How was the weekend everyone?”
Every afternoon after class, children from C block government school in Sangam Vihar gather at the Freedom English Academy, where a young facilitator demystifies the English language with the contagious enthusiasm of a gym instructor.
In the large basement where classes are held, everyone must speak in English at all times: some speak haltingly, others speak in quick bursts.
Very few, such as Nikki Sharma, the most fluent speaker in her school of almost 6000 students, look straight at the listener, smile, and express themselves in sentences enunciated in the cheerful upbeat manner taught at Freedom English.
The power of English, Nikki explained at her home one afternoon after school, “Isn’t just in the sentences. It’s in how you speak, how you make eye contact, your body language.”
English, Nikki explained, is both — language and performance. One day, for instance, when Nikki was in Class 10, a teacher called her a “loser”. “I stared at her and said, how dare you call me a loser? Who do you think you are?” Nikki said.
The teacher stared back, nonplussed. Insubordination rarely passes unpunished. What saved her, Nikki mused, was that her defiance was expressed in English, the universally accepted language of authority in Sangam Vihar.
For Nikki Sharma, a student at Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, English is the language of power, authority and self improvement.
In the cramped lanes of Sangam Vihar, English is everywhere: Posters on shop-fronts, crooked lamp posts, and bustling auto-rickshaws advertising lessons in how to speak the language. In these advertisements, the language appears like a glossy American import, rather than a burdensome colonial legacy.
“Love English, Live English, Learn English,” urges the banner of the Ameritish Institute of English and Education. “Life Time Free Membership,” promises the American Institute of English Language Pvt Ltd.
It pays to speak English: A 2006 study by economists Munshi, Kaivan and Mark Rosenzweig found that, in India, speaking English gave workers a 25 per cent premium in wages over non-English speaking workers. In Sangam Vihar, where taxi aggregators such as Uber and Ola advertise to recruit drivers rather than passengers, and the narrow, airless one-room sets are rented by pizza delivery boys, receptionists, security guards, maids and fitness instructors, the vibrant language market is built on sound business sense.
Yet, the language is absent at the school where Nikki is in her final year of study. While every child is taught English from a young age, it never seems to stick.
This presents policymakers with a puzzle:
Schoolchildren who cannot speak English despite a decade of instruction gain rudimentary fluency in a little over a year at institutes such as Freedom English Academy. Is it time to change the way English is taught at schools?
Part of the problem may be that the curriculum emphasizes reading and writing at the cost of speaking: “More than anything, our children want to speak English,” said Bharati Sharma, Nikki’s English teacher at school.
But it takes years before most students are able to utter their first hesitant sentence, by which time many are convinced they will never learn the language.
“If we began by focusing on speech, it would boost their confidence,” she said, “They won’t see it as a subject they have to pass, but as something that can prepare them for life beyond Sangam Vihar.”
Bharti Sharma, Nikki's school teacher, took to speaking out loud to herself to perfect her spoken English.
When Bharti Sharma, a schoolteacher, sat for her first job interview, she realized that her education had let her down.
“I always came first or second in exams,” said Sharma, who graduated with a Master’s degree in English literature from DU. But at the interview for the post of an English teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) school, “I suddenly couldn’t speak.”
So, in her early twenties, Sharma taught herself to speak. “I’m from Sangam Vihar as well,” Sharma said.
“I started by speaking to myself,” she said, explaining that she spoke out loud every action as she performed it. It took time, but she found she was doing better with every interview until she landed a job as a guest teacher at a KV.
Literacy theorists such as James Cummins at the Ontario Institute of Language Studies, University of Toronto, distinguish between basic skills like speaking and listening, and the more difficult work of “cognitive proficiency” — where a student must read, write, and perform academic tasks in a new language.
Training programmes like the one at Freedom English Academy can impart these basic skills with relative ease. But the difficult work of cognitive proficiency — which can take up to seven years — must be taken up by schools. India’s schools, however, are doing neither the hard work of building proficiency, nor picking the low-hanging fruit of teaching students the basics.
“Students should not need academies, they should get all this in school if we conceptualise language learning and teaching differently,” said an English teacher with over 20 years of experience at a government school.
Where the study of English could be a rich experience for students, the teacher said she was constantly pushed to coaching her students to pass their exams — something, she said, a student could do without ever needing to speak the language. “While we want the outcome to be oranges, we are made to teach apples,” the teacher concluded.
Sharma’s average English class, for instance, has between 90 and 120 girls — each at different levels of proficiency. One recent afternoon, Sharma’s attempt to push her girls to read a lesson out loud was interrupted when a student suddenly felt faint and had to be sent home.
“I try to push them to read, I try to organise class activities,” she said, “But with a class this size, half the time is spent making sure every one is on the same page.”
Like most government schools, the medium of instruction in Sangam Vihar is Hindi, but from Class 6 to Class 10, the school offers one English-medium section in each class. This gives parents, who can’t afford private school, the opportunity to send their children to an English-medium institution.
“Students must give a written and oral test to get into the English section,” said a teacher on the English selection panel, adding that over a hundred 10-year-old kids competed for 40 seats last year.
What were they tested on?
“The quality of their English, of course,” said the teacher.
But wasn’t this section supposed to teach them English? “Yes, but a minimum understanding of English is a must,” the teacher explained, “how else will they follow what is happening?”
Last year, many students with no knowledge of English applied to study in the special section. “We had to counsel them,” the teacher said, “They did not appreciate the seriousness of a future in which every single subject would be taught in English.”
Nikki with her mother, Rekha, and classmate Reena Jha. Both Reena and Nikki say they learnt how to speak English at a private academy rather than the public school they attend.
What is the power of English? How does it manifest itself in the lives of the students of Sangam Vihar?
One afternoon last year, Nikki and her mother Rekha Kumari, took a bus from Sangam Vihar to Safdarjung hospital. Nikki was unwell, and Rekha, who frequently visits the hospital on account of a persistent migraine, was worried that the overworked doctor might not pay sufficient attention to her child.
On most days, Rekha said, the doctor would deflect any questions about her treatment by saying, “Just take the medicine, and go home.”
But when they walked into the room, Nikki introduced herself and described her illness in English. “The doctor’s entire manner changed,” Nikki said, “She sat us down, offered me water, and listened to my symptoms for 20 minutes.”
Other patients occasionally barged into the office; the doctor told them to wait outside. “If you know how to talk, they listen,” Nikki said, explaining why she chose to address the doctor in English, “Those who can’t talk, doctors will hesitate to even touch them.”
For Rekha, the hospital visit vindicated a long-held belief: Every public system in India — schools, hospitals, water, food rations — instinctively uses scarcity as an excuse to withhold resources from its intended beneficiaries; only those who speak the language of the system can hold it to account. English and power are inextricably linked in Indian society, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
The Freedom English programme, where Nikki learnt her English, is a free, year-long, six- days-a-week, regime supported by Deepak Chopra, a millionaire life-coach settled in the US.
In each session, which lasts an hour and four-five minutes, 20 students work on a computer, solve problems in workbooks and participate in group discussions. “I came here as a student when I did very badly in English in my boards,” said Saurav Sharma, a 19-year-old facilitator at one of the three FE branches in Sangam Vihar.
Saurav, who studied in a government school like his students, took three years to learn English at the academy. He often uses the story of his struggle to motivate his students. His plan is to teach here for a few years, and then set up an education business of his own.
At Freedom English, Saurav said, “My job is to facilitate them as they explore their knowledge. If they are stuck, they ask their peers, or they ask me.”
The idea is to get children to start speaking without fear, and for the facilitators and fellow students to correct them if they make mistakes. It is hard to assess how effective the programme is. While Nikki speaks good English, many of her peers who have gone through the same academy are not as fluent.
But the lively atmosphere stands in contrast to most English periods in schools, where children stare passively while their teachers read out loud from the textbook. At Freedom Academy, the kids seemed to relish the opportunity to interact with each other and their teacher in small, conversational groups.
One afternoon, Saurav stood before the white board and asked the children to discuss the importance of personal hygiene, except that he spelt it wrongly on the board. Immediately, a young girl pointed out his mistake, but then sat down — unsure if she should have corrected her teacher.
But Saurav didn’t miss a beat.
“This is good,” he said, “You correct my mistakes, I’ll correct your mistakes, and together we will keep improving our English.”