A glitter-edged poster is the only giveaway that the large, airy classroom is actually an extension of the local police station. ‘Driving Risky/After Whiskey’ it says in hand-coloured comic sans serif.
In the shadow of this dire warning, Shahana Parveen and her classmates scribble away in their registers as Aryan Kumar, their fresh-faced 16-year-old teacher, guides them through the intricacies of the English language."When speaking in English, eye contact is zaroori — important," he stresses, "as is body language. "Speed should be less — kum," adds Sudheer Kumar, Aryan’s 20 year-old mentor, "and voice should be up."
The teenagers nod sagely as the morning class on Functional English gets underway at the Saathi centre in Kalyanpuri, East Delhi.
Set up three years ago as part of the community outreach programme of the Institute of Social Studies Trust, Saathi offers children of all ages and educational backgrounds the opportunity to register for a six-month certificate course from Indira Gandhi Open University for a nominal fee of Rs 50.
“We don’t have any pre-conditions for admission,” says Amita Joshi, programme coordinator at Saathi, “The children are taught by peers who have just finished the programme.”
The peer-educator model lends a relaxed atmosphere to the proceedings and also helps recent graduates stay in touch with the language. First on the agenda is a little speaking practice.
“Good morning, my name is Shahana Parveen,” begins the slender 19-year-old, with some hesitation, “I want to learn English to get a good job.”
Shahana isn’t alone in drawing a correlation between fluency in English and her future prospects. A recent HT-CNN-IBN poll found that 87 per cent of respondents across the country felt fluent English was important to succeed.
Data from the poll also points to a subtler and more insidious impression: Many respondents felt the English language actually creates hierarchies of opportunity and access. Fifty-five percent in the metros confessed that they felt inferior to their more fluent peers.
“It is true,” says Sudheer, a peer-educator who finished the programme last year and is now enrolled in a computer programme. “When people spoke to me in English, I often felt humiliated when I couldn’t answer.”
It is a mistake to think of English as simply a language, adds Satish Deshpande, professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. “It is probably more useful to think of it as a resource: Something like land, a family business or social connections.”
One way of identifying its instrumental purpose, he explains, is that Indians tend to use the English vocabulary with the syntax of their native Indian language. “In effect, Indians speak English in many languages!”
Further, elite, middle-class and working class Indians have very different relationships with the language, suggesting the existence of many ‘Englishes’; each performing a specific social function.
These nuances can be seen in the distance that separates the children at the Saathi centre in Delhi and the students of the Modern Senior Secondary School (MSSS) in Nanganallur, a suburb on the outskirts of Chennai.
Now in its 41st year, MSSS runs several workshops and programmes in association with organisations like the English Language Teachers Association of India and Tata Consultancy Services, to assist their students.
“To face the global economy, even educational institutions have to gear up to the challenges at the global level,” says K. Mohana, principal of MSSS.
Her students appear equally convinced of the value of the language. “English cuts across cultural barriers and helps us to overcome superstitions which we imbibe mostly from our mother tongue; yet English is not everything,” says R. Praneeth Srivanth, a precocious 12 year-old at the school.
Saathi teaches ‘Functional English’ — English to help them get by — while MSSS offers its students access to an entirely different English, one that offers them membership to a global club of speakers.
English also carries a particular political charge in the southern states, where it is posited as the alternative to a Hindi hegemony.
Though the DMK government in Tamil Nadu has passed a law to make basic Tamil compulsory in all schools in phases, English is still the official link language and part of the state’s two-language policy.
Since 2008-09, the state government has been setting up ‘English Language Labs’ in select government schools across the state at the cost of Rs 5 lakh per school. This is to help “develop English speaking skills of the students and enable them to get better employment opportunities,” says Thangam Thennarasu, Tamil Nadu minister for School Education.
The Government has also been quick to reinforce its Tamil credentials by promoting what some call a ‘Tamil ethos’. Under an initiative by Chennai Mayor M. Subramaniam, young artists have been drafted to paint in bold colours various cultural symbols from different epochs of Tamil Nadu’s history, to fill in about 50,000 square feet of public wall space on the arterial Mount Road in the state capital of Chennai.
Back in Kalyanpuri, the class is drawing to a close. Aryan has successfully taught his students how to read the time in English.
“When I write 6.30, you say ‘half past six,’” he instructs them. “Past, as you know, means that which has gone before. Jo beet gaya hai.”
Shahana makes a hurried note in her register. The past is behind her; her future is still wide open.
>>Tomorrow: sex before marriage not such a no-no anymore
>>State of the Nation will air on cnn-ibn at 10 pm, from august 11-14