In an 8 ft by 8 ft room in crowded Mumbai, ten Gujarati and Maharashtrian youngsters on the verge of entering college hang on to instructor Dhaval Doshi’s every word.
“It is very nice weather today, is it not?” Doshi calls out.
“Yes, it is a wery nice day,” the class replies in unison.
It’s not Oxonian. It’s not meant to be.
But, for these students, the ability to carry on a conversation in English is their passport to a better world.
Most of Doshi’s students understand some English, but are extremely hesitant to speak.
“I studied in a Gujarati-medium school,” says Diyali Shah (16), speaking in Hindi.
“No… no speaking in Hindi,” Doshi interjects.
Diyali smiles shyly, pauses, but continues in the same language: “In the colleges, the medium of instruction is English. I have to learn English if I want to get through college and get a good job.”
Across the country, people desperate to learn the language of international business, trade and commerce are flocking to any shed, classroom or vacant lot that promises to help.In a recent HT-CNN-IBN poll, 87 per cent of the 3,000-odd people polled said they felt fluent English was important to succeed; more than half felt inferior to those who could speak the language — or even speak it more fluently.
Meanwhile, only about 8.7 per cent of government schools across India use English as the medium of instruction. The rest continue to study a syllabus that includes a basic reading of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast in Class 9.
With one of the youngest populations in the world — 35 per cent of India’s billion-plus people are under the age of 15 — the country’s future as an economic superpower depends partly on how the vitality and promise of that demography is tapped.
So here’s what we suggest: Make English compulsory from Class 1 in all government schools.
Then, move in phases towards making English one of the two mediums of instruction in all schools — the other being the regional language.
Approach the language as an essential skill — as China has done — rather than associating it with a particular culture, ethos or stage in history.
This practical approach is largely missing from the public education system in India.
Just two weeks ago, it took a Supreme Court ruling to stop the Karnataka government from forcing all primary schools to use Kannada as the medium of instruction.
This inching in the opposite direction for the sake of a retrograde votebank must stop.
English must cease to be seen as a remnant of the Raj and a threat to regional languages and be seen instead as an essential tool, like typing.
In the words of the three-judge bench: “They [vernacular-medium students] are unable to get even clerical posts… how do [they] survive in the world?”
Second, the government must set up English-learning centres — and regulate existing ones.
“Implementing some kind of accreditation system for English-speaking courses might help,” says A. Paranandi, curriculum coordinator and teacher at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.
The government centres could offer classes in functional English to anyone of any age — much as China is doing. And grants could be offered for private centres with qualified teachers.
“Uniform English language skills would level the playing field for lakhs of youngsters when competing with the students from better educational backgrounds,” says Professor A.S. Bakshi, director of the Institute of Lifelong Learning (ILL), which works to improve the English language skills of students in all colleges affiliated to Delhi University.
Rakesh Kumar (19) of Uncha Maajra village in Haryana, just 30 kilometres from Millennium City Gurgaon, readily agrees.
“If I had been taught in English from day one, I wouldn’t be struggling so hard trying to catch up now,” he says.
Rakesh is now paying Rs 1,600 for a four-month basic course in conversational English.
He can’t string together a couple of sentences in English, though he’s been studying it since Class 5.
India has one of the youngest populations in the world — 35 per cent under the age of 15. But millions of these youngsters are getting only the most rudimentary instruction in the
English language, one of the most basic skills needed to survive in the workplace. Desperate, they flock to unregulated, even fly-by-night operators in the hopes of catching up. But
a level playing field remains unattainable for most.
(With inputs from Riddhi Shah & Vanshika Sahni)