.’

As for the failure of the teachers, two replies deserve to be highlighted. One said that he had forgotten to bring his spectacles; another said that the sentence he wrote was wrong ‘because I got nervous’.

And how could the school itself not be blamed? ‘The main reason is our school has situated remote area’, observed one who obviously thinks that students in ‘remote’ schools cannot learn their English lessons well.

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