English today is the pre-eminent language of knowledge in all fields: the natural sciences, the human sciences and the humanities and for us, whether we like it or not, it is the most important language of economic opportunity at the pan-Indian and the global levels and consequently, of empowerment and upward social mobility. English can be of great help to even those who are engaged in semi-skilled jobs. People in our country are aware of the need for this language and of late, there have been demands for English education from the deprived sections of our society. NEP 2020 reflects the aspirations of the people by providing for the introduction of English at an early stage: Class III. The decision might have been influenced also by the findings of the language- learning researchers that children below ten or eleven years of age learn the language they are exposed to quite fast. Not just that, the expert opinion is that they can learn two or three languages with more or less equal ease, if they are exposed to them, during that period. These findings have been very well-received by the academic community.
So, our children must learn English well, if they have to do well in the world of economic opportunity. It is important to note that shoddy English can be a hindrance, rather than an asset. Now, to learn this language well, one does not have to go to an English-medium school. Not at all. It sounds persuasive that if one learns subjects such as science, mathematics, etc. in the medium of English, then one will have more exposure to English and will therefore learn the language better. However, much depends on the quality of exposure in the subject classes. More importantly, even if it turns out to be the case that the learner learns English well, one is unsure about its long-term advantages in comparison to the learner who has received education at school in his mother tongue. For the latter, transition from the mother tongue to English for the study of sciences, including human sciences and arts at the level of higher education, would not be problematic at all if one has learnt the concepts well and also English language well, while at school. It is well-known that one learns concepts and the associated skills much better if these are taught to him in his mother tongue, rather than in another language. In my opinion, the best system is the one in which the learner at school (i.e., up to the secondary level in the present set-up in Odisha) learns his subjects in his mother tongue and learns English. Most importantly, he learns well all the subjects, including English language. We must remember that English is only the means, not the end.
Consider the situation in which the learning of English takes place in our country. In some parts of Odisha, children are exposed to Hindi outside the classroom, and in some other parts, to Bengali. For the children learning these languages at school, there is thus reinforcement outside it. This exposure is not inconsiderable. But when it comes to English, there is no comparable amount of exposure to it outside the classroom. Even in the big cities, the exposure is quite inadequate. So, children learn English in only the classroom almost all over the state and this is the case in the rest of the country too.
In the classroom, the child is exposed to English by his (or her or their) teacher. He has his text book of course, but the lessons are taught by the teacher. At that stage, the child cannot read his lessons on his own. Now, the teacher’s English is generally poor, sometimes abysmal; if one thinks it is an overstatement, to find the truth, one just has to go to the English classroom of any school in the state, especially, in the distant rural areas, where the educationally and economically disadvantaged people live. Since the English the child is exposed to is much below par, he ends up learning just that kind of English. And he learns it well, because, as already mentioned, he is at a stage when he can learn a language fast. The wisdom of the world is that bad habits, linguistic or otherwise, are always hard to get rid of.
Remediation has hardly been an effective part of our existing educational system at the school level. In fact, at other levels too, but for now, we focus on the school level. The traditional solution for the weak learner has been to fail him and keep him in the same class for another year; it has problems which are well-known. Doing away with qualifying tests and examinations up to a certain stage is fine, but only under ideal circumstances. In our much less-than ideal situation, when implemented, this policy can have entirely undesirable consequences. More often than not, along with the tests, teaching is done away with, and with that, learning. This we know from experience. The system of mid-day meal with an egg may bring a child to the classroom but that cannot lead to the empowerment the underprivileged, which has to be an important goal of education.
In the prevailing circumstances, in order to be able to teach English well at the primary level, the English teacher must undergo training. It is absolutely necessary and the governments in many states are not be unaware of the need for it. Till the state has the, or almost the, required number of trained teachers, it may consider delaying the implementation of the idea of early introduction of English in the curriculum. At the same time, the state must do its best to have the required number of such teachers as early as possible.
It has to be appreciated that the most important component of this training has got to be improving the English of the teacher. His grammar has to be correct, his vocabulary, adequate and pronunciation, fairly acceptable in the country. It may be sufficient for him if he knows one thousand and five hundred basic words of English but it is a matter to be decided by the experts. College and university teachers of English of the state, who have superannuated, may be entrusted with the responsibility of teaching English to the primary school teachers. They must be compensated for their efforts by the state, but much more importantly, there must be societal appreciation of their work – their work has to be seen as a contribution to the emergence of an egalitarian society.
Not just the government, our society must commit itself not to allow what we have called the “English-divide”, which is another name for “opportunity-divide” and “opportunity” is really about the citizen’s choice to live the life he wants to live for both his and his society’s welfare.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)