“Madam, come again… better taxi, better English,” Siva Prakash, the taxi driver, told me as he bid adieu. The 25-year-old had acted as my interpreter during my two-day stay at Pudukkottai and Trichi in Tamil Nadu. The smattering of English he has picked up is an indication of the growing aspiration of the layperson in the small towns of Tamil Nadu to learn English.
Resistance to speaking a non-native language expressed itself in the form of the politically instigated anti-Hindi agitation in the 1960s, but it’s not just Hindi that has taken the backseat. A major chunk of the state’s rural population continues to speak only the native language, Tamil.
IIT professor E Radhakrishnan’s confession shows how unfamiliar locals have been with English. “In school, I was told that English had nothing to do with science so when I went to Chennai for higher studies, I did not know English. Once I got there, I realised that my first task would be to learn the language,” said the professor who did his schooling in Thammanur, a village 70 km away from Chennai. Radhakrishnan, who is in his 50s, has been teaching aerodynamics at IIT-Kanpur for over two decades now.
But as more opportunities and jobs knock on doors in little towns across the country, people in Tamil Nadu have come to realise that not knowing English leaves them with an overwhelming disadvantage. Which is why taxi drivers like Prakash enroll themselves in private classes to learn to speak English.
“I learnt only basic English in school, but I never went to college where I could have learned more. So I have joined a two-month class conducted by my friend Chin Silva,” said Prakash enthusiastically.
Silva, a post-graduate in English, said he started his English Academy in Pudukkottai after observing the demand. “I used to get 10-15 students when I started my academy in 2001. Of late, business has picked up and we have 25 students as of now,” revealed Silva. There are about a dozen other such centres in Pudukkottai itself.
Trichi reveals a similar trend. “There is a continuous flow of students -- from state government officials to homemakers,” said S Narayanan, owner of an English training centre in Trichi. According to him, interest in English is a result of the newer job opportunities that require applicants to know the language. “More and more call centres are opening here and offering jobs to locals,” he said.