Should English be made medium of instruction in all schools and academic institutions?
When Samajwadi Party’s agenda sought to work against the usage of English and computers (April 2009), and when Deve Gowda’s party-in-power attempted to make Kannada as the medium of instruction compulsory in all primary schools (October 2006), there was a huge hysteria created by media, print and electronic, which actively took up on the role of a messiah to stop the politician’s efforts from pushing “India back into stone age.” Editorials were published, Anchors got experts on TV who articulated their view points and everyone for a change agreed that English was not to be banished from schools.
Media pointed out the “hypocrisy” of the politicians who sent their children to the English medium schools. One newspaper actually published the names of politicians whose children studied or had already been educated in convents. Passionate debates and trenchant criticism of politicians crowded out the time and space left for more pertinent questions such as merits of an argument against English as medium of instruction.
This post attempts to take into account of divergent views and draws on experiences by other countries to deal with this argument.
The debate on English as a medium of instruction always carried strong ideological and political overtones. Pavan Varma, Director General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, in an interview given to Tehelka said that “we are producing a nation of linguistic half-castes, who can never speak English with the degree of adequacy or fluency that any language demands.” Most of the English medium schools lack teachers who have good facility in English. The quality of students educated in such schools is, more often than not, mediocre, which might serve to explain the presence of largely inarticulate students and employees even in IT and ITES sectors. In fact, call centres have lowered their standards in English skills to be able to fill their job vacancies. Mr. Varma further argued that English language contributes to division of social strata which is already fragmented into many layers of caste and religion.
Some view English as an elitist urban cultural value, derived from the west, which is imposed on the nation. This argument sees English as a language left behind by the whites and claims that cultural and linguistic authenticity is tied to thinking, speaking and writing only in vernacular languages. The argument also suggests that if the academia shifts to English it might sound the death knell for native languages as there will be fewer and fewer literary works in native languages.
Education in English-medium schools is very expensive owing to the limited availability of English-speaking teachers. The Urban India has already seen a spurt fees admissions to private schools, which are cashing in on the demand for English-medium education. Given that people cannot afford quality education in their own language, leave alone an English-medium one which is expensive for most Indians, any attempts to replace native language with another language will keep the poor even more remote from education. By this implication, it will prove costlier for the government to fund and support English-medium schools across the country.
In addition to learning syllabus at schools, for most Indians whose mother tongue is not English, additional effort and time is required to acquire the ability to speak English. This also has the danger of developing a bias in favour of those who can speak English well in job selections which is to a large extent already prevalent in the private sector.
Jobs in the private sector which require functioning knowledge of English have enabled migration across the country. However, one can point out the flaw in the system which restricts the benefits of the migration to 8-10% English speaking elite and middle class of the total population in India.
The general obsession with English and with the notion of “sophistication” attached to the language has been a major cause of increasing divisions and psychological distress among the children. Children whose learning opportunities to improve their English are limited develop an inferiority complex when in close contact with English-speaking children. School drop out rates can potentially increase among the students with weaker English skills.
The above arguments tend to draw their inspiration from the fact that countries like Japan have done remarkably well in spite of a resolute emphasis on retaining their native languages even among children of the internet age.
However, most works of science and human studies have, unfortunately, not been documented in Indian languages to place complete reliance on the local medium even if we were to agree with the above arguments to do away with English. Developing our languages to impart higher education is important but depriving people of the access to the knowledge systems in English is not correct. It is important to invest in education in our country, which is still half illiterate, and create resources to impart the language skills required to fully utilize the educational opportunities offered in English. To take a pragmatic view, introduction of English at an early stage in children’s education is necessary without being overbearing on the native languages. Perhaps we should look to the European Union in this regard, to develop multilingual skills without compromising on the native character of individual nations.