The topic of teaching English in India is one that generates a lot of heat, especially around the question of when and how English should be introduced in school. On the one hand, parents’ aspirations for their children’s education are rising and much of this hope links English with better opportunities.
On the other hand, there is a point of view that English will dominate and wipe out cultural identities and submerge the rich linguistic diversity of India. Despite different perspectives, in concrete terms, there are clear policies and practices around English teaching in India today. Some years ago, the National Knowledge Commission recommended that English be introduced as early as from Class 1.
Based on the National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2006) textbook content in different states seems to suggest that by the time a child completes eight years of schooling, he or she will be confident and competent with reading, understanding, and appreciating texts in other languages as well as in English.
Lying under the hopes and expectations, opinions and ideologies, is the reality. But large-scale empirical evidence on how much English people in India actually know is hard to come by. One of the only national sources of data on children and English comes from ASER — the Annual Status of Education Reports brought out each year by Pratham. The last ASER report released in January 2013 had estimates of basic reading in English for all rural districts of India for the age group 5 to 16.
The figures indicate that about half of all rural children in Class 8 can read a set of simple sentences and of those who can read about three-fourths can explain the meaning of what they have read. These numbers range from about 90% of children being able to read in Mizoram, Nagaland, Kerala to around 50% (Bihar, Maharashtra, Assam, Karnataka) to much lower numbers in Gujarat (35%).
Strangely, in India, the debates about English are not linked to actual evidence on what children can do. Nor is there much importance given to understanding where children are and how to build from there. Like in many other domains in India, ideological, political and pedagogical positions are strongly held. But we seem to shy away from anchoring these positions on ground realities.
Strangely, even though the NFC 2006 documents state that ‘English does not stand alone’, most debates in India about the acquisition of English do not happen side by side with any discussion on the challenges of learning other languages, including the regional language.
Much of research on language acquisition available in the world today looks at two languages — such studies have usually taken place in western countries where speakers of other languages are being mainstreamed into a largely monolingual society (For example, in the United States, the main focus is how to help Spanish-speakers learn English — two different languages but the same script).
But this is not the case in India. For many children, even in the so-called Hindi-speaking belt, Hindi is the second or third language and certainly for many not the language they speak at home. Adding to this diversity are more issues — scripts may be different, languages may not even have a script and regardless of language, children’s environment is not rich in print.
Time and again, the NCF 2006 focus group paper on the teaching of English dwells on the need to help children learn their first language well. Looking at our own realities, it is essential that we must develop our own ways of bridging between languages and creating our own processes for language development within and across languages.
Even if you ignore evidence, what about learning from experiences? The work that we in Pratham have done with children and languages suggests promising directions for moving forward. First, the more we encourage children to read, to understand, to discuss and, very importantly, to express themselves in the language they are comfortable with, the better they seem to absorb new languages.
More often than not, the weakness in learning a new language has less to do with the new language and more to do with lack of capability, competence and confidence in the original language. Second, if children have print material around them — books, stories, posters, newspapers, slogans — the more they learn how to deal with print.
This is true regardless of the language. (ASER 2012 figures indicate that apart from textbooks, less than 20% of rural households have any material to read.) Third, often comprehension in a new language is much higher than the ability to write or to speak. This ability needs to be taken into account in building confidence to operate in both the new language as well as in the familiar language.
We have found that children respond well to texts that have both languages interspersed. This is different from bilingual texts where both languages are placed side by side.
The debate in India around when and how English should be taught needs to be widened both in scope and substance to encompass the language skills more broadly. More research needs to be done in India to systematically explore how languages can be learned more meaningfully and how they can grow more organically from what children already know. We must think about how we prepare our children to read, to understand and to express themselves.
We must encourage children to have fun in using language differently and appropriately in different situations for different purposes. Serious investment in building strong foundations in language skills will reap rich dividends in all the languages that children use. Whether Hindi, English or any other language, our approach to children in our fertile language landscape must be connected to our realities and suited to our condition, capabilities, needs and uses.
Rukmini Banerji works with Pratham and leads the ASER initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal